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Finding Common Ground – Beyond Black And White Thinking

Written by: Denise Blanc, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Denise Blanc

When viewing magpies from a distance they first appear to have only black and white plumage. Only upon closer inspection do we notice the iridescent blue feathers separating the black from the white.

Television manipulation and crowd control.

Just like the magpie it is easy to first see only our stark divisions, but what if instead, we could look for the blue feather and identify all that connects us?

We can begin by first becoming aware of our thoughts.

What we think we become

This observation was made by the Buddha thousands of years ago and continues to be the way we are wired. Our perspective or mindset is the primary predictor for how we perceive ourselves and our lives - it affects our thoughts, feelings, and our actions in the world.

If we want to evolve, solve our massive problems, and find ways to connect across our differences, then we will need to become aware of how we think.

Our minds love to sort, divide, and categorize. And for simplicity’s sake we often divide our thinking into binaries (black and white thinking) which helps us organize the immensity of information and choices coming at us. It is efficient, it preserves energy, and we feel a sense of certainty; a feeling like we have a handle on things.

It’s either this or that:

  • right/wrong

  • good/bad

  • success/failure

  • smart/dumb

  • pass/fail

  • you’re with me/you are against me.”

But for the most part black and white thinking (also called dichotomous thinking) doesn’t allow us to see the world as it really is. This is called a cognitive distortion because when we think in absolutes there is no room for shades of grey, no middle ground, nuance, complexity, or ambiguity. Think about all that we have to distort to live in a world where there are only two polarities.

You will know that you are in the territory of black and white thinking when you hear the words: “always, never, impossible, perfect.”

Is black and white thinking always bad?

Definitely not, if it were then it would binary! Our split-second thinking is an asset, especially during times of crisis. When we must slam on the brakes to avert an accident or when we need to quickly run for safety, we don’t have time to think and weigh options. We need to act! Some things are just bad and there is no nuance. We really need someone to tell us “Don’t eat that mushroom!” ‘Certain decisions become the difference between life-and-death.

But life is endlessly complex, and so are people. To split people and situations into just two simple categories requires the need to distort and filter. We will need to oversimplify, eliminate context, exaggerate differences, or just not allow for any new evidence that could change our thinking.

The consequences of ignoring all shades of grey, nuance and complexity when working with people can be serious:

  • We become rigid and intolerant. We make unfair judgments which leaves little room for problem-solving or for maintaining healthy relationships.

  • We end up othering, discriminating, and polarizing. And as people become more entrenched in their beliefs, conflicts escalate resulting in deeper divisions in society.

  • We develop confirmation bias, where we only see what we choose to see and ignore any evidence to the contrary. We end up holding on strongly to what are inherently false beliefs.

Notice your reaction to following statements:

Immigrants are criminals. Asians are good at math. All politicians are corrupt. Corporations are soulless. Millennials are privileged.

What do you have to oversimplify, exaggerate, or ignore to believe these statements are true?

If we want to move beyond black and white thinking, and help others do the same we will need to interrogate our thinking and develop some new strategies.

Beyond black and white thinking:

1. First, let go of the binary

Part of the problems with the binary is having only two choices: two political groups, two of anything makes it easy to label one as good and the other bad, one is right, the other is wrong. One quick solution to consider the power of three. We become more thoughtful with three options. We can also keep adding “what else?”

2. Provide a scale

This is my favorite approach. We ask others to rate on a scale of 1-10 “how do you feel about …?” A score of “1” means that you completely disagree and a score of “10” means you are in absolute agreement. Answers typically end up somewhere in the middle, so it becomes easier to open a discussion and find areas where there might be some agreements.

3. Substitute the word “and” for “but.

“And” implies that two things can both be true. It joins and connects ideas, whereas the word “but” objects and disconnects. It implies that one idea is better than another and then dismisses the first one. It can also create defensiveness.

4. Build empathy

We can work to understand the perspective of others. We start to imagine why someone believes/feels/acts the way they do. When we listen carefully, and imagine what it is like for them, we may be able to relate to how they are feeling. Being able to empathize allows us to feel connected - and ultimately discover the blue feather between us.

5. Acknowledge, legitimize & validate

By empathizing, we understand why someone might believe what they believe. Their ideas start to make sense – at least now we can understand why they think the way they do – even if we strongly disagree. When we acknowledge, legitimize, and validate, people start to soften. It creates more openness which may then allow us the opportunity to see the connections – to see the blue feather.

Realize there can be multiple truths

Author Rebecca Solnit shares that “the answer to most either/or questions is both. The best response is to embrace both sides instead of cutting off one or the other for the sake of coherence.” When we embrace opinions other than our own, we start to see an issue may have multiple perspectives.

To solve our massive problems, we need a diversity of opinions, and we need to consider lots of options without quickly jumping to conclusions. And as our world becomes increasingly more complex and uncertain we could all greatly benefit from strengthening our critical thinking skills.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, we move beyond black and white thinking when we start to widen our gaze. Instead of tunnel vision, we expand and notice options not originally seen – mostly because we hadn’t been looking for them. We become aware of the many nuances and complexities of the situation. We start to connect the dots – we see the possibilities. As we embrace more possibilities, we end up moving onto shakier ground. But this is not a bad thing. We exchange our rigidity and certainty for becoming more open, fluid, and adaptable. Now, instead of just seeing our differences, we also see the blue feather. We find the common ground.

As coaches, as leaders, friends, and colleagues we can all support each other to shift our language, soften our perspective and become more curious about each other. We will find the blue feather when we start to actively look for it.

Follow me on LinkedIn and visit my website for more info. Once a month I share easy to implement tools and practices to improve communication.

Denise Blanc Brainz Magazine

Denise Blanc, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Denise Blanc, MA, ACC is a Certified Emotional Intelligence Coach, Mediator, and Senior Organization Development Consultant. An expert in communication, she coaches, speaks, teaches, and writes at the intersection of Emotional Intelligence, Conflict Transformation, and Mindfulness. Her noble goal is to inspire candor, courage, and compassionate communication to create a more just and caring world.

Denise is the founder of River Logic Partners, a leadership coaching and consulting firm. She has been the chief architect of numerous leadership academies over her career, winning multiple awards for her leadership design, e.g. The International Spirit a Work Award, "Best Practices for Creating New Leaders." She has over two decades as a student and teacher of mindfulness, and currently teaches programs for Shambhala, a global Buddhist organization, in areas of social justice and race.

Denise is the author of RiverLogic: Tools to Transform Resistance and Create Flow in all of our Relationships.

Whenever possible, Denise is hiking the hills and swimming in natural bodies of water around the world.



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