How to Find Common Ground Through Polarity

Inspired from a class that I recently taught on Polarity Thinking, I’m sharing in service of the greater good, whether in the workplace, home, community, country, or world. The dialogue of this class is always so rich, so perfect, and so unexpected. On reflection, I think it is quite simply the fact that space has been created for dialogue. To pause, create intention together, and explore a conversation with openness, respect, and trust. As I move away from these classes and this intentional dialogue, it is easy to forget how powerful they are. And on this day, my inspiration for healthy dialogue and healing was renewed.

The inspiration from this dialogue is to slow down and look beneath the waves of “my positions and my interests”. What I believe to be the right positions in the world. To look beneath those waves of position and start to get back into values. The core values that we find are so much more important than the positions and the interests that we hold. It’s a much more fruitful place to play. It’s so much easier to connect with others when we can connect from a place of our values rather than again, our positions. And we can often find common ground where we didn’t think it was possible. Even when it’s tremendously different places of polarity that we occupy.

We are in such tumultuous times, and that came up in conversations as well. Most days, to be honest, I feel pretty overwhelmed and I actually feel powerless. And I’m a pretty powerful person so I don’t love feeling powerless! But I feel powerless over circumstances that I believe are beyond my control. I realize that’s a cop out! I want to say out loud, that’s a cop out! As so many say, it begins with me. And it begins with me right now. And it begins with you. We can make a difference. I believe that we can by first looking inside and finding a way from our inside values to connect with the outside in others. Whether that’s in our own family, our teams, our communities, our neighborhoods, in our country or in the world. We must look inside, be clear about our values, and reach out and connect with the values of others. The values are so much richer than simply those positions and interests that we hold.

One way I might quickly serve today is to share just one of the activities that we do in this class. It’s called Polarity Mapping. I’ll walk you through it here and perhaps you can take a few minutes to noodle around on it yourself, with some polarities that are alive in your life. (This work takes reference from Barry Johnson’s writing on interdependent value pairs in the mid-70’s.)

The first thing that you’ll do is to think about a polarity set that is alive in your own life. Polarity being a set of values…two values…that seem to conflict with one another but that are interdependent because they are both required for ultimate success over time. They are different but interdependent.  Examples include planning and action, centralized and decentralized, stability and change, structure and flexibility, individual and collective, quality and quantity. In this class, the group decided to work with the polarities of candor and diplomacy. This set of polarities is applicable to many scenarios. Candor and diplomacy are alive in our families, our workplaces, our communities, and our country for sure. Think about what the two words mean to you. And then identify a set of interdependent values for yourself that you’d like to explore. Write them down side by side with space above and below the words.







Next you will map your polarities. You are going to map the UPSIDE and the DOWNSIDE for each of the interdependent values. Here is an example, using Candor and Diplomacy:

Upside of Candor:



-setting good expectations

-stronger relationships

-getting to the point

-faster and easier


Upside of Diplomacy:

-maintaining relationships


-allows more voices to be hears

-invites conversation

-keeps the peace

-safer and more comfortable

-more comprehensive and contemplative



Downside of Candor:

-vulnerable and unsafe



-limits the conversation

-can play to power dynamics

-can do damage to relationships w/o context

-can focus on the negative

-risky – no going back

Downside of Diplomacy:



-can lead to non-action

-feelings of inauthenticity or b.s.


-excluding in language

-too many words when a few will do

-too time consuming

Once you have your polarity mapped, including the upside and downside of each one, visualize and think about the symbol of an infinity loop in the center of the map, connecting the upsides and downsides in a pattern. (see blog post image)

The infinity loop is what we use to think about the interplay and the relationship between these values. As you can see in the post image, we may start with the upside of candor and things are going well in our relationship or in our team or in our country. But as candor gets over-extended, it can become abrasive and exclusive and not welcoming of others and some of the downsides of candor are revealed. When that happens, we realize that diplomacy is needed. So, we shift or even swing to our diplomatic skills, focusing on inclusion and safety. But then as we overextend in our diplomatic area, perhaps becoming a little insincere, unclear, using too many words, etc., we get out of balance and you know what happens next. Back up to candor. And this pattern continues. From upside of candor to downside of candor to upside up diplomacy followed by downside of diplomacy. We continue to cycle through this inexhaustible infinity loop. We go back and forth in our relationships, teams, organizations, communities, and countries.

Without awareness and intention, the danger that can happen in this cycle is that we can develop tunnel vision. It’s easy for me as an individual to see the upside of my preferred value and the downside of yours. Or the upside of my team’s position and the downside or yours. We can also get into a place of scapegoating or name calling, blaming and ultimately fueling polarization, which leads to immobility and loss for everyone.

There is good news! By simply taking a few minutes to map a polarity, you can gain greater awareness both of your own values and of the upside potential of the other value within yourself or within another. We need to look for the upside of both values, because it is there. Ask yourself, or your team, or your family, or your group,

  • How can I/we embrace the upside of both?
  • What might that look like?
  • What vision is possible? 

Think about taking bits and pieces from both of those interdependent values, whatever they are. That’s where the winning is. That’s where the relationship is. That’s where the healing is.

Accept this challenge! Map your polarity and try to get in touch with your innermost values and the values of those that you know, work with, love, and serve. Connect from that place. And maybe, just maybe, we can change the world today.

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