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The Prison of Either/ Or

Polarity simplifies and keeps us imprisoned

Walk into any supermarket to buy a box of cereals. You'll be splattered by the large array of choice: different brands, different prices, different flavours, different combinations of flavours... Too much to choose from makes us freeze. It's hard to know which box of cereals is the right one.

The same goes for our daily choices. At any moment we have a multitude of options in our actions, behaviour and the words we speak. If we would be constantly aware of these, we would go crazy. So we tend to limit the choices, often to just two. Good or bad, left or right, up or down, with or without, either/or.

Simplifying the range of choices to just two has a downside. It leads to polarity and polarity leads to strife and may ultimately lead to war. Remember George W. Bush when he said, shortly after the Twin Towers collapsed, "You are either with us or without us!" We all know the outcome of that.

The alternative

The same principle is at work between partners, colleagues, friends and relatives. Instead of bringing us closer together, polarity drives us further apart. Leaving us misunderstood, resentful and imprisoned in our trenches. What's the alternative? How do we stay out of that prison of either/or?

The answer is simple and at the same time hard to do: listen without judgement and confront with respect.

The Chinese have a saying 'ting bu dong', meaning 'I hear you, but I don't understand'. Listening without judgement implies making an effort to really understand what the other person is actually saying. What are his/her needs? What has he/she to lose? The difficult part is to keep your opinions to yourself.

Once you know that, it's your time to speak your truth. I call it a respectful confrontation. You state your needs and tell what's at stake. Now it's the other persons turn to listen without judgement.

When both sides have expressed their needs and stakes, the creative phase begins. It is a mutual exploration of possible options that leads to a win-win.


Jenny and Greg are planning a holiday trip together. Jenny favours a sunny resort near the sea, Greg prefers to hike in the mountains. This looks like a deadlock with two options only: they either go together with one giving in on his/her preference or they go separately to their favourite destinations.

If they delve into Jenny's wish for the seashore, they might find her need for total relaxation: reading a book, sunbathing and having siestas in a hammock. Likewise Greg's need may be silence and recharging his energy in nature. The deadlock of 'either sea or mountains' is cracked open. There are numerous destinations that could meet both their needs.

The approach of listening without judgement and confronting with respect brings partners, colleagues, friends and relatives closer together. As a bonus, it opens the door to creative and unexpected solutions! It sets us free from the prison of either/or. By the way, what holiday destination would you suggest to Jenny and Greg?



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