Introduction to Polarities

In my series of "blarticles", The Good the Bad and the Coachable, I will discuss the upside and downside of some of the issues my clients have raised as topics for their coaching.  I'll also give you a few practical strategies for addressing these issues on your own as well as some options for further reading.

The Good the Bad and the Coachable is based on the concept of polarities in coaching.  Polarities is a principle common among many theoretical approaches to coaching, including Gestalt Coaching, the practice in which I trained at the Gestalt International Studies Center. The Oxford dictionary defines polarities as the state of having two opposite or contradictory tendencies, opinions, or aspects. In coaching, the opposite poles depend on each other – we can’t experience one end of the polarity without having an understanding of the opposite pole. For example, good and bad, happy and sad, leader and follower. The opposites are related and complementary parts of one whole. These interdependent polarities are different from dichotomies in which the opposite poles are either/or, unrelated and mutually exclusive.  

Polarities present in many coaching contexts and genres, including executive and leadership, life, performance, and health and wellness coaching. They show up as a client’s competing "wants" (or "don't wants"), values, or actions. One pole generally encompasses the qualities or behaviors a person has learned to use in order to survive or succeed in his or her particular environment.  Some examples might be independence, self-sufficiency, or stoicism, or being hard-working, a perfectionist, or a pleaser. Each of these parts, or poles, has an opposite that we are often not aware of, have repressed, or don’t often exhibit. For instance, in comparison to the above, being dependent, emotional, relaxed, or self-centered would be opposite poles. Sometimes, we base the choice for our professional lives on the “survival” or “success” end of the polarity. Quite often, people live life believing that one polarity is better (good) and the other is worse (bad) and therefore do not develop or express what we view as the “bad” characteristic.  We may believe that concerns at home and at work can only be solved by one unique right answer (the “good” pole). In thinking and acting is this way, we limit the range of options and our choices.    

In reality, both ends of every polarity are important, depending upon the circumstances.  There is a cost to being stuck in a narrow range of behaviors or attitudes at one end of the polarity. Success and satisfaction in life and work occur when we can understand and appreciate a full range of options and can choose which to employ based on our situation or circumstance.  In my training, the instructors used the analogy that basketball players need to learn to use their non-dominant hand in order to broaden their range of moves. Similarly, we can expand our range of possibilities if we adjust our lens to view concerns and situations not as either/or, mutually exclusive dichotomies, but rather as two interdependent, opposed polarities with right answers at either end of two extremes. We can employ both/and thinking and choose to access the best of both ends of the polarity while avoiding the limits of each. Sometimes the appropriate approach is a compromise that blends elements from both ends. Growth and development comes when we expand our awareness and actions to incorporate the entire spectrum between the poles.

The concept of polarities can be employed in both professional and personal environments. It provides a framework for more expansive thinking about how to resolve challenges and increases the likelihood of arriving at solutions that support both near and long-term personal and organizational success. Leaders who have learned how to apply polarity management are less likely to be caught up in power struggles, more able to reduce resistance to change and have the ability to productively engage people in co-creating solutions.

As noted, The good, the bad, and the coachable will introduce a number of qualities and behaviors that tend to initially present in a person’s life as dichotomies.  I will explore them instead as polarities and provide some exercises you can employ to extend your reach between the poles.   Please look for my first topic:  Perfectionism.


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Debra Doroni is a certified executive and leadership coach. This article is for information purposes only and should not be seen as substitute for medical or therapeutic evaluation and advice.


Sources:

  • Gestalt Therapy: An Introduction:  by Gary Yontef, Ph.D.; This introductory chapter appears in Awareness, Dialogue, and Process published by The Gestalt Journal Press and was copyright in 1993 
  • Paradox: A Gestalt Theory of Change by Herb Stevenson, Cleveland Consulting Group, Inc. website
  • Patricia G. Beach and Jennifer Joyce Escape from Flatland: using Polarity Management to coach organizational leaders from a Higher Perspective International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 2009 7(2), 64-83.
  • From Polarities in Personal Coaching by Liesbeth Halbertsma and Robert Stamboliev, www.voicedialogue.org
  • Managing Polarities:  An Interview with Barry Johnson, PhD, by Rick Maurer, MA,  Gestalt Review, 6(3):209–219, 2002