“The missing link for me was the heart. When we’re taking polarities from a conceptual, mind space and integrating them the heart has to engage too.” -Kelly Lewis
Many of us have never heard of the concept of polarities and at the same time, are impacted by them on a day-to-day basis. In this podinar, Alison Whitmire, President Learning in Action, welcomes special guest, Kelly Lewis to explore what polarities are and how we can help our clients to navigate them to expand what’s possible in their lives and work.
Kelly Lewis, PCC is a principal and founder of Andiron, a leadership development firm committed to providing the space and tools for transformation. For more than 15 years, Kelly has been using polarities as a lens to help leaders and organizations navigate some of their most complex challenges. She is particularly curious about the roles identity and vulnerability play in helping people be successful in the midst of paradoxical tensions.
Kelly works from a principle that leadership is a way of being, not just something we do. She is known by her clients as a coach that “finds the just right place between support and challenge” as well as a “thought partner who leverages her mastery of polarities coupled with her experience as a Fortune 500 executive to understand the context”.
Polarities are interdependent, yet often seemingly contradictory states that need to coexist over time for success. They are foundational to the decisions we make and the actions we take. We experience polarities every day and in every facet of our lives and yet many of us are not aware they exist. Here are some examples of polarities that we may experience: “focus on the short term, focus on the long term”, “activity/rest”, or “take care of self, take care of other”. A polarity that the pandemic has brought up for many people is “pay attention to local, pay attention to global”. In a leadership context, we might come across polarities such as “lead with confidence, lead with humility” or “support/challenge”.
Polarities often feel like tensions and they invite us to practice “both/and” thinking. They show up within ourselves, in relationships, in teams, in organizations, and in societies — and they scale any level of the system. In isolation, each side of the polarity often seems logical, and then when they appear together, it may seem completely absurd to our minds that they coexist, yet they do. When we can help clients name and explore their polarities, it can help illuminate the “either/or” decisions they need to make leading to more informed and better decisions.
When we understand how to navigate polarities, they can support us in creating stunning success. And, when we don’t have and the skills to work with them, we can create significant suffering. One of the ways this can show up in the coaching relationship is when we mistake a polarity for a problem to solve. Coaches or leaders might apply an “either/or” mindset to something that requires a both/and lens.
Navigating polarities not only requires us to adopt a both/and mindset, it also calls us to expand into a both/and ‘heartset’ and skillset too. As Parker Palmer has offered: “Polarities cannot be resolved by the mind, they can only be resolved by the heart.” For some, this can be the missing piece: when we’re taking polarities from concept to integration, we must engage all parts of ourselves — mind, body, and spirit.
Seeing a polarity at play with clients takes practice and can be one of the harder competencies for us to build. The simplest way to notice a polarity and become curious is when we hear a client say the word “versus”. Since our brains are wired for “either/or” thinking, what can happen unconsciously is that we replace the word “and” with “versus”. This is because within ourselves, we truly see the two sides of a polarity as trade-offs, as opposed to two things that can coexist together.
Another way to recognize a polarity in our work with clients is when a threat of losing their identity emerges. This can happen when the idea of integrating the other side of the polarity seems to put one of the client’s key values at risk. For example, if a client sees themselves as someone who is incredibly committed and takes things seriously, they might have a hard time embracing the idea of loosening up. It may feel like they have to give up their identity of being a committed person in order to allow in a more laid back way of being. In these cases, a useful reframing question may be: “How can you hold this more lightly without losing your commitment to taking things seriously?”
Navigating polarities can be integral to healing the divide – the sense of separation we feel both within ourselves and between each other. Part of the benefit of a both/and mindset is that it can help us to see our biases more clearly. We tend to include people that share our preferences because we see them as like ourselves and value that perspective. For the people in our lives that seem to hold the opposite side of the pole, we’re likely to see them as ‘other’. A both/and mindset and a deeper understanding of polarities offer us the ability to see this type of dynamic at play, our relationship to it, and how it might be keeping us stuck.
For many of us, becoming aware of the existence of polarities in our lives is an eye-opening experience. When we can understand and navigate our polarities, it helps us to expand what’s possible in our work, our relationships, and our lives. In the coaching relationship, we can skillfully explore the polarities at play and invite our clients to shift from either/or thinking to a both/and lens. What can result is a more open-minded ability to transform that tension into better decision-making and a wider view of all the possibilities.
Book: Navigating Polarities: Using Both/And Thinking to Lead Transformation By Brian Emerson & Kelly Lewis and