Moving Beyond Either-Or Thinking

Since I work on a University campus, I am surrounded by the ongoing dialogue about ideas and facts.

I like the conversations, the varying perspectives, and the notion that there might actually be more than one way to look at something.

In fact, when it comes to the development of one’s leadership capacity, I believe it’s important to grow in one’s awareness of possibilities. It’s an awareness that says there’s more than one or two options here. It realizes that everything is not clear-cut or black-and-white. There are choices to be made and in the words of the poet Wallace Stevens, “the choice not between, but of.”

Unfortunately, opening oneself up to the thought of possibilities beyond one’s experience or knowledge can be frightening. We tend to compensate for this fear by becoming defensive, even more dogmatic, and by disengaging from someone else. I’ve seen students completely write someone off because the person holds an opposing viewpoint. One of the disappointing consequences of an either-or mindset is a feeling that if we don’t agree then we don’t relate.

I believe there are two factors that can help a student leader move beyond either-or thinking:

1. Maturity

One of the maturing processes at work within adolescent development is the ability to move from concrete thinking into the realm of abstract thinking. At some point, each of us begins to understand that our assumptions about our own models of reality may be called into question. We understand that we often don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are. When we know that, and accept it, we don’t just rely on our own perceptions but include the perceptions of others into our thinking. We begin to use our imaginations to try and see the world as someone else might see it. All of this happens because we are constantly trying to make sense of things. No one really enjoys the cognitive dissonance that occurs when we encounter an idea or concept that messes up our model of how things should be.  Maturity allows a person to see the world with humble eyes. Instead of looking immediately for “right vs wrong”, or think “accept vs reject”; we learn to live in the tension and use our imaginations and creativity to discover a meaningful resolution.

2. Experience

Our experiences, especially our mistakes and failures, provide us with useful feedback. This feedback helps us to understand that the world is bigger than our own individual perception of it. In my work with student leaders, my hope is to immerse them in a variety of experiences where they will have to lead. It’s only in the act of leading that they will gain the experience needed to know leadership in a way you can’t learn about it in a book or classroom. I want them to engage and work with a team of people who are different from them because you can’t grow your leadership muscles in isolation.

If you’re a student leader, I want to encourage you to expand your thinking. In fact, I invite you to participate in the following exercise:

Go to a mall or busy place with a few of the people on your team. One by one, have each person close his or her eyes and describe what the scene looks like around them. No matter how similar or different each of the descriptions are, the point of the exercise is to realize what happens in each of our minds. As each person is describing the scene, they’re not actually seeing the mall or activity around them. They are describing the model they’ve created in their mind. They’re describing their memory of the scene. That memory might even be influenced by the descriptions they heard previously.

Take some time at the end of the exercise to talk about the way each person’s perceptions shapes and contributes to the work of the team.

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