Getting Past Binary Thinking

Binary thinking (also called dichotomous or black-and-white thinking), seems safe and rational.

The solution is either this or that.

We are right, they are wrong.

It’s a win-lose situation; we can’t both win.

In a world that is deeply polarized precisely because of this kind of thinking, we need a new and better alternative.

I recently picked up Stephen R. Covey’s book The 3rd Alternative at the local library, and was so drawn to its content that I was not quite done when I received a courtesy reminder that the book was overdue.

Covey suggests that the higher and better way is through synergy, a throwback to his classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

His philosophy can more or less be distilled into this idea:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

A profoundly simple piece of wisdom, yet one that is underrated and under-practised, because we are too busy feeding the need of our egos to be the first — the best — the winner.

In politics, in faith, in education, at work, at home … so much conflict could be deflected and avoided if we made a greater effort to listen to understand, rather than to reply.

When we respect the other person enough to set aside our own beliefs, values, and biases, and to articulate back to them their deepest desires and aspirations with complete integrity and in a genuine spirit of service, we give them the psychological air they crave.

We make them feel important – equal – valued – heard.

Who would not be glad to negotiate under such circumstances?