Using Polarities Reframing Competing Needs as Complementary

What Is a Polarity

Dog playing on left, dog resting on right

Polarity Dogs

Polarity Thinking ™ was developed by Barry Johnson as an alternative to traditional problem-solving. A polarity is an interdependent pair of needs, values, or goals. Although the two poles seem to be in tension with each other, both are good and true, and they depend on each other over time. Neither can exist alone. Each pole has an upside (benefits) and a downside (drawbacks). Over-focusing on one pole to the neglect of the other will take you to its downside. Polarity thinking is a way of taking what may feel like competing needs and reframing them as complementary.

An Example

A classic polarity is Activity and Rest. They are both necessary to one’s well-being, and this need or value that both poles support is referred to as the Greater Purpose Statement (GPS). Staying active (mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.) is important. But if you over-focus on staying active, to the neglect of resting, you experience the drawbacks of activity. Likewise, resting is vital…as long as you don’t over-focus on rest to the neglect of activity. Do you see how the upside of each pole is essentially a “solution” to the downside of the opposite pole?

Leveraging Polarities

Leveraging a polarity means working with both poles so that you experience the benefits of each while minimizing their drawbacks. In the video and slides below, you’ll see that the dynamic tension and flow between the poles is represented by an infinity symbol. When you leverage a polarity well, the upper portion of the polarity is enlarged and the lower portion is diminished to show that most of the energy is in the upsides. The infinity concept reminds us that polarities are unending and unsolvable. You won’t decide, for instance, that “The answer is activity!” Polarity Thinking will help you be intentional about honoring the importance of both needs and getting the best of each.

Learn More

Once you’ve named your poles, determined their upsides and downsides, and discerned the GPS, you can define action steps and early warnings, map the polarity, and track your progress over time. View the the video and then review the slides to find out more about using polarities to manage tricky issues where competing needs are in play!

Polarity Thinking for Congregational Leaders (YouTube) (17-minute YouTube video)

Polarity Thinking for Congregational Leaders (PDF) (slide set from video, with additional polarities to explore)

If you are intrigued by this model and want to do more to leverage polarities likely operating in your congregation, consider the book, Managing Polarities in Congregations: Eight Keys for Thriving Faith Communities, by Barry Johnson.

About the Author

Jan Gartner

Jan is passionate about helping congregations live out their values within their walls!...

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