This post’s topic is the idea of dualities and understanding how we tend to frame our thinking based on our collective experience and our own personal enculturation.

Bruce MacAllister, Executive Director

Bruce MacAllister, Executive Director Business Excellence Solutions

I recently prepared a talk for an upcoming presentation to a group of graduate business students at a large university on the power of framing and setting the frame and operating metaphors for conversation. Politicians, for example, have long been adept at understanding and using “framing,” “pivoting,” and choosing “metaphors” to help them claim the “high ground” (a metaphor itself) in political dialogue and for influencing their voter-base. This week’s national political events powerfully illustrate framing issues.  (My next post will focus on “framing” in the recent political context.”)

For those who are not familiar with these concepts, before jumping into today’s topic, perhaps a refresher on terms will be helpful. “Framing,” in this context, refers to placing the concept that you wish to share within a “frame” or “framework” that is based on a set of assumptions that you, as the person doing the framing, presume are governing in the situation. Essentially, we tend to form our thoughts and express our opinions based on our personal framework. Framing often occurs subconsciously. Examples of how we communicate within a frame include choosing a particular metaphor or analogy that we believe will help the other person understand “where we are coming from.” Typically our metaphors are spawned out of collective experience, shared culture, myth, or legend, or widely held traditions. Examples include comparing “progress in the workplace” to “gaining ground” (a football or military metaphor). Or comparing someone’s behavior or a natural phenomenon to an animal – “the fog comes on little cats’ feet,” “scared-ie cat,” “bullish” “on the scent of …”

On the other hand, “pivoting” is a term that is often applied to situations where a person wants to reset the frame that they are presented and apply a new and different framework that they perceive is more fitting or enables shifting the direction of the conversation. A classic example of pivoting can be seen where a politician is asked about his or her low poll numbers and replies along the lines of “my constituents don’t care about polls, they care about the current unfair tax burden.” This allows the politician to reset the frame to attempt to induce acceptance of a different framework – in essence, a different reality or value base.

Having shared a bit about terminology, I want to turn the focus to the concept of “dualities.” The concept of dualities is, of course, its own frame. As we often view it, it assumes that for virtually every state or value, there is an equal and opposite state or value: sleep/awake, light/heavy; dark/light; good/evil, hot/cold – the list goes on and on. While American culture is wonderfully diverse, the roots and tendrils of some Anglo-American concepts are so deeply imbedded in our systems, that they are institutionalized. The concept of oppositional dualities is one example. Our culture is deeply steeped in the tradition of dualities in opposition. Our forefathers established a legal system that hinged on opposition, with the stronger position prevailing. A bit earlier in this system, “our” western traditions even accepted trial by combat, where the position of person who prevailed was deemed valid based on prevailing in this conflict. Our culture is steeped with institutions that function with dualities in opposition as a fundamental framework. Our court system, many sports competitions, our two-party system, and many other institutions provide excellent current examples.

This tradition of dualities existing in opposition to one another has been carried forward into literature and modern research. We are traditionally taught that stories focus on “man against man,” or “man against nature,” and, indeed, many literary masterpieces are bases on such a premise. Anyone remember reading Moby Dick?

One issue with accepting the concept of oppositional dualities is that it assumes movement only if the forces are not equal. That is it assumes that the “righteous will prevail.” However, in todays complex world, it appears that embracing the concept of oppositional dualities can lead to no movement at all, because old issues and beliefs never truly disappear and opposition resurfaces with new force and when forces are balanced no movement can occur.

At a recent conference for dispute resolution professionals, a prominent writer and professor who focuses on dispute resolution research gave a wonderful talk about his latest book. He focused on what he referred to as “conflict paradox.” He listed even more oppositional dualities: optimism/realism, avoidance/engagement, principle/compromise, and others.

After the presentation, I bumped into a colleague whose traditions and frameworks were developed in a completely different cultural setting. She reminded me of my article on The Tao of Communication. (See my February 4, 2014 blog article). To her the concept of assuming that dualities primarily exist in opposition was an understandable but unnatural concept. Instead, she indicated that, in her culture, they saw dualities as bringing the world and people together in balance and harmony.  

I discussed this concept of dualities in my blog article and included verse quotations from the Tao Te Chin. I gave examples of the operating framework for this concept as illustrated in The Uses of What is Not. Here, we spoke to the idea that often the value of something is found in where it is not such as the space inside a glass, or the value of a door leading into a room. I each example there was value to the item, but essentially because of it’s the space it made. This is an important martial arts concept, but it is also an important concept for communication and, indeed, for governance.

I do not mean to over-simplify or overstate the idea that Western tradition always places dualities in opposition. The  Western, Judeo-Christian tradition includes exceptional examples of approaching dualities in balance and in season. Recall the wonderful verses in Ecclesiastes 3 … “for every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven …” When dealing with crisis or conflict, I have found through the years that the concept of accepting dualities in balance and “in season” is extremely helpful to self-care and to acceptance

In our next post we will continue our focus on framing — its power and pitfalls.  Future posts will focus on the value of acceptance using the framework of “in its season,”  or in within the framework of harmony, such as the concept of “yin and yang.”

BJM August 15, 2017

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