Dancing in the Both-And

When we look closely, we see that all life expresses itself in polarities—pairs of apparent opposites that depend on each other to create a whole:

  • Cold / Hot
  • Night / Day
  • Birth / Death
  • Quiet / Loud
  • Active / Passive
  • Giving / Receiving
  • Chaos / Order
  • Inhale / Exhale

Yes, dominant culture trains us to see the world in either-or dualities—good guys and bad guys, right and wrong, showing up for ourselves vs. showing up for others, being kind vs. being direct, following our dreams vs. honoring our family—and parts of ourselves get caught in double binds, each convinced that their way is the right way.

But nature knows that reality is far more complex. To honor life and embody the full expression of ourselves, we can and must learn dance in the both-and, sometimes embodying one side and sometimes the other. It is possible to care for ourselves and for our communities, to become a boss that our staff likes and respects, honor the family legacy and pursue our own callings.

Ultimately, the parts of ourselves are like a big brass band (or fill in the blank with your favorite music). The tuba is an important part of the whole, but if it takes over, you can get a headache. When we learn to honor all parts of ourselves, they can work together in harmony, making beautiful music.

If you feel stuck in a double bind, I invite you to stop asking yourself to choose between one side and the other. Instead, stretch yourself to connect with both sides of the polarity.

Practice: Polarity Squares[1]

Polarity squares are a practice that help us clearly see and embody both sides of a polarity. I invite you to experiment with this practice now.

    1. Identify a challenge you’re facing where you believe that a polarity is at play.
    2. Name the two poles you’d like to explore. Try to find the essential quality or underlying need that each side represents for you. For example, you might be feeling torn between “making money” and “showing up for social change.” In this case, the underlying needs might be self and community or they might be security and possibility or something else.A client who was grappling with wanting her staff to like her and respect her named the polarities as The Boss and The Nice One.The person who’s grappling with whether or not to leave the family business might name loyalty and calling.Find words that feel right to you, and make sure that they have a non-judgmental tone.
    3. Draw a square with lines divided into four quadrants, like this:


Pole A Pole B


4. Label the left and right columns with the names of each side of the polarity. Label the top row What I love about this side and label the bottom row What I fear about this side.

5. Sense into one side of the polarity, and write down everything you love about that side and everything you fear about the other side. Then sense into the other side of the polarity, and write down everything you love  about that side and everything you fear about the other side. For example, if you were working with the Boss and The Nice One your polarity square might look like this:

What I love about this side:

Respect, Efficiency, Effectiveness, Get the job done, Order, A place for everyone and everyone in their place, Teamwork, Collaboration, Clarity, Less Stress, My boss’s respect me too, Trust, Clean, People listen, Prevent conflict

What I love about this side:

Everyone gets along, people collaborate, people like me, Good team energy, People might be more self-motivated, People might have more creative ideas, Avoid conflict, Feels easier, Belonging, Maybe more fun, People listen too.


Boss The Nice One
What I fear about this side:

Being unnecessarily bossy, going too far, away from my values, being like a dictator or tyrannical, being mean, pushing people around, creating conflict, people not liking me, creating unnecessary boundaries, people not listening to me or really respecting me

What I fear about this side:

Being a pushover, No one listens to or respects me, Nothing gets done, Messy, Feeling uncertain, I end up doing all the work, I can’t trust people to do their work, creating conflict because things are unclear, People crossing the lines, Feeling stressed often


6. Keep asking each side of the polarity What else? until you feel complete.

7. When you’re complete, ask yourself: What do I know now about each side of the polarity now? What questions do I still have? Write it down.

8. Allow the idea of the polarity square percolate on the backburner of your mind, jot down new insights as they arise over the next several days.

Alternate practice: Create a polarity square with tape on the floor, about six feet by six feet in all. Stand in each quadrant and sense the information that arises in your body in each one. Write down what comes up in a polarity square on paper.

Each time you sense into what you love and fear about each side of a polarity, you strengthen your capacity to meet seemingly conflicting needs and dance in the both-and.


[1] I first encountered this practice in my Presence-Based Coaching training with Doug Silsbee and Bebe Hansen. They learned it from Barry Johnson, who teaches it in Polarity Management (Barry Johnson, Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. (Amherst, MA: HRD Press, 2014.) I was later reintroduced to the practice by my MBA advisor, Beth Tener, who learned it from Leslie Temple-Thurston in Marriage of Spirit. (  Leslie Temple-Thurston, Marriage of Spirit: Enlightened Living in Today’s World. (San Francisco, CA: Corelight, 2000.)


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