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paradoxical thinking
by kelle olwyler

Paradoxical thinking is a practice I use every day in my own life and have taught others for about 17 years. My cross-cultural upbringing-- born of New England parents interested in Eastern philosophy combined with being raised and educated in the high Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico - was the origin of my interest in paradox. I dealt with constant contradictory expectations that I soon realized were not so contradictory at all, because when expressed in a creative and mature fashion, contradictions have the potential of becoming complimentary and producing extraordinary results.

Whatever do I mean by paradox? Webster's dictionary defines it as: A statement or proposition seemingly self-contradictory or absurd, and yet explicable as expressing a truth. More loosely, its secondary definition is: Any person, thing or act exhibiting apparent contradictions or inconsistencies.

In the book I wrote with Jerry Fletcher, Paradoxical Thinking: How to Profit from Your Contradictions (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1997), we define paradox as contradictory or seemingly impossible combinations of ideas or actions. The seeming impossibility comes from the person's own limited frame of reference. When a way is found to make both concepts real simultaneously, a deeper truth is revealed. As our book goes on to show, acting in paradoxical, seemingly contradictory ways can produce a creative resolution of a dilemma that had previously proved intractable. Our research additionally shows that everyone, when in a high performance state, exhibits paradoxical tendencies in a carefully balanced relationship.

Like many authors, when the book hit the stands, I expected certain reactions to be forthcoming. After all, I had been doing this work in corporations for many years. I worked with concepts of paradox in a number of countries, including France, England and Mexico. However, I was surprised by one particular group whose reactions I had not anticipated. This group consisted of women who said to us, "I always thought there was something wrong with me . . . now I know that I'm just fine!" I was intrigued by these responses and contacted several of these women, asking them to explain to me the reasoning behind their comments.

In paradoxical thinking, one of the exercises consists of identifying all the qualities and characteristics, both positive and negative, that you think make you up. If you're honest with yourself, you will end up with a list of between 20 and 30 nouns and adjectives that describe some aspect of yourself. You can have on your list any descriptive word, even made-up ones, e.g., sneaky, humble, hungry-for-life, quiet, gentle, risk-adverse, curt, bookworm, happy-go-lucky, gambler, devil's advocate or gossipy. The only criteria is that you must agree that in part, each word represents some aspect of you, even if small.

Next, seemingly contradictory pairs of words are chosen from your list. You might put sneaky and gentle together, or risk-adverse and gambler, or humble and gossip. Once you have several pairings of descriptive words that seem as though they wouldn't go together and are contradictory, you pick one that is the most accurate of your personality, and work with that pairing. The final part of the exercise is to take each side of the paradox, and working with one side at a time, name what you like about that side and what you don't. We challenge people to be rigorous in looking for the downsides of a characteristic they like, and be open hearted in looking for the positives in a characteristic they dislike.

The following example should help to clarify that last part of the exercise, finding the positives in the negative, and the downsides of the positive in the following bolded words. I've chosen these words because they typically have either a positive or negative association attached to them: when we think of someone as energetic or honest, we tend to think of that as a good thing; when we think of someone as crude, we tend to think of that as a negative thing. Participants in a workshop I gave generated the positives and negatives of these words:

Fun
credible
natural
Doer
genuine
pristine
Lively
upright
untouched
Passionate
righteous
pragmatic
Enthusiastic
respectable
unconcerned
Enterprising
trustworthy
tell-it-like-it-is
Honorable
straightforward
real
+ (positives)
+ (positives)
+ (positives)
Energetic
Honest
Crude
- (negatives)
- (negatives)
- (negatives)
overwhelming
overly disclosing
thoughtless
energy drain
to self-righteous
insensitive
deal with
"better than"
unrefined
insensitive
inflexible
abrasive
steamroller
obsessive

coarse
frenetic
raw
gross

As you can see, the whole picture is not inherently positive or negative but embodies both possibilities. The question is whether the person who has the characteristic has control of it and has learned to use it in a mature, positive way. In retrospect, most of us have known people who were so energetic they were overwhelming, insensitive, or an energy drain to be around. Most of us have known people who were so honest, that they had diarrhea of the mouth, telling you everything about themselves, i.e., overly disclosing. And most of us have known someone who, though crude, is pretty real, tells it like it is, and is fairly unconcerned about what others think (a courageous place many of us aspire to reach).

Each woman who wrote us was profoundly affected by the realization that what she had been trying to change or eliminate in her personality, actually served her well! And that which she liked and admired about herself had downsides that could, and had, gotten her into trouble.

I admit I was stunned that I had not foreseen this. I have worked in enough corporations, with enough women managers to understand how they are often torn in several directions while trying to meet the expectations and demands of a system created and dominated by men. What I had not expected was that so many women see certain of their characteristics as flaws to be eliminated before they can be accepted into the men's club that holds the power reigns in the world we live in.

As we all know, the woman or man who can permanently eliminate what is perceived as a flaw from their character is a rarity indeed. The energy it takes to keep something that comes naturally to us at bay is a drain and hard to maintain. We make progress, think we've stripped the flaw from our personality, and years down the road realize we've been engaging that same darned flaw all along. It merely changed its outer garments causing us to assume it was something different altogether. Flaws don't go away. A gift of age is in learning, from countless years of experience, how to make your flaws work for you, rather than against you. This is the insight these women were laying claim to in their emails, calls and letters to us: "I don't have to get rid of it, I can learn to use it to my advantage."

As a friend recently said to me after reading the book, "It's like finding gold in the shadows." Paradox is our gold. We can't get rid of our personal paradoxes; we can't get rid of the world's paradoxes. But in its shadow, we can mine for the gold and become artists at molding it into beauty that attracts and catches the light.

So join me in the months to come as we explore the nature of paradox in future issues of WNC Woman. We'll look at human paradox, business paradox, the paradox of spirituality, the paradox of health and many more paradoxes that are an enriching, natural part of being human and being alive. Please join me in the journey.

Kelle Olwyler is President of Kel Bergan Consulting, a management consulting and executive coaching company specializing in helping professionals, executives and teams get results that solve problems and support transformation. She specializes in high performance technologies, leadership development and the collaborative process. She is co-author of Paradoxical Thinking: How to Profit from Your Contradictions, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1997, and is currently Chair of the Berrett-Koehler Authors' Council. She has been a columnist for MoneyWorld Magazine, a conference presenter, and speaks regularly on radio about performance issues. She can be emailed at kolwyler@bellsouth.net.

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