An Ode to the Bearers of Tension

In an age where the polemic are celebrated and rewarded, it is harder than ever to remain anywhere other than either side of a debate. Chris Matthews and Rush Limbaugh have capitalized on this. The market has demanded it. We prefer hours of strident contention over a single moment of vacillating uncertainty. Although polarized brands benefit from taking a strong stand on one side or the other, there is value in holding the tension between them.

I am not calling for a world of fence-sitters who can’t decide what is best for them. I’m looking at those who see the big picture, who can stand in the middle of controversy and can see why people have differing opinions.

But it seems we are much more comfortable with black-and-white, on-or-off, hot-or-cold, yes-or-no, this-or-that, either/or scenarios. In discussing with a friend of mine, she mentioned that people are sometimes afraid of critical thinking. It makes us nervous to consider the possibility that our initial conclusions could have been wrong. We’re disturbed by “answers” that fall somewhere in the gray and uncertain.

In his article from Relevant Magazine, Donald Miller explains why he thinks we prefer seeing things as either/or:

Black-and-white thinking is attractive because it’s reductionistic and it simplifies everything so we don’t really have to comprehend. It allows us to feel intelligent without understanding, and once we are intelligent, we feel superior. People who don’t agree with us are just dumb.

I think that hits at the truth of the matter. We like the simplicity and how it makes us feel intelligent. We fail to resist the attraction of effortless achievements. So, we confidently make claims of certainty concerning subjects in which experts are sharply divided. Consider that for a moment.

But confidence is not necessarily an indicator of intelligence.

On his blog, Dave Kellogg advocates seeing both sides of an issue.

The best decisions come, in my opinion, when you hold two opposing ideas in your mind at once, and then choose.

He references this F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim:

The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

Kellogg also mentions a line of questioning he uses to flesh out a good decision.

  • What do you think we should do?  (And push for a single answer)

  • Why do you think we should do it?

  • Why should we do the alternative?

His last question reminds me of a creative exercise for exploring the opposite. It’s useful for writers or actors to ask themselves “What if this character did the opposite of what I’d expect?” This thought experiment opens up an opportunity for the discovery of new ideas to help create dynamic, multi-faceted characters. By performing similar investigation of “the other side,” we can create discovery in our companies, our homes, our politics and our churches; unearthing solutions that are rich and powerful.

As I said earlier, there are obvious rewards for aligning with the extreme sides of an issue. Just consider if they’re worth more than the benefits of wrestling with the middle, bearing the tension and building intellectual and emotional muscle.

Dustin Staiger is a business consultant and speaker in Houston, TX. He addresses team and individual effectiveness, communications, creativity and branding for global corporations as well as non-profits and start-ups.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • El Paulo

    Good stuff. I endeavor to keep both sides of an idea in my mind, especially in politics. I’ve learned that just because someone thinks differently than I do, they’re not an idiot. Probably. Well, maybe. I understand why they want the things they do, I just wish they looked at economics.

    Regardless. You said “confidence is not necessarily an indicator of intelligence”. Agreed. I posted something on Facebook recently saying the same thing. Just because someone is confident doesn’t mean they’re right. They may be a self assured idiot.

    Good times.

  • Paulo

    “But confidence is not necessarily an indicator of intelligence.” Nope, the world is replete with self assured fools.