There’s Productivity in Nuance

You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” reaction that primes the human body to respond to a sudden change in our current situation. While that’s undoubtedly a useful feature of how our bodies operate, many experts think this classic survival response may inadvertently have given rise to something far less useful: polarized thinking.

Polarized thinking is a cognitive mistake all of us make from time to time. It’s a distortion of conventional reality that fools us into thinking only in terms of extremes, such as:

  • We’re either right or wrong,
  • Things are either good or bad,
  • People are either trustworthy or dishonest,
  • The future will be either great or terrible,

…and so forth.

This is a mistake because the world around us is rarely divided into two opposing extremes, and so thinking, choosing, and behaving as though that’s true tends to limit us, expose us to dangers, and – perhaps worst of all – smother our productivity.

Fortunately, you can drop this undesirable habit of mind and gain the extra productivity and success that comes with recognizing the world’s nuances. Here’s how:

Watch Your Language

Polarized thinking shows up most readily as polarized language. If you hear words along the lines of:

  • Always or never,
  • Ruined or perfect,
  • Tremendous or insignificant,
  • Rebel or conformist,
  • Terrorist or sheeple,
  • Genius or moron,

…it’s helpful to consider whether or not they are serving as clues to polarized thinking.

The more often you hear polarized words coming from a particular source, the stronger the clue you’re in the presence of polarized thinking.

Beware of Flip-Flops

Not the footwear, the change of opinion. People tend to be full of more nuance than almost anything else we encounter. If you’ve ever been told that someone is a devil, then later, an angel, you’ve been subjected to polarized thinking.

I remember a neighbor ringing my doorbell one day and claiming one of my sons, then a teenager, had tossed raw eggs into his yard. “That’s impossible,” I responded. “My son would never do such a thing.”

You can imagine my surprise when my “angel” immediately confessed. Yet now, fully grown, he’s established a track record as a model citizen.

That’s just one small instance of the too-often unrecognized nuance on display when people go through their lives, sometimes worthy of praise to the skies, then later apparently taking their place as some form of “evil agent.”

But almost no one is all good or bad. Just like most of the world we live in, most people are nuanced, containing elements of many contradictory as well as complementary character traits.

And it’s not just people. Most situations, technologies, systems, plans, and even medicines have potentially good and bad aspects, helpful and harmful elements, along with wonderful and disastrous impacts.

Unless you’re aware of and embrace all these characteristics, you’re experiencing polarized thinking.

Avoid Hard-Lining

My father and I spent decades of my youth butting heads in hard-line arguments about basic values and interpretations of current events. Of course, we never came to a mutually agreeable solution. Eventually, I recognized that both of us were failing to notice between us the fertile middle ground that usually contained more accurate analyses of what was really going on and/or ideas we could both accept.

Certainly, there are some situations and values that closely fit the polarized thinking model. But there are many more that contain nuances worth recognizing and accepting in the effort to understand and work with what’s really going on.

Recognize the Nuances

Once you open your mind and recognize the world is not neatly divided into polar opposites, you nearly always encounter many fruitful opportunities for learning, growing, and developing better relationships. All this clear-eyed recognition of the world around you quickly leads to ideas on how to make faster, more direct progress toward your goals.

You can start to open your mind to the nuances around you in several ways:


It’s fairly easy to come up with the polarized analysis of right and wrong, smart and stupid, good and bad. But don’t be satisfied with just the two. Whenever you’re trying to figure out your best options, or to recognize the forces at work in a situation, or to understand what’s really going on around you, enumerate as many possibilities as you can.

Certainly, try to come up with at least a third possibility beyond the polarized two. But keep thinking in hopes of identifying a wide range of possibilities.

Look Between the Cracks

When we say items “fall between the cracks,” we’re saying they get lost or forgotten. But when you’re trying to break through polarized thinking, “the cracks” between your readily identified ideas are often places where you’ll find the nuances.

By combining the polarized opposites, by subdividing the space between them, by stepping outside the limited thinking that spawned the polarization, you can often discover a range of nuanced possibilities that help paint a more accurate picture of what you’re considering.


One of best ways to broaden thinking beyond polarization is simply to ask other people for their observations, analyses, and opinions. Asking others to contribute their input helps break through the limited thinking that usually gives rise to polarization. You may have to ask several people, but you’ll nearly always profit from looking into what other people think about the situation that’s currently seen as polarized.

Breaking through polarized thinking allows you to identify more details, recognize hidden complexities, and forge a better, more productive way forward in your work and your life that polarization previously screened from view.

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