Feature Article

Polarities Coaching: A Tool for Coaching in Complexity

Ann V. Deaton, PhD, PCC, The Bounce Collective, Ann@WeCanBounce.com

For every problem, there is a simple solution. And it’s wrong.

–Anonymous

We live in the both/and. We breathe in; we breathe out. Choosing one or the other is not an option. Without both the intake of breath and its outflow, our lives are unsustainable. We cannot choose between the poles of inhaling and exhaling. Breathing is not a problem to be solved, an either/or choice. Breathing is a polarity that must be managed, and we do it seamlessly every day and every minute of our lives.

The necessity of a both/and approach applies to most of the challenges our coaching clients bring to us as well. Clients often long for the simplicity and clarity of an either/or approach, and they bring to coaching issues that they believe (and hope) are problems to be solved. Clients anticipate that coaching will help them arrive at the best solution to their challenge. Yet the complexity of many of life’s questions doesn’t lend itself to just a single answer. Many difficult situations arise precisely because there are two competing values, or poles, and we need to honor both instead of choosing one over the other. These situations are known as Polarities, and sometimes also referred to as paradoxes, dilemmas, or tensions.

Polarities are interdependent pairs that need one another over time to create positive and sustainable results. Fortunately or unfortunately, polarities are unavoidable, indestructible, and unsolvable (Johnson, 1992). The wonderful thing about this is that your clients will have endless opportunities to deal with their enduring polarities, and to improve how they are managing them.

Some common polarities that arise in coaching are those of Self and Other; Stability and Change; Short-term and Long-term; and Action and Reflection. What makes these polarities? Let’s look at each one and notice: If I focus only on Other and lose my sense of Self, I ultimately have nothing to offer to the Other. A CEO can’t run her company choosing only constant Change without also embracing some aspects of Stability. When I focus only on the short-term and neglect the long-term, my business generates enough income right now but we fail to build the deeper relationships needed to generate ongoing referrals and a sustainable income stream. A client who is all Action and no Reflection doesn’t learn from his mistakes; one who chooses only Reflection and delays Action doesn’t move forward in a powerful way.

You can see how each of the above situations demands both/and thinking and an approach that honors these competing values. And I suspect that even if you have never heard of polarities before you recognize that you already know a great deal about them. As a coach, you often partner with your clients to manage the competing values that are important in their lives and work. You are already doing polarities coaching to some extent, and I’d like to suggest some additional tools for your toolbox.

The first of the tools I’d like to offer is simply your awareness of the distinction between a problem to be solved and a polarity to be managed. Not everything is a polarity. Some of the issues your clients bring to coaching are problems to be solved, such as: Should I change jobs or stay with my current employer? What do I include on the agenda for my staff retreat? Should I terminate

this problem employee? In these situations, there is a solution and an endpoint. So one distinction is that problems are solvable, while polarities are ongoing. A second distinction is that when a true polarity exists, the two poles are interdependent; they require one another to be sustainable. Just like our breathing example above, one without the other will not suffice. These two qualities of polarities, their ongoingness and the interdependence of the poles, will help you to recognize when a polarity exists.

The second tool I’d like to suggest is the method of using a polarities map to help a client to see both poles clearly. This enables them to expand their perspective on the benefit provided by each pole, and the potential downside if they focus only on one pole while neglecting the other. This polarity mapping structure was developed by Barry Johnson and is shared in Foundations of Polarity Thinking and Intro to Polarity Thinking training offered by Polarity Partnerships. A completed map is provided below with the example of the polarity of Action and Reflection to illustrate how a polarities map helps to expand the client’s perspective, as well as linking an understanding of the poles to potential action steps. As the infinity loop in the map illustrates, effective management of both poles will involve a back and forth flow such that when one pole is being overused, the coachee will quickly recognize that she is sliding into the downside of that pole and will move to the opposite pole.

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How can you use polarities more in your coaching? At their simplest, the steps are to work with your client to:

  • Recognize that a polarity exists.
  • Name both poles with neutral to positive labels.
  • Identify the higher purpose that managing the polarity well will help the client to reach, and the deeper fear about what will happen if they manage it poorly.
  • Follow the infinity loop as you fill in the map with your client, starting with the upside of their preferred pole, then the downside of the non-preferred pole, followed by the upside of that pole, and finally the downside of their own preferred pole.
  • Identify early warning signs that the client is overly focused on one pole, and action steps to move to the other.
  • Coach the way you always do. As Kathy Anderson notes in her book Polarity Coaching,

 Polarity Coaching uses the same powerful questions and visioning of traditional coaching; in addition, it provides a structure for the client to walk through his or her story in a collective fashion that will uncover values and fears, as well as develop action steps and early warnings. (p. xi)

How can you learn more? The resource list below should get you started. My favorite source is still Barry Johnson’s original book on polarities, Polarities Management, as well as the training (both online and in person) that he and Polarity Partnerships offer. Michael Welp provides a simple version of the polarities map on his web site that you can use as a structure for yourself and your clients as you begin to experiment with polarities. Kathy Anderson’s book on polarities coaching provides numerous case studies of using polarities with coaching clients that will help you grow your ability to see polarities and manage them in your coaching. And both the Beach & Joyce and Glunk & Follini articles offer additional perspective and wisdom as well as examples of the impact of this coaching tool. Most of all, I encourage you to notice the polarities that come up for you in your own lives and consciously work to discover the both/and when you find that you are dealing with the same issue over and over again. Chances are it’s a polarity—unsolvable, unavoidable, and indestructible. To get the positive and sustainable results you want in your own life and work, learn to manage polarities well.

Resources

Anderson, K. (2010) Polarity Coaching. Amherst, MA: HRD Press.
Beach, P. & Joyce, J. (2009) Escape From Flatland: Using Polarity Management to Coach Organizational Leaders from a Higher Perspective. International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 7(2), 64-83.
Glunk, U. & Follini, B. (2011) Polarities in executive coaching, Journal of Management Development, 30 (2), 222-230.
Johnson, B. (1992) Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. Amherst, MA: HRD Press.
Kayser, C. (nd) Polarity Coaching. www.xperienceit.com/coaching/polarity-coaching/
Polarity Partnerships. www.PolarityPartnerships.com
Welp, M. Polarity Mapping Worksheet, http://www.equalvoice.com/links.htm

About the Author

Ann V. Deaton, PhD, PCC: Ann earned her PhD in Psychology from The University of Texas at Austin and her coaching certification through the Newfield Network. After working as a clinical psychologist in her first career, Ann began her first business, DaVinci Resources, in 2003 to provide leadership coaching and team development. In 2009, she partnered in founding The Bounce Collective leadership development company (Bounce). Ann is co-creator of Bounce’s Leaders as Learners corporate-community reciprocal learning leadership experience and the Extraordinary Women Leaders program at the Center for Corporate Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her work focuses on developing leaders and teams to bring their best to work and life every day.