Engagement tools: dichotomy busting

Engagement hasn’t been the default mode of communication. So it stands to reason that we need to re-evaluate how we communicate for engagement, and learn to use some new tools. Earlier posts looked at the communication spectrum and the shared meaning model. You can add dichotomy busting as a tool to surface the underlying thinking that will support or hamper engagement.


Humans have this natural drive to create neural patterns. (Here is a link to a cool YouTube video providing a great metaphor for creating neural patterns). Our primitive nature, for survival purposes, prompts us to categorise things – good/evil, friendly/hostile, in the box/outside the box, potential meal/might eat me. Sharp distinctions aid quick decisions and these dichotomies are useful for our survival. But for higher thinking, dichotomies are a mixed blessing.

In I Am Right You Are Wrong, Edward deBono illustrates how ideas can become polarised with an elegant metaphor. Imagine a drop of rain falling on the peak of a mountain range (such as the Andes). If the wind is blowing from the east, the raindrop will end up in the Pacific Ocean; if the wind blows from the west, it will traverse other lands and end up in the Atlantic. Dichotomies tend to polarise. Edward deBono claims that dualistic, right/wrong thinking, came from the ancient Greeks and today,plagues our institutions, public and private. It is embodied in our language and works well for argument and physical sciences, but no so good for engagement. The author then highlights the need for more flexibility in our thinking.

Our existing perceptions, concepts, models, and paradigms are a summary of our history. We can look at the world only through such a framework. If something new comes along we are unable to see it. Or, if we do see it, we see it as a mismatch with our older perception so we feel compelled to attack it. In any case we can judge it only through the old frame of reference (page 283).

Dichotomy busting

Our dichotomy buster is a quadrant, aided by questions of enquiry. Its is similar to polarity mapping, but I believe, simpler.

When a strong dichotomy exists, the positions can be seen as polarised on a continuum. Here the costs associated with engagement create the polarity. Engagement is seen as resource hungry and tight budget constraints position engagement as being an expense.

If we change the continuum to a quadrant, we open possibilities for increasing positions from two to at least four. Here is the same example below.

Notice that in the top right hand corner questions direct attention to finding synergy between what might have been conceived as polar opposites. And notice how this relates to the deBono quote above – we are impelled to look to new ideas for solutions.

But people are challenged by this. Recall the raindrop, travelling down one side of the Andes. As it travels it gravitates to deeper and deeper channels until it reaches the see. So it is with deeply patterned thinking. It is very easy to reach polarised conclusions.

…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.
F Scott Fitzgerald

Using the dichotomy buster

If you use the dichotomy buster please let me know how it goes.

1 comment

  1. Nice post! I really like the idea of “dichotomy busting,” and will use it in my classes. It occurs to me that dichotomous thinking is a vestige of the kind of binary thinking that Kieran Egan says characterizes “Mythic Understanding,” as described in his book “The Educated Mind.” It also seems to be related to the “child mind” that Howard Gardner discusses in his book “Leading Minds.” Interesting!

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