Dichotomous Thinking

James 4:1 asks, “What causes the fights and quarrels among you?”

Good question!  As long as you are breathing, there will be conflicts in your life.  It’s a fact of life, and nothing we can do will ever stop these disagreements from taking place.  But understanding what causes conflict can help you to minimize the time you have to spend in conflict and also improve your relationships.  I think you’ll agree that these are two worthy goals.

Several weeks ago, I did a post on the Fundamental Attribution Error.  I think I received more comments on that post than any other I’ve written.  (If you haven’t read it yet, it’s under the category “Life Lessons.”)

Anyway, I’d like to introduce another idea to you this week.  It’s called “Dichotomous Thinking.”

Conflict occurs because we’re all different.  You had different parents than I did.  We grew up in different locations.  We’ve all had different friends, different teachers, different peers, and different experiences during our lives.  These factors shape how we think and how we interpret the world around us.

Our perceptions create filters that the events we’re experiencing pass through. Interpretations are then born concerning the events we experience.  The problem is, these interpretations aren’t always correct.  Many times, they’re based on insufficient knowledge or faulty interpretations.  But the interpretations “feel” correct to us.  In fact, we’re positive they’re right.

There are four irrational thinking styles.  This is one of them.  Dichotomous thinking is sometimes called “All-or-Nothing,” “Black or White,” or “0-100%” ways of thinking.  It’s when you see something in absolute terms.  In other words, you’re right, and the other person is wrong.

I want you to imagine that you’re sitting across the table from me.  I have my right arm held out towards you.  My right hand is facing you with my palm pointed directly towards you and my fingers are pointing up.  You’re looking directly at my palm.

I ask you to start describing my hand to me.  So you start speaking, from your perspective…

Well, from my perspective, I see my hand very differently.  “What are you talking about?  My thumbs not on the right side, it’s on the left.  There’s no lines on my hand—there’s knuckles.  What the heck are you talking about???!!!”

Can you see that we’re both looking at the same thing, but from different points of view?

Now here’s a key question for you:  Am I right?  Yes!   Are you right?  Absolutely!

Can we both see the same thing from different points of view—and still be right?  Definitely!

But what do we usually say when someone doesn’t see it the way we do?  “You’re wrong and I’m right!” 

Happens all the time.  I teach this stuff, and still catch myself doing it!

So why do we do this?  I asked that question one time at a seminar I was doing and a man in the audience said, “Cause I’m right!”  Everyone laughed, but at the same time, we all understood that we think that too.

We think, “If I’m right, then it’s obvious that the other person is wrong.”  It’s natural.

I think another reason we do this is time.  We’re all busy people.  It’s easier to think, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” than it is to take the time to see the other person’s perspective.

But here’s another question for you.  If you go through life always being right and making everybody else wrong, are you going to have good relationships?  No!

Now let’s go back for a second.  You’re still looking at my hand.

If I stop myself from doing the right/wrong, 0/100% way of thinking, I could ask myself this question, “Is it possible that there’s some truth in what they’re seeing?”

If I take the time to see your perspective, I might just end up saying, “He’s 40% right, and I’m 60%.”  Or I might even say, “She’s 70% right, and I’m only 30%!”

But what do I have to do first?  I have to take the time to slow down and really listen to what the other person is saying when they’re describing their perspective.

James 1:19 says, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

Slow down… listen!

This weekend, Sandy and I saw an event very differently.  The same event!  I reacted one way, she reacted another.  It caused a small conflict between us.  We took the time to get ourselves under relative emotional control, and then discussed our perspectives.  Instead of going into it with one person trying to force the other person to see the situation their way, we went into it trying to see each other’s perspective.  We asked questions to better understand what the other was seeing.  Covey’s Habit of Highly Effective People is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

After a ten-minute conversation where we listened to each other’s viewpoint, we agreed that we were both right, and both wrong.

And our marriage is stronger today because we had that conversation.

So the next time you get into a disagreement with someone, remember the analogy of the hand.  It’s very possible that you’re both right from where you’re sitting and that there’s some truth in each perspective.  This creates synergy—1 + 1 = 3!

The more you are aware of and fight Dichotomous Thinking, the more you’ll train yourself to quickly adapt to a more mature, open, and tolerant way of thinking.

And I’m sure James will be proud of you!

(Enjoy this?  Pass it on to a friend!)

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