It’s not an outrageous statement to say we’ve become polarized. Whether it’s driven by a 24-hour television cycle, social media, or your next door neighbor’s conspiracy theories, there’s a lot of “either/or” going on.
You’re either Republican or Democrat.
You’re either too young to understand or too old to know better.
You’re either right, or you’re unbelievably, dangerously wrong.
The most obvious, albeit seemingly more difficult course of action, is to simply STOP. Just stop it! Stop thinking the person who thinks different than you is the enemy. Stop making it always an “Us vs. Them” conversation.
As a parent, I am constantly telling my children to “just stop it.” But I also know those words simply don’t work well enough. More often than not, my kids still continue doing whatever I’m asking them to stop doing.
Now before you get the impression I believe I am without fault, let me be clear. I’ve fallen into the “either/or” trap plenty of times. However, the challenge we all face is how to get out of it. And I think the easiest approach is to simply introduce a third option. After all, I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, “all good things come in threes,” but that’s loosely based on the idea we’re conditioned from an early age to identify with groups of three. Think about it:
- Goldilocks and the 3 bears,
- The 3 little pigs,
- 3 blind mice,
- Third times a charm, and even
- Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
When the time comes to introduce a third option, there is a mental tool you can use to help eliminate our “either/or” biases and dig deeper to a place of understanding. I call it the Test of Three and this is how you use it:
- Why, and
Notice the threes? And it looks simple, right? Well, it is. But there’s more to it than there may seem.
Let’s take a topic I frequently hear and help organizations navigate – how to deal with multiple generations in the workplace. A common question I receive goes like this:
“Why do young people think they should be CEO after six weeks on the job?”
I’ve heard a version of that question a thousand times. So let’s dive in with Step 1.
- Why do they think that? Because they’re entitled.
Perfect. We’ve answered our first Why and it’s likely confirmed one of our “either/or” stereotypes – the longstanding stereotype that all Millennials are entitled.
The next step is to ask “Why” again – but this time we’re asking it of our first answer.
- Why are they entitled? Because their parents gave them everything they wanted, told them they were great, and said they could and should be anything they wanted.
Awesome. You’ll notice that we still have some stereotypes to navigate; however, the answer is less strident and self-assured, harder to write it off with a simple “I’m great and they’re dumb.” The second Why forces us to dig a little deeper into some logical reasoning.
Now let’s hit Step 3 – asking Why of our answer to Step 2:
- Why did their parents do all that? Because Gen Xers and Baby Boomers grew up with parents who valued different things (like getting a college degree at all costs) because the times were much different in 1940-1960 than they were in 1990-2010. That’s not to say everything they learned from their parents was bad; however, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers saw some negatives in the way they were raised (e.g. parents chained to their jobs) and wanted a better, easier life for their kids.
You might end up with a slightly different answer to this question than I did. But no matter what, the third Why forces us to search for root causes – and that in turn leads to ideas and attitudes that are more positive and empathetic.
Which leads us to the final step:
The answer to What Now becomes a personal choice. It’s incumbent upon you to decide what you do with the new narrative the Test of Three has created for you. You can continue to think the first Why stereotypes are sufficient enough and do nothing about it. Or, just maybe, you can let the third Why drive a more empathetic or understanding response to whatever question you originally asked.