Both/And vs. Either/Or
“... for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, p. 11
I was writing a closing letter to the mother of a teenager and amongst the recommendations I had was to continue to work with her daughter on dialectical thinking. In this case, as with many of my clients, it is not just the teenager who needs to improve these skills. Mom too would benefit from more flexibility, open-mindedness, and acceptance that two people holding differing opinions may both be correct.
This type of thinking is as old as Plato. It comes from the Dialectic Method of Reasoning that attempts to resolve disagreements through rational discussion and a search for the truth. Rather than rigidly – and passionately - holding on to one’s view, a person using dialectical reasoning is flexible and unemotional in exploring an issue.
Dialectical thinking is an important component of empathy. In order to think this way, one must accept that something other than what they believe – even the polar opposite - may also be true.
When one is caught up in emotion the areas of the brain that control executive functioning (i.e. reason, logic, problem-solving, etc.) shut down, it becomes difficult to accept any version of the truth but one’s own. When a child is in this state, the attuned parent will recognize this and empathetically respond to the child, understanding that until the intense emotion passes there is no version of the truth except the one the child has settled upon.
So too, a parent must recognize when he/she is experiencing strong emotions that preclude unemotional thought and will put his/her agenda of “getting to the bottom of things” aside until emotions have cooled. Then both parent and child can look at an issue using dialectical skills and see whether this is a “both/and” situation.
Author and therapist Pat Harvey, LICSW and her co-author Jeannine Penzo, LICSW have written a book to help parents learn and teach their children dialectical skills: Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions: Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Help Your Child Regulate Emotional Outbursts and Aggressive Behaviors (2009), Harbinger Publications. (There is also a version for parenting teens.)