To say that I am a golfer would be a very liberal use of the term. Mark Twain once called golf, “A good walk, spoiled.” On the other hand, I believe that most golf courses provide a beautiful environment and that the game offers some powerful learning analogies.
The best golf lesson I ever experienced demonstrated the teaching power of contrast. A friend of mine explained that most people spend all of their time on the practice tee trying to hit the ball perfectly straight. They do their very best to avoid dreaded and habitual slicing (curving the ball uncontrollably to the right) or cursed hooking (curving the ball wildly to the left). These two opposing tendencies are among the greatest challenges of the game.
My friend explained that one can learn much more by using the practice range to first intentionally slice the ball several times and then deliberately and repeatedly hook the ball. The next step is to alternate between dramatic slices and spectacular hooks. Finally, the student should gradually take a little bit of the aberration off of hooks and slices until the flight path is straight. Experiencing this dramatic and then lessening contrast makes it much easier to understand the fine mechanical distinctions that send the ball off course and the adjustments required to place the ball on the desired flight path. Skillful players (I have seen some of these players, but have never been mistaken for one of them) have learned these distinctions to the point that they can call on the power of a draw (adding a barely perceptible hook) when it is useful or can fade the ball (adding just the slightest hint of a slice) when it is advantageous to do so.
Most leaning strategies focus only on what is required to improve or correct a situation or skill, but it is often more useful to examine that which sends our attention and efforts in opposing directions. In his book, “Polarity Management,” Barry Johnson describes the power of harnessing divergent polarities to identify options that would not occur to us when we use a more traditional problem-solving approach. At the heart of the concept is building an appreciation for the positive and negative aspects of opposing views. Better options come from harnessing the positive dimensions of differing positions while minimizing the destructive aspects of these opposing polarities. This type of approach is particularly useful in situations where people are tied to differing positions. Johnson’s approach has been extremely useful in negotiations between the opposing sides in heated labor disputes and in conflicts as great as apartheid in South Africa. When opponents develop an appreciation for the positive aspects of both sides of the issue and identify the negative dimensions of opposing positions, they are in a better position to create new options that are mutually beneficial.
As a learning strategy, positive appreciation for contrast offers powerful medicine. A business team can employ the power of this approach when doing a robust lessons-learned session. At the conclusion of a successful or unsuccessful experience, project or event, some enlightened organizations take the time to look at what went right and what went wrong, but it can be much more powerful to examine the benefits and liabilities of the differing assumptions that drove the action. Such an analysis often reveals that the key to a team’s effectiveness turns on its ability to genuinely consider the benefits and the drawbacks of the opposing options available at critical points on the path. New alternatives emerge when there is a more respectful listening to opposing perspectives at these significant decision points.
The power of contrast is obvious in a conflict situation, and conflict is most personal between spouses. An enlightened learner like me has many answers to life’s difficulties and has much to offer when it comes to helping those like my wife, who don’t have the benefit of my years of experience and superior perspective. Knowing the power of contrast, I am always eager to explore the benefits of her position, as long as it confirms my bias. I am also open to seeing any negative aspect of my position, as long as it seems too trivial to mention. But if I am forced to significantly modify my stance based on a full exploration of the pros and cons of the contrasting positions, well, that would require that I practice what I preach.
Fred Harburg is senior vice president of leadership & management development at Fidelity Investments Company, and has held numerous international leadership roles with IBM, General Motors, Disney, AT&T and Motorola. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.