Cross the bridge

“True genius is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously without losing your mind.”

– Charles Beaudelaire

So often we find ourselves in situations with others where we create a battleground without appreciating our unconscious contribution to the conflict.

Bridge building

In a recent conversation with a client CEO, he described a common scenario between himself and a senior leader. As he told his story about attempting to convince the leader to support a change initiative, I began to envision the two of them on opposite sides of a bridge. The more the CEO attempted to convince with logic, the greater the gap on the bridge.

Each of them was holding a position. Neither of them was interested in learning about the other’s perspective. From either end of the bridge they attempted to coerce the other into believing that their position was the right position.

I asked the CEO to stand up and to walk to the opposite side of the room and attempt to persuade me that where he was standing on an issue was the right place to be. He made several attempts and I reciprocated by literally moving further away.

When I called a “time out,” I asked if he saw any other alternatives to the strategy that he was using that clearly wasn’t working. As he struggled, I suggested that perhaps if he came to my side of the “bridge” with curiosity, my resistance might begin to dissipate. For him, physically moving from one side of the room to the other resulted in a shift. The light bulb went on for him, and he appreciated that if he began by seeking to understand what was driving my resistance, he had a greater opportunity to influence a change. I encouraged him to ask questions rather than to preach the benefits of the change.

Emotions drive behavior. As leaders engaged in rapid fire change, we need to slow down with genuine curiosity, in order to accelerate. We’ve got to learn that as tempting and familiar it is to magnify our persuasive efforts, a change will not occur without the “other” feeling heard and understood.

Beyond duality

In writing this article, I was aware that none of us is immune from the temptation of staying on our own side of the bridge. I have a dear friend whose political views are diametrically opposed to mine.

Often, we engage in efforts to convince one another that one or the other position is the right one, or we determine that we cannot talk about the issues. We have not yet engaged in a dialogue with curiosity. Even though we love and respect one other, we have not committed to a path that invites understanding rather than criticism and judgment. I suspect there will be new learning and new appreciation for each of us if we decide that we want to cross the bridge into understanding.

There are surprising benefits in exploring unfamiliar territory with curiosity and respect. In the end, we have the opportunity to expand our options in decision making when we strengthen our capacity as leaders to embrace different viewing points. If we embrace the notion that “we are all right, only partly so,” we will be more inclined to look for common ground. When we are on common ground, we have a greater capacity for understanding, we have a greater capacity for compassion, and we have a greater capacity for forgiveness.

On common ground, we can move together into our desired future.

“We grow up in a world that keeps things separate. Science is a thousand miles from faith. The right wing and the left are far divided, through the angel cannot fly without them both.”

– Jan Phillips

Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute of Health and Human Potential. For additional information, visit

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