Making do with a dilemma

When we've let go of our conscious desire as the only right answer, we're in a place to embrace the dilemma. We anticipate there are going to be two valid sides to the inner conflict. We can foresee another side that makes sense with a different frame of reference. We stop hoping to get rid of our emotional baggage and start expecting to transform both the bozo and the baggage.

Seen through a structural lens, dilemmas are designed to oscillate. They are structurally indeterminate and prone to perpetual pendulum swings. Problem solving makes a dilemma worse by playing one side off the other. Dilemmas tempt us to manipulate our motivations and justify our intentions. We try to make ourselves want something we really don't desire. We hope to get over some feeling without feeling like that's a good idea. We fall into too much thinking about the dilemma which merely feeds it's persistence.

Dilemmas offer no solution at the level of the opposing sides. The components of a dilemma are positional stances that cannot both be right. The positions are formulated to be irresolvable and irreconcilable when taken superficially. There appears to be no way to bridge the distance between the polarized differences until their appearances seem misleading.

Dilemmas get resolved by stepping into a different frame. Coming from a place that transcends the opposing positions offers a vantage point where mutual satisfaction becomes available. Here are some ways to imagine that transformational possibility with any dilemma:
  • Neither can get want they want when taken literally, and both get be satisfied by getting what they want in essence.
  • Both are frustrated by the other's opposing demands and both can be gratified by getting lent a hand by the opposition.
  • Neither can work a deal by finding fault in their opponent and both can reach agreement by showing each other genuine respect.
  • Both pay a price for their misunderstanding and both can clear up the confusion by understanding each other's concerns.

Rather than trying to succeed at getting something to change, it's more effective to work on giving something to baggage it's gone without until now.


  1. I think there is one more way to imagine the transformational possibility: both understand the others view point and the structural and/or organizational forces from outside that may make them powerless to change their current stance. Each one then understands the assumptions on which their position is based leaving them to either change the assumption, maintain the assumption, or change the external forces that are making it difficult for them to resolve their differences with the other position.

    I will give you an example of this in practice. I currently teach a course in Speech Composition and Presentation. As part of the planning process, I have my students do an audience impact analysis. For each speech point within the presentation, students must analyze the impact on the audience. I make them identify 3 groups with in the audience (which may be primary or secondary audiences). For each audience, they must analyze how the speech point will have a favorable (pro's) or unfavorable impact (con's). I also have them identify the factors that will contribute to a favorable impact (pro's) or will cause resistance from the audience. They then look at all of these factors to see what the overall impact of that speech point will be and what the best strategy will be to communicate the speech point (including supporting information, rhetoric style, etc...).

    At the beginning of this activity, students have a great deal of difficulty looking at the impact on OTHERS. However, by the third speech, they are able to see each side and the reasons that people might support or reject an idea. I have had students change their own position or change their focus of a speech because of this analysis. Often, they will identify structural problems and find new supporting information, understanding that the audience has legitimate reasons for their rejection of an idea given the environment. (Sorry for the length of the comment!)

  2. Thanks for the profound comment, Virginia!
    I had my students in a class titled "Employee Training and Development" flirt with what you've done in depth. I'm inspired to have just read the approach you've taken and how students get better at it by their third speech. If they generalize that ability, they will become effective negotiators, marketing professionals, and product designers. Understanding the context, frames of reference and issues of the audience, opposition, customers, or users is key to making an intentional difference. As you said, that is indeed a transformational possibility. Thanks again!

  3. Just as a follow up: Today I was correcting the assignment I require for my students' persuasive speech. Students much analyze the history of the issue (how and when did it begin,what are the positions, what does each side agree on, what do they disagree on, and does each side have a history of an equal voice on the issue). I realized that this also gives students a deeper understanding of not only the issue, but the political and structural forces that influence the debate/dilemma.

  4. Thanks for the follow-up. It's great to hear of students exploring depth of an issue, project of conflict, rather than routinely racing through too many new topics!