From Black and White to Shades of Gray

We are all born with tendencies toward certain behaviors. This is genetics. Yet we are also born with the capacity to add new circuits and rewire the connections, enabling us to see, think and act differently as we grow up. This is learning.THE SPECTRUM OF THINKING

One of our inborn tendencies is the level of willingness to alter the way we see and think about the world. People least willing to accept changes in their world views depend on concrete thinking to define what they see and to base their decisions.

Concrete thinkers are also known as “absolutists” who believe in clearly defined right and wrong answers to social, religious and political questions. These people value unity, looking to align with others who think like they do without question. They choose safety over novelty and security over risk.

On the other end of the spectrum we have “contextualists” who tend to value debate, exploration and situational analysis which acknowledges that change is inherent to life.


Contextualists look wishy-washy to absolutists, if not verbose, disloyal and even blasphemous. Absolutists look stubborn, inflexible, prehistoric and even uneducated to contextualists.


Absolutists are reliable and tend to approach life from a positive framework. They are confident since they know there is an order to life. In fact, they adamantly oppose what they believe is a threat to their ways of viewing life and work. However, they care about getting results, whether working alone or in teams. They just want everything to be clear, predictable and linear.

BRAIN TIP FOR ABSOLUTISTS If you are an absolutist working with a contextualist, take more time to listen to their ideas. Help them to summarize and bottom-line the options they perceive. Explore specific criteria that will help them analyze their choices and make decisions. Support their creativity. Value their insight and perspective, even if you don’t agree.

Questions to help contextualist to make a strong decision: What will it take to complete this? What will the end result look like? What details are missing? What will happen if we don’t do anything? Can we break this into steps? What would be the first step? What will it take for you to feel comfortable with making the decision today? Are you willing to not worry about what is out of your control?

BRAIN TIP FOR CONTEXTUALISTS If you are a contextualists working with an absolutist, be conscious of their fears of losing control and predictability. Be clear in your explanation of why they need to do something differently so that they feel your request is fair, right and in the best interest of everyone they work with. Do not fall into an “us” and “them” conversation. Keep the conversation focused on tangible results instead of future possibilities.

Questions to help an absolutist to think contextually: What is the worst that could happen if we tried this? What would it take to feel good about trying something new? Could there be other reasons for this situation to have happened? Who else should be involved in making this decision? What is different, and even better about today than the last time we tried this? Would you be willing to do a test run to see what will happen? Would you be willing to accept that there are other points of view if yours is considered as strongly as the rest?


Contextualists tend to be great at strategy. They are always looking down the road, so they can both inspire and scare people with their dreams and postulates. They are creative and willing to try new things. They love to learn. However, they are not great on follow-through and need others to implement their grand ideas. They can get lost in their beloved arguments and can be annoying with their incessant need to know why. They may appear anxious since they know life will change, daily.

BRAIN TIP FOR EVERYONE Above all, know that you cannot change the way someone thinks. However, you can help them to expand their perception about specific situations. Put your energy into flexing your conversation instead of forcing your perspective so that we can co-exist in peace.
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