Are Paradoxes more common than we think?

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Are Paradoxes more common than we think?

I used to think paradoxes were weird and rare events, for example:

A woman gets into a time machine with a gun and goes back in time to when she was building the time machine. She then shoots herself before she has time to finish the time machine… ohhh weird right?

Paradoxes used to feel a bit sci-fi. But now I am seeing them much more often in the mundane and every day habits of my clients. As you might expect from a paradox they can be both good and bad at the same time… Here is a recent example.

I was working with two senior clients recently who were looking to improve communication between their staff and the board of directors. It appeared that neither group felt particularly interested, or safe in approaching the other to learn more about what was going on.

My client’s responses were to bridge the divide. Both are approachable and well respected by staff and the board. They would talk to staff and report to the board, and talk to the board and report to staff. They considered this a helpful intervention that was improving communication.

But as I pointed out, whilst their behaviour was helpful in improving communication between the board and staff, at the same time it was preventing the groups from communicating with each other directly.

The more they helped improve communication in this way the more they were preventing communication from improving. They had created a paradox. Once they recognised the paradox we were able to explore more useful ways to improve communication.

It seems we often collapse paradoxes, as though they should not exist outside of the realm of Sci-fi. So rather than accept an action may be ‘good and bad’, we decide if it is ‘good, or bad’. Collapsing a paradox is easy, and we usually do it without noticing. In this example my clients saw their behaviour as ‘good’ and so did not notice that it was both ‘goodand bad’ at the same time. They collapsed the paradox without even noticing.

I believe the more open we can become to the existence of paradoxes in every day life, the more we will recognise the potential issues we create when we make ‘good’ decisions, or actions. I think accepting the mundane and common nature of paradoxes can also cast light on some of the confusion and unexpected outcomes we see resulting from our decisions. In this case, why is communication still not improving? We are both working hard to improve it.

So in service of demystifying paradoxes, I would invite you to share any you have noticed in the comments box, so we may get a sense for just how common they are.

And maybe the more common place paradoxes seem the less paradoxical they will feel.

Lee Norburn

Executive Coach and Change Facilitator