A few weeks ago, I wrote a LinkedIn post on paradoxes. It wasn’t phrased that way, but that’s what it was about. It spoke about the term so perfectly coined by author Glennon Doyle, “brutiful,” to explain how life is a combination of beautiful moments and experiences and brutal ones. 

It was a popular post. And that wasn’t surprising because emotions don’t usually exist in a vacuum. It’s rare that we are experiencing all of one thing at any particular moment in time.

At the most basic level, a paradox is the confluence of two seemingly opposing forces (or values, choices, or, in this case, emotions). It feels like it needs to be one or the other, and we spend a lot of our energy bouncing back and forth or arguing over who or what is “right.” But the reality is that both are necessary. Both are the answer and the way forward.

In the case of the LinkedIn post, I was highlighting the difficulty of existing in a world where there are painful experiences and joyful experiences happening around us, often simultaneously. There is a disorienting  push-pull struggle that takes place in our brains as they fight to find which one is “right.” Both are right, and that sometimes creates some messy feelings and messy actions. 

The messiness of paradoxes

Unfortunately, our brains dislike messiness. Think about what you instinctively want to do if you walk into a room in your house and it’s a mess (aside from finding someone to blame!) Or, if you’re on a client call or running a team meeting and the conversation is messy. Or, when you yourself feel “a hot mess” (thank you pop culture for that visual-inducing term). 

We want to clean it up. Make it better. Fix it. Brush it under the rug (or shove it into the closet). Cover it up. Make it “all better” or “nice” again.

When we embrace what makes the world “brutiful” though, we don’t need any of that. All too often, the single thing we need in these moments is to just be. To feel the both/and. To be in the discomfort. To celebrate and to cry. To laugh and grieve. To dance and sit. What those all look like in actuality differs from person to person and can be confusing to feel and witness. 

Whenever I talk with groups about emotions, I inevitably get some people who equate the conversation to therapy or ask something like, “Shouldn’t this be for HR?” As neuroscientist António R. Damásio said about human beings, “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.”

Paradoxes within leadership

Leadership is one place where you can expect messiness. Often, that’s because there are paradoxes at play all the time. As roles and responsibilities get more complex, there are fewer concrete rights and wrongs and plenty of ambiguous both/and situations to navigate. 

While there are infinite paradoxes in leadership, there are several that are guaranteed to emerge no matter the person, role, company, or industry. 

  • Taking a risk vs. playing it safe 
  • Work that is done independently vs. collaboratively
  • Diplomacy vs. candor when giving feedback
  • Practicing patience vs. seizing the moment
  • New vs. legacy

What’s the first step to take before managing a paradox? Replace “versus” with “and.” What would it look like to do both, to honor both, to leverage both?   

How to manage paradox in the workplace

Managing paradoxes starts with awareness. Noticing the points of tension, discomfort, or the times when you feel like you’re circling back to something you’ve covered a thousand times already. When you see that for what it most often is, a paradox at play, you can then take a new approach. In the case of paradoxical emotions that you or others on your team are likely experiencing, you can:

  • Recognize the battling emotional states
  • Relinquish control of finding an answer or solution
  • Frame the emotions, values, or stances using a both/and instead of an or/versus
  • Acknowledge the difficulty of holding both emotions
  • Normalize the messiness
  • Take time before deciding how to move forward 

Granted, those are six steps that can be hard to remember in a moment when you or someone you know is struggling through a paradoxical dilemma. Sometimes, just having the right words in the moment can be all you need. Words like these: 

Here’s what a paradox might sound like as someone wrestles with one:

“I’m feeling all kinds of emotions right now. There’s not one way out of these, there’s no right thing to feel. It’s super uncomfortable—I feel like I’m being pushed and pulled around. It’s all part of the process. I’m going to just take a moment before I make that decision.”

Here’s language that can be helpful to someone wrestling with a paradox:

“I know that this change has likely stirred up a lot of competing emotions in you. All of those emotions are right, there isn’t one way you should be feeling right now. It’s not necessarily comfortable to be in that place. You don’t have to have a response right now, you can take some time to process everything and circle back when you’re ready.”

Embrace the paradoxes

Life, they say, is full of contradictions and complications. Allowing you, your team, and the world to exist within that paradoxical complexity can also be liberating. Knowing that more than one answer is possible and more than one emotion is right is both a comfort and a challenge. Welcome both.