Unconventional Gentleman: Being Comfortable With the Gray

by C.J. SommervilleJan 12, 2020

Being Comfortable With The Gray

The Comfort with Black-and-White

There is a certain comfort in the idea that the branches of life that define our destiny exist as clear and definite veins. Of course, this is far from true, but it would make life markedly simpler. Therein lies the contentment. Acute disparity helps us identify boundaries, which in turn helps us establish our best defensive posture. That's right. It's a defense mechanism. All or none. Left or right. Do or don’t. Yes or No. All of these are binary possibilities that make decision-making clear-cut and unambiguous. With only two well-defined options, we can more easily evaluate the risks and consequences associated with the choice, and thus, ensure we have the safest possible outcome for ourselves. Granted, there are times we favor or deplore both options, which makes selection considerably more difficult. But the point here is not that there is difficulty in making the decision, its identifying the clear thresholds, influenced by our inherent need for self-preservation, in which a decision is defined.

For instance, suppose you are actively searching within the job market and receive offers from two of your top choices. One offers great compensation and benefits, yet has strict policies on work schedule with little flexibility. The other opportunity offers considerably less compensation and benefits but offers a flexible work schedule that includes working from home at-will. The boundaries for these opportunities as defined by the two companies are very clear. Ideally, you may prefer to create a third opportunity that merges the best of the two. But as this alternative is nonexistent, you will likely evaluate the two opportunities based on career interests, personal needs, and core values. Because these two offers are disparate, mutually exclusive, and well-defined, the decision at hand is made simpler to some degree. 

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In Comes the Gray

When two distinct possibilities begin to blend, or other possibilities surface that are derivatives of the two, the evaluation of risk versus reward can become more difficult. This is the gray. “Yes” and “no” is very clear. But introduce “maybe”, and things get interesting. Due to its complexity and varying degrees of ambiguity, gray tends to make most people uncomfortable with decision-making (unless of course the “black” and “white” options were unfavorable to begin with, in which case the gray choice appears safest). This is because the best posture to ensure an outcome that favors personal safety is not as clear. In the presence of gray, many of us try to artificially establish polarity or at least distinct prospects to make deciding simpler... and safer.

The issue with this approach is that there is a tremendous amount of opportunity in the gray. Human-nature is to establish a black-and-white dichotomy. Consequently, the opportunity that exists in gray is often missed. We think the fork in the road means we must go left or right, but no one ever thinks to go between the two roads. Just because there is no pavement or pathway in the middle, does not mean that direction is not an option. It's the gray choice, which simply means the choice may be more complicated and risky, but the outcome may be well worth the effort.

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Going back to the job scenario. If you take the offers at face value, the decision, though simpler due to established boundaries, will likely result in a nonpreferred degree of compromise (meaning the risk to self-preservation was not ideal regardless of the choice). However, suppose you contacted both companies and explored opportunities for negotiation.  What new possibilities are introduced then? Many people are uncomfortable doing this because they believe the boundaries are inflexible. However, doing this could result in the creation of the more ideal opportunity mentioned earlier. In this case, introducing the gray would result in less compromise - and risk - for you.

Getting comfortable integrating gray in your day-to-day decision-making is life-changing. It's actually the key to maximizing “win-win” outcomes. For instance, consider purchasing a vehicle. Carmax is successful because they remove the gray in purchasing a vehicle. Car-buying in most cases requires negotiation or haggling that many would-be customers find intimidating if not outright threatening. Most consumers have limited knowledge to ensure a strong defensive posture in negotiating purchase of a vehicle. Carmax removes the negotiation ceremony and adds additional warranty and service incentives to increase the value of the deal. Consequently, the customer leaves satisfied with the transaction and feeling safe in the decision, despite having paid more than market price. This is a great example of the comfort we find in black-and-white thinking. Either you buy it at the sticker price, or you don’t. However, should you educate yourself through the plethora of qualified online resources, find a reputable dealership, and negotiate effectively, you may end up with the same package as offered by Carmax at a considerably lower cost.  And of course, the dealership is able to make a sale.  Win-win.

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Want Happiness?  Adopt Gray-Thinking

Letting go of the black-and-white thinking is liberating. Living in the gray frees you from the constraint of limited options. Once you begin to adopt gray-thinking, you begin to realize that there is rarely a circumstance that is black or white. They're almost always an "in-between"... and it can be vast. Learning to live in this space is essential to growth, success, prosperity, and happiness. You will begin to see life as an immutable reality of nonpartisan possibilities rather than based soley on your own perspective.  She/He loves me, she/he loves me not was a French game, and does not represent the reality of most circumstances involving the object of one's affection. Getting comfortable with gray will help you see that both possibilities can be true. You'll be able to recognize that love is not binary. She could very well love you, but as a close friend or sibling and not romantically. Or he could love you romantically, but is not ready to explore something beyond a friendship. Adopting the gray mindset will help you better understand and navigate the unpredictability and vicissitudes of life. And ultimately help you become more comfortable with the complexities of gray.

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But at what cost? This is where fear sets in. Adopting gray-thinking requires being vulnerable, and being willing to challenge the paradigms you have adopted from black-and-white thinking. A good way to start making the transition to gray-thinking, and thus becoming more vulnerable, is to first stop forcing your preconceptions on others in the form of judgment. This is because the act of judgment establishes "mine" and "their" viewpoints, thus effectively saying one of these is right and the other is wrong.  The reality is rarely that straightforward.

Eliminating judgment can be tricky, however. Many of us think we are observing when we are being judgemental. For the sake of black-and-white thinkers reading this, let's make it clear. In simple terms, an observation is acknowledging the characteristics and/or behaviors of a person, place or thing based on fact. A judgment is when an opinion is integrated with that observation. For instance, suppose a woman is sitting on a park bench wearing a yellow dress. Stating that the woman is wearing a yellow dress is an observation. Stating that her dress is ugly is a judgment. Pretty simple, right? But what if someone states she looks like Marilyn Monroe? Or Big Bird? Is that an observation or a judgment? There is a caveat that introduces gray to the observation-judgment dichotomy, which is that a reasonable person would concur with the assessment. This may qualify "Marilyn Monroe" as an observation and "Big Bird" as a judgment. The flexibility of gray helps us manuever through complex situations much more gracefully.

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Sacrifice the Saftey of Black-and-White Thinking

In the yellow dress exercise, you begin to evaluate your preconceptions and qualify them as observations, judgments or something else therein. Applying this type of gray-thinking is fruitful in helping to break black-and-white thinking. Vulnerability also manifests in the desire to control. Again, maintaining control is a defensive mechanism. Gray-thinking suggests being open to relinquishing some control by being more trusting and transparent. And allowing for some disruption while accepting the inability to control all (if any) outcomes.

Maintaining barriers is hard work, which is why black-and-white thinking is implored to aid in maintaining those defensive safeguards. Introducing gray-thinking will offer a freedom to explore and accept new opportunities that would never have been identified otherwise, and thus exposure to greater levels of enrichment and enlightenment.

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