Tetralemma – escaping the either/or fallacy

Goal of the Tetralemma Method:

The Tetralemma is a systemic coaching instrument that was developed by Matthias Varga von Kibéd and Insa Sparrer to come up with innovative ideas and foster better decision-making in complex situations as it helps us overcome our traditional ‘black-and-white’ thinking.

In business and life, we often find ourselves in dilemmas, with “di” indicating “two” options: A or B, Yes or No, This or That. This ‘all-or-nothing’ approach usually produces self-limiting or self-damaging outcomes – especially in complex situations. The Dunning-Kruger effect, where we vastly overestimate our own knowledge and certainty, has its roots in this type of thinking. We strip away complexity and reduce things to yes/no decisions. And whilst there is utility for using this time- and energy-saving modes of thought, they are not sufficient for navigating business in a VUCA world

The Tetralemma help us to evolve our thinking because offers more options for solving any kind of challenge – rather than just seeing two:

Position 1 & 2: “Either” & “Or”

When we face dilemmas, we oscillate between two different or opposing poles/options to choose from. The “either-or” mentality is our default black-and-white thinking.

Position 3: “Both”

This position generally causes immediate irritation: “How is that supposed to work, both?” Here it is important not to allow for any rational discussion, but to investigate how it would feel like to have both options at the same time. 


If this position is felt to be positive, we often already develop spontaneous ideas about how “both” could still work – we just haven’t thought about this option before.

Position 4: “None”

When this position is felt to be positive, it becomes interesting. It may mean that the solution to the problem lies somewhere else entirely, or that you don’t want to decide at all. This is also an option to be appreciated since not wanting to make a decision is also a decision.

Purpose of Tetralemma Method:

✅ Find innovative solutions for dilemmas

✅ Foster creativity, overcome bias & cultivate ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking

✅ Comparing different options in decision-making processes

✅ Enhance confidence in the final decision

Participants:

Invite participants to fill out the template in groups of 3-4. Ideally you put together teams who struggle with the same dilemma so that they can co-creatively develop new solutions for it.

Preparation:

The exercise of the Tetralemma is most powerful when used in a live training setting, which is why the instructions in the ‘execution’ section are outlined for doing the exercise in-person.

To prepare, take four big paper cards and write the numbers 1,2,3, and 4 on them to indicate the four Tetralemma positions (one position/number per card). Note that this exercise requires participants to have some space to move around since the power of systemic work is enhanced by the physical interaction with the content. So make sure that the room where you’ll be working with the group is spacious enough or create some space before starting the exercise.

If you’re using the Tetralemma in a virtual context, insert the attached PDF document with the Tetralemma graphic onto a digital whiteboard so that participants can capture their thoughts on each of the four positions on sticky notes. The exercise is still powerful to trigger new ways of thinking about a challenge your team faces, even if it’s not possible to physically interact with the cards like in an in-person setting.

Application of the Tetralemma as a Mini-Workshop with your team:

Think of a dilemma you are currently facing (an “either/or” situation) and write down the two options you have on sticky notes next to position A and B of the tetralemma. You may also write down what belief this position is based on.

In the next step, you may now get creative and develop new ways to handle the situation differently. What could be written in the other positions (“both and”, “none”, or “something else”)?

Just let your mind run wild and be surprised at what can come out of it. If needed, use other creative methods, such as Liberating Structures TRIZ, 1-2-4-all, or Wicked Question.

Remember: the positions “Both” and “Neither” seem irritating or even provocative – allow that to happen. The point is to find new options for action that you don’t think about as long as you are stuck in either-or.

Application of the Tetralemma as a systemic coaching-structure:

Step 1

Invite the individual you’re working with to think of a challenge or dilemma they currently face where they struggle to make a decision. Whilst they contemplate or find group consensus on the dilemma they want to work on, place the pre-written paper cards on the floor so that they form a cross. Place them at a distance of about 1.5 metres from each other. The fifth card (“Something else”) is placed with a little distance outside the cross that the other four cards form.

Step 2

Invite the person to stand between card 1 “Either” and card 2 “Or”. You stand to the side and ask them to name the two alternatives again in 2-3 sentences. After having outlined both options, ask them if they can find a keyword for each option: What exactly is “Either”, what exactly is “Or”? After the person has chosen their keywords for both positions, ask them to stand on the “Either” card and close their eyes. Invite them to close their eyes and experience how this option “feels”, whilst you observe what you can read from their body language: Are they standing tall or slumped, relaxed or stiff, firm or moving from one leg to the other? Is their breathing shallow or relaxed, and what can you read from their face?

After a little while (30sec-1min), ask them to describe how they feel standing there (if they haven’t done so already), describing everything that they can experience inside their body. Keep your own observations to yourself for now and prevent them from intellectualising or rationalising their experience. They should simply describe their bodily feelings, as well as emotions or images that might have come up for them.

Step 3

Now ask your participant to slowly move to the second card with the option “Or”. Make sure they never walk through the cross, but around, and always face the inside of the cross. Stand behind them as they arrived and closed their eyes once again and say, “This is the position ‘Or'” and name the keyword for this position. Take a step back and allow the client space and time to feel inside, verbalising their experience like they did before.

Step 4

Then lead the person to the position: “Both”. This position is tricky because it immediately creates the question in the participant, “How is that supposed to work?”. Accordingly, as they stand on this card, you say: “This is the position ‘Both’”, name both keywords, and ask them not to think how both would work out together realistically, but just to tune in once again how it feels.

Do the same with the next position: “None”. This position you simply say: “This is the position ‘None”, and step back again to listen to the words and observe the body language of the individual.

Reflection after applying the Tetralemma

❓On a scale from 1-10, how difficult was it for you to move beyond traditional black-and-white thinking and come up with other types of solutions?

❓How was it for you to interact with your ideas in a physical way?

❓What are your key learnings from working with the Tetralemma?

Material:

(Virtual) Whiteboard or Flipchart

Sticky Notes in different colours

Pens / Markers

Time:

30-45 minutes

Download the entire description (PDF) for free!

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