Embrace the Gray

Apologies to anyone who came here thinking this might be about a book series…

When I work with communities or organizations who are struggling with conflict, I often tell participants to be prepared to work in and embrace the ‘gray’.

More often than not I am met with a silent, puzzled look or the response, ‘what do you mean?’

My point in telling them to ‘embrace the gray’ is that there is very little, if anything, that is strictly black and white (except maybe the proverbial universal constants of change, death, and taxes). Indeed, almost every issue has at its core a combination of factors from both sides of the issue. When you mix black and white together, you get gray.


Black and white are little but shades or tints of each other. Most things in our lives share similar characteristics. Graphic by author.

When you embrace the gray, you embrace the fact that there is, at a core fundamental level, truth within other’s arguments. Embracing the gray means you are willing to move into that realm where the two positions overlap, seeking areas where agreement can be reached.

In an era of hyper-polarization of just about everything, people become accustomed to thinking that there are only two sides to something: black and white.


In an era of hyper-polarization and one-upmanship, getting on the same page can seem impossible. Graphic by author.

This type of perspective sets up a zero-sum game where someone has to ‘win’ and someone has to ‘lose’. Unfortunately, 99% of the time, the solution to the polarization ends up with both sides losing: lost income, lost resources, lost friends, lost opportunities, lost sense of place and community, and laws or regulations that hurt everyone.

So how do we work in the gray?

Within conflict mediation there is a model I like to use called the PIN Model. PIN is an acronym for Positions, Interests, and Needs. Positions can be thought of as worldviews (political, religious, environmental, etc.). Interests are the ‘hows’ related to the establishment of the position. Needs are just that – the things we need to be safe, happy, and healthy which underlie the positions and interests.


The PIN Model. Graphic by author.

Every position is defined by a set of concordant interests and needs. Managing conflict, from the PIN Model perspective, is helping groups find their shared needs and interests in order to bring their positions as close together as possible.

Conflict emerges as those who are attached to a certain ‘position’ attempt to make their position dominant. They often see their position – and the interests and needs underlying their position – as being completely distinct from the position of the other group (the black and white triangles above). Thus, it becomes the common perspective that nothing but conflict can address the gap between the two groups.

The PIN Model accepts that positions will very rarely if ever be totally reconciled with each other. That said, the model operates from the principle that if you focus first on needs, you can find common ground that bring both groups closer together.


Coming together: by focusing first on shared needs and building up to shared interests, we can bring groups with different positions together. Graphic by author.

As shared needs are identified and reconciled, we also start to finding shared interests each group shares in relation to those needs.  The more we can reconcile needs and interests between the factions, the more they can work together to meet shared needs and interests. In doing so, we break down barriers and allow social fields to start to develop across different groups. This, as was discussed here, is critical to establishing well-being and allowing the emergence of community.

Both sides have to be willing to embrace the gray. That’s not an easy sell when people are ready to fight each other over their sacred cows. And the tighter they hold on to those sacred cows, the harder it is to find shared needs and interests.

But if community is to emerge – or be preserved – finding and building upon the things we share is something for which we must strive.