May 7, 2022

All or Nothing Gets You Nothing

I saw a room full of knitted brows, tightened shoulders, wringing hands, and twitchy eyes. I stood in the front of this church fellowship hall and felt the burden of division and pain.

In the context of two years of so much grief, I knew this workshop on the topic of differences and conflict would begin with tension. 

Times like this, it’s obvious. Other times it’s a surprise. 

In the status meeting, you thought would be routine, and it goes sideways into complaining and blaming. Or the kitchen conversation turns from a simple review of weekend plans to accusations and frustration.

Human nature in these moments goes for the extremes. The extremes feel safe. 
I know I belong in this corner.
Everything seems clear
We all agree.
I’m safe here.

Those people over there are terrible.
How could they even think that?
They are hateful, stupid, ridiculous…

In 2.6 seconds, we shift from trying to accomplish a goal together to an all-or-nothing posture.

Brené Brown calls this common enemy intimacy. Not only is it fake belonging, but it’s destructive and ineffective.

Here’s what I keep learning: All or nothing usually gets you nothing.

The question we’re usually asking in all-or-nothing is “What if I lose?” Nuance and negotiation challenge our perception of safety and security. We conflate our security with our certainty. 

I’m offering you a different approach. This posture isn’t for the weak. This is leadership based in courage, curiosity, and compassion.

Rather than, “What if I lose?” Ask, “What is our common goal?”

Okay, so when you’re in the middle of a heated and confusing conversation, it seems to happen so fast. I feel like a cartoon character with birds circling my head. How do we start to find the common goal? Because the only thing that seems common is everyone has fighting gloves on.

The simplest practice…ask questions.
Specifically, ask three questions before you share your perspective.

But Jenn, they’re saying all these things that aren’t true! I have to correct them! My coaching question for you is this: Do you understand their perspective well enough or are you making assumptions?

Ask three questions. Look for the common goal. Practice courage, curiosity, and compassion.

All or nothing usually gets you nothing.

You can pull back from the easy extremes to the mutual middle where you can build together incremental but lasting change.

Rope bridge to green woods

An hour after that church fellowship hall filled with anxious people, I saw a room full of leaned-in conversations, joined hands, a few tears, and some laughter. The best comment of the night: “I found another person who became a friend tonight.”

There are so many perspectives on so many topics right now. In our homes, in our workplaces, in our communities. Let’s be the people who ask more questions with curiosity, listen with compassion, and bravely work toward the common good.


  1. Oh Jenn, this is so timely and sound. Thanks for thinking this through and being able to share it articulately!


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