2 min read

The Double Bind

Emily Taylor

A few months ago, I was introduced to the concept of a double bind in an article by Roger Saner about Dark Scrum.

It's a situation we as consultants and developers can often find ourselves in. At the time of reading, I had just been dropped into a team that was working overtime towards a deadline that had been arbitrarily chosen for a project.

It was very important that we made that deadline - it had already been communicated to stakeholders. We had zero tests, but it was paramount that new features did not introduce any regressions. There was no time to write tests. We needed to be delivering features.

Reading that article flicked a switch for me - it was something I could relate to on a very real level.

A double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, with one negating the other.

I'd certainly felt that distress, but I'd never had a name for it before. But now I had a name for it, and access to google to boot. It turns out it's a concept that's been around since the 1950's, first described by Gregory Bateson.

To look at it simply, Sonia Connolly boils it down to any situation where:

  • Explicitly, if you do some Action, you’ll be punished
  • Implicitly, if you don’t do that Action, you’ll also be punished
  • If you bring up the contradiction, you’ll be punished
  • You can’t leave the situation

Knowledge is power, and naming things can make all the difference. Being aware of it as concept has done wonders for me personally. It ultimately lead to finding some great advice on how to step away from double binds.

  • It’s not you. Remember, there’s something wrong with the situation, not with you.
  • Question the statements. Is it true that you’ll be punished?
  • Redefine punishment. Find other sources of approval.
  • Change the focus. In some cases, you can productively direct attention outside the double bind.
  • Meet your own standards. Since all choices lead to punishment, make the choices that meet your own approval.
  • Look for allies within the situation. Is there support available?
  • Ask for help. Name the problem to outside witnesses or authorities. Stay aware of your own power as you ask for help, rather than sliding into a Victim/Rescuer position.
  • Get external support. Seek out people and activities that help you feel strong and resilient.
  • Walk away. It’s a big world.

I'm a more confident, happy and healthy consultant, team member and leader being armed with these strategies. I hope this is of help to others too!