Analytical/Intuitive Thinking

By Charles B. Parselle  Published 24 May, 2014

This article discusses the different strengths and weaknesses of analytical and intuitive thinking, which combined may be called holistic thinking. Because thinking is in its nature invisible and abstract, the article uses an analogy by way of representation: the anatomy of the cornea.

At the very center of the cornea are clustered cone cells, which have the function of focusing on objects far or near. Surrounding the cone cells are the more numerous rod cells, which provide peripheral vision. If the cone cells deteriorate, when one attempts to focus upon an object, it disappears; a black spot in the center. But if you lose peripheral vision, even if you retain the ability to focus, it is like observing the world one speck at a time through the means of the focused beam of a flashlight. It is much easier to get around with only peripheral vision than with only focused vision.

This analogy can be convincing when seeking to persuade lawyers that analysis is not the whole universe of thinking. Lawyers are taught to specialize in analytical thinking. They may do this to such an extent that they dismiss intuition as "touchy-feely." That term betrays unawareness of the fact that just as the cone cells are surrounded by more numerous rod cells, so the penetrative power of analytical thinking is only made possible by the provision of context afforded by the intuitive. If you have no intuition of where to look, you cannot focus the concentrated beam of analysis at the right target.

Analytical thinking is historically quite recent, whereas intuitive thinking has been mankind’s chief possession since the dawn of time. As far as Western civilization is concerned, the classical Greeks “invented” analytical thinking; the Romans built really straight roads with it, the Dark Ages lost it, and the Enlightenment rediscovered it. We can partly attribute the triumphs and perils of our modern civilization to the relative imbalance in the importance afforded to analytical versus intuitive skills over the last four hundred years. The current dysfunction of the legal system is also in part a consequence of this imbalance. The broad mission of mediation may be to restore the balance, because we are now in a time when the perils threaten to outweigh the triumphs. Overly analytical people are to a large extent “blind;” what our society needs is people who can “think” with a whole eye, which is called holistic thinking – only those who are out of touch with feeling call this ‘touchy-feely.’

Analytical thinking is powerful. It is focused, sharp, linear, deals with one thing at a time, contains time, is deconstructive, contains no perspective, is subject to disorientation, is brain centered, and tends to the abstract. Analytical thinking is efficient in the following conditions – sufficient time, relatively static conditions, a clear differentiation between the observer and the observed. It is best suited for dealing with complexities, and works best where there are established criteria for the analysis (for example, rules of law). It is necessary when an explanation is required, seeks the best option, and can be taught in the classroom to beginners.

Intuitive thinking has contrasting qualities: it is unfocused, nonlinear, contains "no time," sees many things at once, views the big picture, contains perspective, is heart centered, oriented in space and time, and tends to the real or concrete. Intuition comes into its own where analytical thinking is inadequate: under time pressure, where conditions are dynamic, where the differentiation between observer and observed is unclear. It works best where the observer has experience in the particular situation, is difficult to teach in the classroom, eschews seeking the ‘best’ option in favor of the ‘workable,’ and is prepared to act on feelings or hunches where explanations are either not required or there is no time for them. Intuition is experience translated by expertise to produce rapid action.

Intuition is limited where the task is complex and uncertain, where the observer lacks experience, or the observation is distorted by biases or fixed ideas. Its weakness is a tendency to produce a fixed attitude or mindset that ignores new data; that is why the analytical thinking of the Enlightenment was so revolutionary. Intuition is ineffective for predicting the stock market, or for discovering that the heart is a pump, or for dissecting a legal problem.

When analytical and intuitive abilities are combined, the result is ‘holistic.’ In order to effect settlements and resolutions, it is necessary to move people out of a rights/obligations/win-lose mindset into a needs/interests/mutual gain mindset, which is what mediation is all about – this requires holistic thinking abilities.

About the Author

Charles B. Parselle is a mediator, arbitrator and attorney. He graduated from Oxford University’s Honor School of Jurisprudence and is a member of the English bar, then joined the California Bar in 1983.

A prolific author and sought-after mediator, he is the author of the book, "The Complete Mediator."

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