Why Black or White Thinking May be Keeping Keep Your Clients Stuck!

I don’t know about you, but ‘Black or White’ or ‘All or Nothing’ thinking is one of the commonest issues I see with my coaching clients. When a client is stuck - it’s often because they are looking at the world through this Black or White thinking filter - called a Cognitive Distortion (check this article out for more info. on what Cognitive Distortions are and a free tool to help you identify them!)

So, the big problem with Black or White thinking is that it forces a ‘Grey’ world full of possibilities, options and ideas into just two choices - ’my way or the highway’, ‘success or failure’. Imagine your client is unhappy in their job. Black or White thinking could look like, “I hate my boss, so now I have to get a new job” or “I’m not enjoying this role, so I need to change careers”. It leaves two possibilities, ‘stay or go’.

This doesn’t consider other potential options like finding a new role in the same organization – or doing the same role in a different organization. Or finding meaning outside of work. Or even talking to someone about the role and seeing if some of the unpleasant aspects can be delegated or somehow mitigated.

So, when a client REMAINS stuck it’s often because NEITHER of the options - in this case to ‘stay or go’ – is palatable. And when neither option is palatable – we choose neither – and remain stuck!

Now, Black or White thinking CAN be helpful. It can force us to make decisions when we’ve been dallying. It can help us to ‘chunk up’ and find clarity in complicated situations. But there is a cost. By ‘chunking up’ to simple ‘either / or’ options we lose essential nuances and details – and limit ourselves. Whereas details and ‘shades of grey’ give us a wide range of options and flexibility.

Questions to ask when a client is stuck in Black or White thinking include:

  1. Suppose for a moment that you have all the money/ support/ time/ energy/ confidence/ health you need. What other options/ways are there of looking at this?
  2. Think of someone you truly respect and admire. How might they look differently at this situation?
  3. What other possibilities/explanations/ideas are there that you haven’t thought of yet?
  4. Underneath it all, what is it that you really, really want?

Remember: Even when we stay still or remain ‘stuck’ it’s still a choice – even if it’s an unconscious one.

Tip: Help your clients get really clear on outcomes - the results or benefits they want from a goal – rather than on the goal itself. So if they’re unhappy and want a new job, perhaps the outcome they really want is flexible working hours, to work with people or they want appreciation and recognition. This provides enough insight to give them new ideas and options that they didn’t have when they were focused on simply getting a new job.

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