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

Sign showing Success or Failure (Black or White Thinking)

Often when a client is stuck, it's because they're looking at the world through a fixed Black and White or All or Nothing thinking filter. In NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) this is considered is a type of "Cognitive Distortion".

Check out this article for more on what Cognitive Distortions are and a free tool to help you identify them.

'Black and White' or 'All or Nothing' thinking is one of the commonest issues I see with coaching clients. And the big problem with Black and 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'.

Here's an example of Black and White Thinking

Imagine you have a client who's unhappy in their job. Black and White thinking would look like, "I hate my boss/I'm not enjoying this role, so now I have to leave and get a new job". Your client has given themselves just two possibilities: stay or go.

Yet this is very limiting. Your client has not explored the endless possibilities that lie in between. And this is where you (as their coach) come in.

Perhaps your client could find a new role in the same organization—or do the same role in a different organization. Perhaps the job or boss is not as bad as they think: could they adjust their expectations and then find more meaning outside of work. Could your client go part-time, or see if some of the unpleasant aspects of the role could be delegated, mitigated or entirely removed? Or perhaps your client needs to add something to the role for more of a challenge!

How we end up stuck

So when a client gets stuck it's often because neither of the two options they have given themselves—in this example to 'stay or go'—is palatable.

And when neither option works for us we usually choose neither—and get ourselves well and truly stuck!

Although Black and White Thinking can be helpful sometimes...

Black or White thinking can sometimes 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 basic 'either/or' options we lose essential nuance and detail—and limit ourselves. Because it's in the details and 'shades of grey' that we find our range of options—and flexibility.

A great way to help stuck clients

One powerful way to help clients who are stuck in black and white thinking is to get really clear on outcomes—the results or benefits they want.

So if our example client is unhappy and wants a new job, perhaps the outcome they really want is flexible working hours, to work with people whose values align with theirs, a challenge, or some appreciation and recognition. This provides our clients with powerful self-knowledge! Now they can come up with different ideas and options that weren't available to them when they thought the only choice was to get a new job.

Here are 5 questions to ask when a client is stuck in black and white thinking

  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. What if you had no choice?
    • If you were stuck forever with X (one of their black and white options), what ideas do you have about how you could make your situation better/easier?
    • If you were stuck forever with Y (the other black and white option), what ideas do you have about how you could make your situation better/easier then?
  3. Think of someone you truly respect and admire. How might they look differently at your situation? What suggestions would they have?
  4. What other possibilities/explanations/ideas are there that you haven't thought of yet?
  5. Underneath it all, what is it that you really, really want?


'Black and White' or 'All or Nothing' thinking is very common. Sometimes we can't see options because we're tired or stressed, and sometimes we get stuck in a rut and just can't think of any other ideas. Sometimes, just thinking about other options is terrifying!

But when we do nothing, this is still a choice—even if it is unconscious. It's our job as coaches to help people get creative and figure out what else they could do to meet their needs and desires!

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Emma-Louise Elsey Headshot

Contributing Author:

Emma-Louise Elsey has been coaching since 2003 and is the Founder of The Coaching Tools Company and Fierce Kindness.com. She's passionate about coaching and personal development. Originally a project and relationship manager for Fortune 500 companies she combined her love of coaching, creativity and systems to create over 100 brandable coaching tools, forms and exercises including 30+ completely free coaching tools. She now serves coaches and the coaching world through her exclusive newsletter for coaches, Coaches Helping Coaches Facebook Group and many other great tools for coaches, plus resources and ideas for your coaching toolbox. The Coaching Tools Company is an official ICF Business Solutions Partner.

Learn more about Emma-Louise & see all their articles here >>

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