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

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 All or Nothing or Black or White thinking filter. In NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) this is considered a "Cognitive Distortion".

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

'All or Nothing' or 'Black and White' thinking is one of the commonest issues I see with coaching clients. But 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: 'success or failure'.

How we end up stuck

When a client gets stuck it's often because their world has shrunk to just 2 options—and neither of those two options are palatable.

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

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 and have stopped enjoying my job, so I have to quit."

Your client is only seeing two possibilities: stay (which is unpalatable) or go. And they have not explored the endless possibilities that lie in between staying in their current role as is—and leaving to get a new job.

This is where you (as their coach) come in. Here are some shades of grey for your client:

  • Find a different role in the same organization—or do the same role in a different department in the organization.
  • Is the boss as bad as they think? Could they adjust their expectations and find meaning outside of work.
  • Could your client go part-time?
  • If the boss isn't that bad, and it's the role itself that is unpleasant and causing the difficulties:
    • What about talking seeing if some of the unpleasant aspects of the role could be delegated, mitigated or entirely removed?
    • Or does your client need to add something to their role for more of a challenge?

Black and White Thinking can be helpful sometimes

There are occasions when black or white thinking can be helpful. For example, it can force us to make decisions when we've been dallying. And it can help us to 'chunk up' and find clarity in complicated situations.

But there is a cost: by 'chunking up' to 'either/or' options we lose nuance and detail—and limit ourselves: because it's in the details and 'shades of grey' that we find our options—and flexibility.

One 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 for our example client above who's unhappy and wants a new job, perhaps the outcome they were really looking for is 1) flexible working hours so they can pick up the kids and 2) some appreciation and recognition.

So, once we know the outcomes the client is looking for, this is empowering! Now we can help them 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. Underneath it all, what is it that you really, really want? What would you like to be different?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. Think of someone you truly respect and admire. How might they look differently at your situation? What suggestions would they have?
  5. What other possibilities/explanations/ideas are out there that you haven't thought of yet? TIP: this makes a good homework question to ponder!


Sometimes people are just stuck in a rut. Sometimes people can't see options because they're stressed and overwhelmed. Sometimes we're exhausted and don't have the energy to think outside the box. And sometimes, just thinking about other options is terrifying!

But whatever the reasons, 'Black and White' or 'All or Nothing' thinking is very common. And it's hard for anyone to make change in their lives when we're stressed, tired and/or overwhelmed.

But remember, when people do nothing, that's still a choice—even if it's unconscious.

So 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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