Black and white thinking (also known as all or nothing thinking) can be really useful when you need a quick decision which has an absolute answer: something is right or wrong, good or bad. A decimal point in the wrong place can have a huge impact, even though the mistake itself is small. “I nearly got it right” won’t hack it with the bank manager. Someone coming at you with a knife? Bad, and a clear signal to cut and run – no time to wonder at their intentions. So, black and white thinking can be helpful.
But not often. What it doesn’t allow for are the shades of grey in between. It polarises thinking and is often a factor in depression, anxiety and stress.
I was coaching a client who had a problem with one of her team who had started to undermine her in meetings. Her response? To put her in her place. The result? A battle of wills in front of the team which neither resolved anything nor placed either in a good light.
We looked at why she took this stance and she said that she was either being honest or pathetic. Being ‘pathetic’ as she called it was no solution. But her honesty was such that it simply inflamed the situation. So, we looked at all the shades of grey and came up with the following hierarchy of possible responses to her situation starting with a more accurate reflection of her actual response:
- Brutally honest
- Economical with the truth
People rarely behave negatively for no reason at all. Those reasons might be personal (it is hard to separate home problems from work), or they may be down to frustrations at work. Either way, a brutally honest approach will be as effective as a pathetic one in many cases. However, it may be something to build up to.
So we worked on why the employee might have been behaving the way she was (she was under pressure at home and at work and concerned about doing her job well as she realised she was making mistakes). This needed a diplomatic response which honoured her work ethic but explored the reasons for the change. This set the tone for a more collaborative way of dealing with her frustrations and performance.
In summary, if you feel you tend to polarise between black and white thinking, ask yourself what impact this is having on the quality of your decisions, your stress levels and your relationships. Then ask yourself what are other ways of looking at the same situation. This gives you flexibility of response and potentially, much better outcomes.
If you would like to receive 1:1 coaching on getting your thinking working for you rather than against you, why not call for an initial chat to see if I can help you? I can be reached on 0845 130 0854.