A Coaching Power Tool Created by Wendy Leggett
(Business Coach, UNITED STATES)
Life isn’t black and white. It’s a million gray areas, don’t you find? -Ridley Scott
Maybe it’s a rush to decide, maybe it’s the competitive world we live in, maybe it’s a pattern we’ve developed unknowingly…whatever the reason, the outcome remains the same: we often fail to recognize possibilities exist beyond the either/or that we’re considering. Just the idea that we could or should look outside of choice A or B is, in itself, an important awareness and learning!
When we look beyond this or that, yes or no, good or bad, A or B, a world of opportunities, of thoughts, of creativity, of empowerment, of accountability, a world of “this is my conscious choice” opens up. Let’s explore the concept, the coaching application, personal considerations, and some reflections on the topic.
Either/Or is the tendency to simplify things…
People often fall into the trap of limiting themselves by limiting their choices. When faced with a decision, many of us stop at two options. These options may represent extremes e.g., the good or the bad/easy or the hard/quick or the slow, the known or the unknown, etc. They may be choices that come from an abundance vs scarcity mindset, a belief that we can’t or shouldn’t look beyond. We may have external impacts such as time constraints, or social, personal, or professional pressures that influence our behavior. Whatever the reason, if we don’t stop, reflect, and consciously determine that either/or is the option that best serves us instead of exploring what else is possible, we may missout on a world of opportunities and approaches. We allow ourselves the richness, layers, and depth that life may offer when we move from a black and white existence into one with shades and nuances of gray (note: either/or, black and white, all-or-none are used interchangeably throughout this paper).
As Professional Counselor Aldo R. Pucci, MA, DCBT states, “People unintentionally cheat themselves out of a great deal of happiness when they think in all-or-none-terms…It is viewing things as only one way or another. Most things in life have a middle ground, like a light connected to a dimmer switch. There are degrees to which the light is on….All-or-none thinking often interferes with setting goals and achieving them….Avoid making the all-or-none mistake by considering the possibility of a middle ground”.
Most of us engage in this either/or thinking from time to time. In fact, some experts think this pattern may have its origins in human survival – our fight or flight response. This primal thinking can be observed when we choose to compress complex information into simplistic categories for rapid decision making during times of stress, conflict, or threat. And there are definitely times when viewing things as black or white, either/or may be appropriate and even advantageous. Some examples of these scenarios include:
The choice is clearly only between A or B.
Time constraints impact the decision and are solidified by:
- ease in retaining the status quo
- lack of readily available or obvious viable options
- Schedule constraints arising due to meetings, prep time requirements, etc.
Both/And opens us up to a world of possibilities…
When time allows for the review and discussion of both the A and the B options, the best solution will often be found in some combination of the two, in other words, a C option. There is often wisdom and insight in the initial two options and by discerning how the best elements of each can result in option C, the outcome may very likely be superior to the standalone A or B.
Further, by opening up to consideration of additional alternatives, a totally new idea or solution may emerge (e.g. an option D), bringing forward an even better choice. The discussion in and of itself carries merit in that ultimately a higher quality decision will be made when a closer look is taken and a both/and approach is adopted.
This concept was underscored in the book “Built to Last”. Authors Collins and Porras researched and found those companies most successful in reinventing themselves and implementing deep change did not get into an either/or mentality. Collins/Porras described Industry Leaders with exemplary results who demonstrated a paradigm shift from either/or to both/and. These Visionaries illustrated an integration of formally presumed opposite axioms and proved them to be not only functionally possible but ultimately successful and highly profitable. As Collins and Porras put it, these Leaders rejected the “Tyranny of the OR” and, through this integration of solutions, embraced the “Genius of the AND”.
In these and numerous other cases, we see examples of both/and thinking generating options and new solutions. This approach fosters a sense of limitless possibility, opening the conversation to a world of opportunities and, ultimately, proven successes. It applies at the personal, professional, organizational, and societal levels. At its most basic, it allows the individual additional time and thought to explore, consider, and reflect. The result is one can feel more ownership of the conscious choice they ultimately make.
Sally hired Bob, part-time, as her administrative assistant. He was doing a great job. As the business grew and Sally’s Sales Department expanded, the need for social media supports increased. Sally had the approval to add another part-time person but she didn’t feel she had the time to go through the process of interviewing, hiring, training, and supervising another employee. Instead, she personally took on the Social Media role, getting more weighted down by the hours required to do the job. Whereas Sally had formerly loved her job and felt accomplished in the growth and success the team had achieved, she now felt burdened and was approaching burn-out. When discussing this in a Coaching Session and her either/or choice to hire another employee, the question was posed, “What else is possible”. This simple question challenged Sally to look beyond the new person-or-no-person scenario she had set in her mind. She opened herself up to other ways of looking at the problem. Through this positive approach, Sally determined that Bob could be an excellent possibility. During the discussion she recalled that Bob wanted full-time work and had an aptitude for technology and interest in learning; she felt confident he could quickly get up to speed on the role. Taking action, Sally contacted Bob, inquired about his interest and sure enough, he was excited about the opportunity. By looking at “Both/And” instead of “Either/Or” and coming from an Abundance vs Scarcity Mindset, Sally was able to uncover a solution that worked for everyone.
A clever Zen master teaches his students to reject black or white thinking and look beyond, with the following challenge. He places a cup of tea before a student and says “If you drink that cup of tea, I will beat you with a stick, and if you don’t drink that cup of tea I will beat you with a stick.” The student has to reject the either/or, recognize options other than the two presented, and create other alternatives, such as offering the tea to the instructor, or asking his advice, to avoid punishment.
When you hear your client using black-and-white thinking, ask questions that invite them to open their thinking and consider additional options. Of course, we still have to prioritize and make choices. The concept of both/and thinking is simply to open us up to more options and opportunities before immediately moving to making a choice between A or B or thinking there’s nothing to consider beyond that either/or. Once that exploration begins, it can often be a matter of combining two options; other times it can be another option that had not initially occurred to them. While your client might not ultimately choose an alternative, this allows them to explore possibilities, discover that something more or different is possible, and in the end to know that they are making a conscious choice. In this way, the quality, integrity, and ownership of their final decision may be elevated.
When supporting your Client and you sense they’re using an Either/Or approach to their problem, consider reflecting and asking “What else is possible”:
- I hear your choice is between staying and being unhappy, or resigning and worrying about your next job. I’m wondering, what else might be possible?
- Speaking with your Mom or avoiding her are the two options you’ve mentioned. What other options might be considerations?
- You’re deciding between taking a week’s vacation or none at all. You’ve discussed that you really need a break but can’t afford so much time away from work. What other choices might there be?
- You’ve shared that money management was an issue for you in the past. Now that you have a sum saved you stated you’ll either save it or waste it. What else could be true?
- When you find yourself with a decision and you’re considering only 2 possible solutions or answers, challenge yourself with the question, “am I engaging in “either/or thinking?”. If so, follow with the question, “how can I elevate my thinking to a “both/and level” or, more simply put: “What else is possible?”
- When faced with a situation where you’re only offered an either/or solution, consider using the phrase “I think of this somewhat differently…” This can provide a useful transition giving space for offering an alternative viewpoint and shifting the discussion in a more open, exploratory, possibilities-based direction.
Either/Or thinking can give us a measure of security. Having the answers readily available can provide comfort and/or satisfaction. In looking for a solution, reflect upon the motivation, and determine “what is the ultimate goal”?
Both/And thinking may ask more of us (labor-intensive) and give less to us (reduced cathartic experience) than Either/Or. However, the trade-off can be a far more accurate and constructive outcome versus a simple solution. What does this bring up when considering looking beyond either/or?
Listing options exercise: If you’re locked into an either/or solution, free-flow all the possibilities without critiquing your possible answers. Consider all alternatives, ideas, suggestions you can imagine. Evaluate the options then make the best choice.
Practice reality reminders: Write short fact-based statements such as: “There are several ways I can solve this problem” before choosing.
Consciously separate “What you do” from “Who you are”: This action can often allow us to step away from either/or thinking by detaching the feelings from the facts to allow us to consider additional possibilities.
Seek other perspectives. By asking other people for their ideas and opinions, we -broaden our view of the situation.
Allowing ourselves to venture into uncertainty is, paradoxically, a way to see more clearly: not in black and white or even gray, but in complex, dazzling rainbow– Reina Gattuso
As Coaches, we can support our clients by inviting them to look at a world of possibilities, and partner with them during their exploration toward their final, chosen goal.
Collins, James C., and Porras, Jerri I. Built to Last. New York: Harper Business, 1994 pp 43-44
“Beyond Either/Or Thinking” by Kevin Eikenberry, Kevin Eikenberry Group
Pucci, Aldo R. The Client’s Guide to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Nebraska: IUniverse, 2006 pp 49-51
“The Tyranny of Either/Or Thinking (And Moving to Both/And)” by Willy Steiner, Executive Coaching Concepts
“Stop Seeing Life in Black & White” by Dani Dipirvo, Positively Present
“How Black and White Thinking Hurts you (and What you Can Do to Change It)” by Rebecca Joy Stanborough, MFA, HealthlineJanuary 14, 2020
“5 Ways Black and White Thinking Poisons Your Perspective” by Reina Gattuso, TalkSpace On-Line Therapy July 31, 2018,
“Distortions” by Leland R Beaumont, Emotional Competency
When individuals make thinking in black and white a habit (also called dichotomous or polarized thinking by the America Psychological Association), this thought pattern is considered “…a cognitive distortion because it keeps one from seeing the world as it often is: complex, nuanced, and full of all the shades in-between”. Negative impacts may result including, harm to physical and/or mental health; sabotage of career; disruptions to relationships. For purposes of this power tool, we’ve focused on the client that demonstrates an either/or approach from time to time- a very typical approach. Conversely, for those that find themselves impaired by a pattern of black and white thinking, a therapist might be helpful.