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Dealing with “Black and White”, all or nothing, thinking – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, contributing writer on business leadership

“The problem with all-or-nothing thinking is that it stops people even taking the first steps” – Author: Michael Greger

All or nothing, black or white, and nothing in between. How to work with leaders and co-workers who operate with such simple thinking? Most of us know there are gradients of thought in life, but we still encounter those whose minds are shut to creativity and just don’t understand nuance. Yes, these are the people who won’t step on sidewalk cracks or cross under a ladder and are deathly afraid of seven years of bad luck if they happen to break a mirror. If it sounds silly to you, it’s about as logical as black and white thinking, where everything is either all good or all bad…

When dealing with those who cling to dichotomous thinking, it can help to ask our stubborn colleagues to focus on their understanding of the amazing human ability to do two things at once – that is to bring together both positive and negative perceptions of themselves, other people, or situations into a realistic, wholistic view. One of the key hallmarks of black and white thinking is the use of a limited vocabulary of “catastrophizing” words such as: Always, Never, Impossible, Ruined, Failure, Perfect, Should, Ought to, Disaster.

As a coach, my response to these words is usually a question repeating the word. When the client says, “Nothing ever goes right in this company?” The coach’s answer is “NOTHING ever goes right, ever?” This way, the client must dig in and reflect on his word choice as an exaggeration and non-sensical. The more the coach can subtly challenge this thinking, the more self-examination the client is forced to do into their erroneous logic.

Another flawed part of “all or nothing” thinking is that the person often believes things are all good or all bad. Usually, the “all good” part has to do with themselves, and the “all bad” part has to do with everyone else. For example, if an employee doesn’t perform an activity exactly as the boss wants it, the boss may consider the employee incapable and avoid giving him or her “noble” work because the boss believes the employee is “all bad” and “can never do anything right”. Obviously, this treatment is demoralizing and demotivating, and can lead to some trouble for the boss, if a highly paid employee spends their time conducting menial tasks, such as entering customer names into a spreadsheet, instead of the sophisticated work they were hired to do.

The opposite also happens. If the “black and white” thinker loves their job and a new co-worker comes on the scene that they don’t like, the “black and white” thinker could decide that the job is now all bad and may decide to quit or try to get the new employee fired. Again, the person needs clarity on what the reality is by being asked questions, such as “When did you perform every task perfectly, and never made a mistake?” or “What was your reaction to an error you made?” “Who is the perfect person in your mind?” “What makes that person perfect?” The solution is to allow the individual to see possibilities and to realize that no one is all good or all bad and the world operates in a gray zone. Through these powerful questions, the black and white thinker eventually begins to understand and think in the language of “grayness”.

Research has shown that practicing mindfulness through awareness and learning is the most effective cure for black and white thinking. This situation is the place where I suggest relaxing outdoor activities, relaxation techniques and probe into the person’s habits of sleep, nutrition, exercise, and social interactions. The important point is to challenge the black and white thinker by helping them to realize and embrace empathy and perspective, two qualities often lacking in black and white thinkers.

It’s a coach’s job to show the dichotomous thinker that they can put aside their fears of being flexible, and move them toward a more balanced, mindful approach. Their environment can become more peaceful, they can experience less anxiety and the workplace will be less fearful for them and everyone else around them. They can actually enjoy coming to work and allow differences to be put aside and experience less stress. What if they could imagine a world with less anxiety and conflict on the job? What would that be like for them and everyone else? Maybe not exactly paradise, but close enough to reduce the daily hassles.

“To think too much is a disease.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

Get Mary’s New Book: The Leader You Don’t Want to Be: Transform Your Leadership Style from Command and Control to Transformational Visionary