Use This Powerful Thought Technique and Watch Your Team Succeed
Expansive thinking is simple in concept but a powerful tool for transformation when applied thoughtfully.
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My client stared at me through Zoom, his eyes ever curious to hear me answer the question he saw someone pose to me on Instagram. "So, what do you believe?" he asked.
Earlier that day, I posted a reel about polarizing thinking. It proposed followers ask themselves whether their thinking creates "solidarity" or "suffering." The premise of the reel was that conspiracy theories align us to "one side or the other" and create polarity, duality, extremes and ultimately, suffering — and this keeps us stuck in a loop of right or wrong, black or white and this or that. It asked my followers to think about ways they might be stuck in dualistic thinking.
A follower challenged me: "Are you saying we should not question what we are being told/an unpalatable status quo/corruption/ingrained prejudices?" she asked.
This got me thinking. And my response came quickly: Absolutely not. I am offering up something I call "Expansive Thinking." It is simple in concept but a powerful tool for transformation when applied thoughtfully.
Expansive thinking encourages us to be more creative
Polarity-driven thinking keeps us stuck. In a single day, we are asked to lean into judgment that requires a "this or that" choice — a black or white answer. As executive leaders, we are asked to make quick decisions often presented in "this or that" terms. Our country has been forced to reckon with "one side or the other" for almost a decade now, and it is quite literally taking us down!
Black-and-white thinking is safe. It drives towards a clear and absolute answer. A finite "right way" and "wrong way." It supposes there is a truth, a best way to do things - and it is one of two choices. Is she a high performer or a low performer? Is the data good or bad? Am I influential at my company or not? Is this feature going to help us win or lose ground?
I am not suggesting all conversations are boiled down to simplistic choices. However, even as we hammer out various solutions, we can look to see where we are getting stuck in our own loops. Loops that block creation energy, innovative thinking and unity.
A useful tool for activating expansive thinking
This brings me to one of my favorite coaching tools: Stephen B. Karpman's Drama Triangle and David Emerald's evolution into The Empowerment Dynamic. The Drama Triangle changed my life when I underwent executive leadership training several years ago. The simple theory of the Drama Triangle is each of us plays two of three archetypes that provoke conflict, problems and anxiety. And that if we can pivot out of our conditioned archetypes and into more passion-based and outcome-focused archetypes, we create more positive, creative and empowered team environments.
The lower half of the Drama Triangle takes on polarity and dualistic thinking.
"I am the good, smart one, and everyone else here is at fault." – The Persecutor.
"I never get the resources I need and other always get what they want." – The Victim.
"If I don't help them, it won't get done right." – The Rescuer.
But what happens if we let go of duality and move to expansion? When we shift our minds from the locks of "this or that," expansive thinking can emerge. We become The Coach, asking probing and smart questions to move an employee or a team member out of a stuck place and into possibility. We enact The Challenger, poignantly posing thoughtful and challenging problems for a solution beyond contracted thinking. We are The Creator going beyond the restrictions and into a "blue ocean mindset" that can allow more ideas to generate.
Related: 5 Signs You've Hired a 'Victim'
Two quick case studies
One of my clients, a CEO for a skyrocketing series B startup, was struggling with a profound question. "Is being compassionate or being kind at odds with building a successful, acceleratory-driven business — can you be aware of others' experience while pushing and running a company?"
This CEO is highly balanced; he is both fierce and thoughtful. As financial markets have constricted and some element of fear has struck most thoughtful CEOs, he feels stuck between "compassion" and "driven." Or kind versus, well, a traditional archetype of CEO mainly based on historically more masculine archetypes.
We applied expansive thinking to rise above the polarity. "What if you can be both?" I asked. "And what if being fierce or driven and driving your teams is a compassionate act of survival, thriving or sustainability? What would that look like to drive and push with heart?"
Our ideas of what compassion looks like can also be held in polarity. So, we expanded on "compassion." We found ourselves in a very productive conversation about how his leadership style could include consideration of others and growth. A CEO can drive and push hard while being full-hearted and kind. Compassion and kindness do not have to mean "soft" or "slow."
In essence, this client was shifting from The Persecutor to the Challenger. He then employed Expansive Thinking to drive what compassion could sound like from the new position of the Challenger.
In another scenario, my client runs People Operations and was challenged by employees pushing hard on Diversity and Inclusion, often pointing to other employees in ways that felt "blaming and shaming." She was concerned the company culture was beginning to fray as people started to point fingers in unhelpful patterns.
"What if our 2023 culture goals included empathy both ways?" she asked.
"What if we rise out of blaming, shaming and canceling and into creative ways of resolution?" I inquired. What if the cultural goals include expansive thinking? And we are now experimenting with integrating broad thinking into her 2023 culture strategy to move people out of blame and shame and into creation and solutions.
This client could have stayed in The Victim, perhaps blaming herself, but instead employed expansive thinking to become The Creator and found new ways to think about her problem and a higher-order solution.
Three tips for driving expansive thinking into your teams
1. Notice when you're stuck
Teams that spin or stay stuck in the problem are likely caught in polarity — black-and-white thinking. This can be a defining moment to ask teams to zoom out and look at the problem from a more expansive space. Ask probing questions: are we stuck because we are staying in position? Can we let go of our positions and expand to see what might happen when we let go?
2. Triggers often come from polarity
If you or a teammate is often triggered, that can signify dualistic or black-and-white thinking. Encourage them to let go of their "fixed" mindset and ask what archetype they might be playing in the drama triangle. Can they expand up to passionate and solution-driving thinking — or expansion?
3. Use mindfulness
We often see patterns when we pay attention to "how" we think versus simply acting out the thoughts themselves. These patterns can "hook" us into fixed ways of thinking. When we watch for our patterns — or patterns within our teams — we can often see that we are only in a "trance" state and not rising out of that habitual state of thinking to find a new solution. Simply noticing can be enough! This is the true power of mindfulness to help push creativity and innovation into your organization.
So, to my Instagram follower with the great question and to my client longing for my answer: absolutely buck the status quo! Ask hard questions! And fight our limitations, biases and prejudices! Do it with expansive thinking to guide your way and move out of the contraction most of us live with daily. Try it on life's smaller challenges, with your kids, with your self-analysis and yes, try it with your teams. Get out of the safety of black and white and into the possibilities lying in the expanse.