Something New to Consider… Divergent and Convergent Thinking
Let’s think about the purpose of coaching more broadly and more holistically, by exploring the field of creative problem-solving. A coaching client does not always have a ‘problem’ to solve, the ‘problem’ may be that they don’t know what to do in a specific situation. The situation is not a problem, but they are struggling to find a way through it. In this situation, we could say that the coach helps a client to think creatively, and problem solve to enable self-directed change.
Cropley (2006) said “…creative thinking seems to involve 2 components: generation of novelty (via divergent thinking) and evaluation of the novelty (via convergent thinking). In the area of convergent thinking, knowledge is of particular importance: It is a source of ideas, suggests pathways to solutions, and provides criteria of effectiveness and novelty.” Let’s explore these two stages.
Stage 1: Divergent Thinking:
Divergent thinking creates multiple possibilities. It is about opening up the field, identifying options, possibilities and being creative, letting go of reality and rules. For example, the starting point for a coaching conversation is that a client states a broad aim that they want to be happier. Divergent thinking is about asking open questions so the coaching client can identify possibilities. These may start by being fairly obvious and conventional options, promoted by such questions as “what have you done in the past that has made you feel happy?” or “think of a time in your life when you were at your happiest, tell me about the circumstances around this?” However, the process of divergent thinking is not rushed. The process does not seek to jump onto the first suggestion as being the best and only option to implement. The divergent thinking process is considered, allowing space and time to identify the less obvious options. This will take time, but ultimately could identify an unusual and the best option. Cropley (1999) said “divergent thinking always generates variability.” This is about creating a longer list of options, and a more varied list, including less obvious possibilities. This comes by encouraging the client to be creative and free to think beyond current reality, to think beyond constraints. For example:
- “If you had all the resources necessary in terms of time and money, what would you do?”,
- “If you put reality aside, what else could you do?”
- “If you were free from all constraints, what would you do?”
- “If you didn’t worry about what others would think or say, what would you do?”
- “What timescale in the future would enable you to stop worrying about constraints and barriers?”
- “What options could be combined together to produce the long term result you are looking for?”
This process of divergent thinking is about generating ideas, freely. This is not about evaluating ideas. Encourage the client to identify unconventional ideas, without evaluation or self-editing. This may take some time, and so this does not need to be completed within one coaching session, the client may benefit from reflection time, or talking to family, friends and trusted advisors.
Stage 2: Convergent Thinking:
Once time has been given to create an extensive list of options, both conventional and unconventional, convergent thinking comes into play. “Convergent thinking is oriented toward deriving the single best (or correct) answer…” (Cropley 2006). Now is the time for evaluation, to explore the options, weighing up pros and cons, using information to prioritise. This may be information based on logic, but also intuitive ‘gut’ feelings, which should not be ignored as irrelevant, but explored to allow understanding. This prioritisation may identify the option which will give the quickest win, or the most effective in terms of long-term transformation. It is for the client to decide which is the option best for them, with the coach asking questions to probe for the pros and cons and to play devil’s advocate. The client is encouraged to think in an unorthodox way to identify novelty, but not to be reckless.
Through a process of unconventional divergent thinking, and then more orthodox convergent thinking, a coaching client can identify a way forward towards their desired state of being. Divergent thinking alone is just ‘flights of fancy’, however, combined with convergent thinking, produces a creative action plan not previously seem by the coaching client.
Cropley, A., (2006) In Praise of Convergent Thinking Arthur Cropley 2006 Creativity Research Journal. 2006, Vol. 18 Issue 3, p391-404. 14p.
Cropley, A. J. (1999). Creativity and cognition: Producing effective novelty. Roeper Review, 21, 253–260.