This was a question that came to me via a comment (thanks Linda). Without context I could only answer in general terms, but I responded because it struck a chord with me. There are many reasons we might try to get another person to think outside the box, mostly well-intentioned. From my perspective, it happens when we think another person has potential they are not seeing for themselves, or when we want to think more creatively. It’s a can of worms, to be sure. I can’t deal with the whole can, so I’ve tackled a few of the worms. See what you think.

Most of my work for the last 20 years has been about, broadly speaking, handling difficulties in relationships. A lot of that time has been spent delivering workshops and lectures, which always include the essential Q & A sessions. These are often the most useful part of the day for it gives me insight into the needs of the people in the room. Feedback from many thousands of attendees has shown that they value it too.

It has taken me a long time to understand that, although my work as a therapist is usually about change, if I try to force the process, and sensible person will probably resist. Even when it is ‘good advice’, we all tend to come to it in our own way, and in our own time.

Use questions creatively

I’m not saying this to blow my own trumpet, I mention it for two reasons: the sample is a big one, and over the years I have noticed that ‘think outside the box’ means different things to different people. There may be common agreement that the expression means ‘to think in an original and/or creative way’, but then, what does ‘original and creative’ mean?

The opening question – or some version of it – has cropped up a lot. That is, the question as I understand it, which means I’m making some assumptions. I’ll rephrase it with some of the different slants I have heard:

Q) “How can I encourage others to think more imaginatively/creatively?”

A) “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” probably applies to all these questions, so does the old saw about it being “better to make them thirsty”. My belief is that ‘thinking outside the box’ is impossible if the ‘box’ is defined by the mind you have. You can get a group of people, collectively, to do it though. That’s the idea of what used to be called ‘brainstorming’; cross-fertilisation can happen when minds come into contact with each other.

Q) “How can I get someone else to see (and buy into) some of the possibilities that I see?”

A) Maybe they will, given time. Or maybe they won’t. Also, this question suggests that the person asking it has closed their mind to the possibility that they themselves could ‘think outside the box’, by accepting that the other person may already be doing it (whose box is it anyway?)

Q) “How can I persuade someone else to agree with me when at present they are opposing me?”

A) If you think about it in those terms, probably best not to try.

Q) “How can I persuade someone (often asked in relation to children or a dependant who lacks confidence), to see the possibilities that are out there?”

A) I know, as anyone with kids does, that they won’t take advice until they are into their forties. Some of them never will. I suppose that one of life’s major trials is to be the only one who appreciates the brilliance of one’s own insights and wisdom.

Q) “How can I get them to change their mind in a way that I think would be better for them?”

A) You shouldn’t try.

Seeing Potential

It took me a long time to learn to let others live their lives in the way of their choosing, without getting upset when they wouldn’t see it my way. Equally, as a trainer and teacher (and parent), I’ve often been frustrated when I could see potential in someone else that they couldn’t see in themselves. As for getting someone to ‘think outside the box’, that’s a whole different question, starting with, “Is it even possible?” (to think outside the box, I mean).

This sort of thinking may be well-intentioned, but it is also irritating and stressful. It’s a blessed release when you can let it go, I have found.

I may have misunderstood the original question altogether, but I have answered it as I heard it. If I was any good at thinking outside the box, I might have done a better job.