Noticing differently, the fine art of stretching the world
Updated: Nov 29
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What do free runners and entrepreneurs have in common? Answer: They excel at spotting and seizing opportunities in their environment. I may have spent too long working with IT enterprises but I generally don’t do back-flips off bins on the way to lunch, in fact the thought rarely occurs.
Similarly, we might ask what do rapidly transforming and highly agile organisations have in common? Or leaders successfully transitioning into new roles? Or people drawing on different sources of resilience? The answer is the same of course, they are adept at noticing what is useful to take them forward.
A key part of seizing an opportunity is spotting it in the first place. This trait of noticing more or differently can be developed, and that’s the subject of this post, the concept of stretching the world.
Stretching the what?
Introduced by Mark McKergow as part of his insightful work exploring Solution Focused Coaching (Mckergow 2020), stretching the world is the idea of developing the ability to notice new and useful possibilities, or simply a sense that possibilities exist and may become available. In my opinion a distinguishing feature is that change occurs not just during a single coaching session but has the potential to build and develop over time.
“I propose that the mechanism is that we are ‘stretching the world’ of the client in the conversation – so that when the client leaves the room, their world is already different from when they arrived.” - Mark McKergow
Consider the transitioning leader from our earlier question. They may be aware that their previous role is competing for their attention, whilst maintaining a strong belief that they need to be heavily involved to continue good results. They might wish they could partner more but see few options to do so. A coaching conversation could explore the topic and reveal different perspectives and ways of thinking, leading to an improved ability to notice opportunities to work with others. The crucial part is not the options generated, which of course will be valuable, but the new way of thinking (stretching) that led to them being generated.
The world here is synonymous with ‘world view’, and seeing differently. It is not a neat spherical globe which inflates and maintains its shape. Stretching is likely to occur in the direction being considered, more like teasing a shape from dough, or an octopus unfurling to explore its surroundings. Normally the thinker is very capable in that area, and would like to be even better. The entrepreneurs, free runners and leaders from our earlier example didn’t always see so many opportunities, they trained, practised and occasionally fell over. They paid attention to coaches and mentors. They observed what others did, and crucially didn’t do, slowly stretching in their chosen area to recognise more possibilities, interactions and options.
A handy example of stretching the world can be found in positive psychology. The three gratitudes exercise involves daily identification and appreciation of three things. To start with, and especially during team coaching, inviting people to describe what they are grateful for can be a tad awkward or clumsy, in this new thinking territory some struggle to find anything, and then again to articulate their thoughts. After a few sessions the prompt is met with quicker more natural responses, it has become a little easier to think this way. The interesting part is that even after facilitated sessions have stopped the propensity for gratitude remains increased (Killen 2017). The world has stretched a little.
A competent coach guides and facilitates this process, which is of course remarkably similar to stretching after physical exercise. The similarities continue, hard work makes us feel like we’ve tightened or shortened a muscle, essentially specialising it for one activity, for instance looking for problems and things that are ‘wrong’. We consciously stretch out to maintain the full range of motion, improve long term strength and flexibility. The word stretch is so fitting because it implies deliberate effort, a temporary change and the prospect of returning to an original state, being under-stretched, over stretched or squeezed.
This is the long game of coaching, an often overlooked benefit of multiple coaching sessions. Each individual conversation helps with a topic, but the value is more than the accumulation of topic one, topic two and so forth. The benefit of coaching programs is found in the new ways of thinking which emerge across multiple sessions and can be employed in new situations, almost as if the coaching session is practice or training for subsequent thinking.
The process of stretching the world is not overt. There is generally another aspiration and in order to pursue it stretching occurs. From a coach’s point of view it seems more about facilitating a conversation where stretching is likely to occur (in whatever direction the thinker wishes) than pursuing it as a goal. Indeed, the area may not be known to the coach. In my view the benefits of stretching are more likely to occur if topics are approached in a similar style each time, the idea being that familiarity and safety could lead to greater exploration and attention to technique.
Squeezing the world
I’d suggest that if stretching the world is possible then so too is squeezing it, reducing options and possibilities. Limiting beliefs may be a close relative, especially when inherited from others, or the organisation worked in. A limiting belief may be strong but isn’t necessarily changing, stretching the world has a more dynamic nature as does squeezing the world. Repeatedly pointing out limits, failures and inflicting help may reduce the sense of possibility and options.
Squeezing and stretching may only occur if paid attention to and believed at some level. There’s a useful example in the book Born To Run. Jenn Shelton is tackling one of her first 100 mile races. She reaches a checkpoint hours ahead of time, along the way spectators and even marshals tell her to slow down, she cannot possibly sustain this pace for another fifty miles. Jenn didn’t heed this well meaning advice, it didn’t squeeze her view and she finished with a course record that stood for years. This also illustrates another method of stretching the world; by showing others what is possible.
In relation to habit formation
It is interesting to consider the relationship between stretching the world and habit formation, and whether stretching is simply 'formation of useful thinking habits'. There are similarities, such as giving deliberate attention to an area and the influence of practice and repetition. Part of the aim is to habituate useful ways of thinking and viewing the world, and to make them more likely to happen, easier or better when called upon. I often see world stretching activities on habit builders, including a range of gratitude exercises.
However not all habits stretch the world. Habits are generally thought of as frequent, are often specific and end-goal based, while stretching the world is continuous and broadly applicable. I’ve cleaned my teeth twice a day for decades, this doesn’t increase or find use in other aspects of my life. I don’t jump at new and exciting opportunities for a swift brush.
Stretching the world is a useful metaphor to describe the changing of world view in small steps over time, particularly with regard to noticing opportunities and options. It is important to note that stretching the world doesn’t seek to fix, remove or replace anything, it simply adds to or enhances useful ways of thinking.
The term implies some effort to stretch into new areas and the value of repetition and practice to become comfortable in new, potentially unfamiliar, positions. It speaks particularly to the benefit of multiple coaching sessions with similar approaches, to develop and embed new ways of thinking.
Going beyond a single session topic or focused performance goal stretching the world may lead to traits (or mindsets if you prefer) which are beneficial in different situations.
This post has focused on noticing and the general concept of stretching the world. The source material from Mark McKergow goes into more depth, with an emphasis on interaction and the fascinating notions of Umwelt (signs of potential interaction used by a given organism) and affordances (opportunities for interactions and how they might be categorised) (Gibson 1979) (de Hann 2013). Don't be deterred by the fancy words, it's well researched and highly readable.
During the nineties there was a craze for Magic Eye pictures, at first glance these look like a colourful repeating pattern, but after some practice, and a considerable amount of squinting, an entirely new scene is revealed to the viewer. The picture is unchanged, but the person who takes time to stretch their world has the potential to access something new and rather magical.
Reading and References
Gibson James J (1979) The Theory of Affordances. Theory of Affordances.
de Haan, S., Rietveld, E., Stokhof, M., & Denys, D. (2013). The phenomenology of deep brain stimulation-induced changes in OCD: An enactive affordance-based model. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 653.
Killen, A., & Macaskill, A. (2015). Using a gratitude intervention to enhance well-being in older adults. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16, 947-964.
Mckergow, Mark. (2020). Stretching the world. 10.4324/9780429026454-7.