When we need to get out of our own way, there’s a simple yet powerful exercise we can use to help. It doesn’t take much practice — just commitment for a few minutes. Here’s one of my favorite conflict resolution activities for changing emotional state and tricking my mind into being more helpful in the heat of the conflict moment.
I glanced at the digital clock on my car’s dashboard. It was three minutes later than the last time I’d glanced. And my car hadn’t moved one inch. My fingers tightened on the steering wheel. I opened the window to lean out and try to see around the cars ahead of me.
What the hell was holding us up?
I was on the Mass Pike and on my way to a client. I’d left my hotel with plenty of time to spare because, well, I knew I’d get stuck somewhere on the Mass Pike. Now that buffer time was tick, tick, ticking away.
As I worried if I’d left sufficient extra time, I could feel my irritation and tension growing. Great. Heading to a client and probably walking in the door irritated. Ugh.
But it didn’t have to be that way. I was stuck in the car anyway, with nothing particular to do, so I decided to play the As If game with myself. If, instead of being an irritated, anxious driver right now, I could act as if I were a relaxed, happy driver, what would I do?
I’d sit back in my seat, of course, instead of hunched forward gripping the steering wheel. I’d change the radio to a rock station and tap my fingers on the wheel to the beat of the music. I’d sigh, and smile, and say a little lovingly under my breath, “Oh, you Mass Pike…don’t you ever change?” I’d sing along with the radio and look up at the gloriously sunny sky.
So, I did those things. And within one minute I had changed my mood. Seriously…it was like a curtain had opened and let the sunshine in. It was that obvious a shift.
This is the gift of the As If exercise. It’s a gift we can give ourselves. And it’s a gift we can share with others — our loved ones, our employees, our mediation and coaching clients.
The research…and the improv
I first learned As If after being cast in an improvisational theater gig in college. It’s an old standby in improv because it helps us break free from the limits and self-consciousness imposed by our egos. (Aside: There’s a great mention of As If by The Office‘s Rainn Wilson in this fab Tim Ferriss interview.)
And As If is one of those ideas that spans both art and science. From decades of research into embodied cognition, to the Mindball Game at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (as well as other places all over the world), to research conducted in my own town of Peterborough, New Hampshire and the subject of a mind-blowing book by psychologist Ellen Langer (I recommend the audio edition, which I listened to last fall while driving home from that same fateful Mass Pike moment), we are learning that how we think and feel is not a one-way street from our minds to our bodies. Our bodies and how we use them influence how we think and feel.
As If “instructions”
Conflict resolution’s version of As If is simple enough you don’t really need instructions. Just remember two things:
- “As if” can apply to a state of mind you want (“as if I am very brave right now”), a set of conditions (“as if I had just two minutes to decide”), a place (“as if I am languidly swinging in a hammock right now”), or even a person or character (“as if I am Superman”).
- As If is not just a mental exercise. To get its benefit, you must act on it — physically do the thing(s) the state of mind, place, conditions, or character would call up on you to do.
How I use it
With myself: I love As If for changing my mood if I’m in a funk and for helping me change a behavior I’m not liking in myself at a given moment. I use it for…
- Courage: If I’m about to mediate a particularly nerve-wracking case or speak to a tough crowd, I may feel nervous before walking in. So I’ll use a power pose as if I am confident and brave — shoulders back, chin up, relaxed hands (I’ll even shake them out a bit), powerful stride, winning smile.
- Handling disagreeable news: If I get an unpleasant email and want to resist my immediate desire to dash off an equally disagreeable reply, I’ll tense my muscles briefly to increase my willpower, as if I am resisting a rubber band’s pull on me.
- Calming down: I’m quick to burn but also very quick to cool off. One way I make this possible for myself is by doing exactly the kind of thing I described in my Mass Pike story above.
- Making myself more agreeable: I come from stubborn Scottish and German stock. Sometimes I realize I’m being disagreeable and need to stop myself. To get myself out of that unhelpful state, I’ll nod my head while the other person is speaking, as if I am a believer (this can also have a persuasive effect on the other person).
With coaching clients: I love teaching As If to coaching clients. I describe the exercise, its research and improv roots, and the basic key instructions. Together we brainstorm the kinds of As If moods or characters that would be most helpful for whatever behavior they want to change or enhance, and we’ll identify some options to experiment with and check in on together next time we talk. Sometimes the impact is immediate and profound. Sometimes we need to tweak and try again.
With mediation clients: Used well, As If can be a powerful tool for helping my clients self-regulate in difficult moments and for helping them engage the conversation differently.
To use it with my mediation clients, I need to have established good trust with them beforehand. As If can sound like a weird game and if they don’t already have some trust in me, I’m likely to come off more as a loon than a wise guide. I’m also very aware that having someone try out As If out of the blue may make them feel vulnerable, so I introduce the idea privately and individually. Timing and readiness matters, too.
As with coaching clients, if I think As If may be helpful, I’ll briefly describe the exercise and the research supporting it, then ask if they want to try it. If they’re interested, I’ll then get them started (depending on the specific circumstances) with something like:
- Who’s the calmest person you know? Ok, if you were to respond as if you were her, what would you say or do?
- Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re not her supervisor and don’t have that kind of power over her. How would you talk to her as if she is a colleague you must persuade instead of order?
- You’ve said several times to me that you are a very reasonable person when you’re not angry. Show me with your body language and tone of voice what you look and sound like when you’re feeling reasonable.
Reader Rivka Gishur, a mediator in Israel, wrote me with her own “as if” story. She’s given me permission to share it with you…it’s a good one!
My favorite variation of “as if” is “as if it was a few minutes/hours/days (depending on the situation) later.” Here’s one of my favorite examples:
I was working in the kitchen one summer afternoon when I heard an odd sound from the hallway. I walked through the kitchen door and saw approaching tidewaters…my 4 year old daughter had put the oscillating lawn sprinkler (this story goes back quite a few years…) on the front porch and only the screen door was closed.
I caught myself in time and asked myself: “What will I think and feel about this scenario in an hour?” It was pretty clear I’d be on the phone telling the story to a friend and having a good laugh. The flood would have to be mopped up either way, so why not save the aggravation stage and start enjoying the humor right away?
It worked…to my daughter’s benefit as well as mine. Now she has her own kids who make amusing messes (-;