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Jane McGonigal & Counterfactual Thinking

“Boost your creativity and imagine the future through writing ”

“Use writing to predict the past and remember the future”

Also s
ee Jack Gibb's supportive vs. threatening communication behaviors.


Seminars & email courses

Boost your creativity and imagine the future through writing

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Are you feeling restrained by the past and fearful of the future? Do you doubt your resilience and your ability to make a difference?


If so, don’t despair.


Here’s a “what if” writing exercise based on futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal’s “XYZ format” that will help you change the world, or at least your little corner of it. It involves “counterfactual thinking.”


When you think counterfactually, as McGonigal explains in her July 2, 2016, Aspen Ideas Festival lecture, you unlock your brain to “predict” a past that never was and to “remember” a future that hasn’t happened.


The idea is to reimagine your past by asking “what if” questions. (What if I had taken that job? What if I had moved to Siberia and joined a nudist colony?) According to McGonigal, doing this exercise activates your imagination, intuition, and logic. It also increases your sense of control, which makes you feel more confident about shaping the future and understanding your place in it. It may even make you less afraid of it.


Other benefits to this “incredibly practical skill” include a decrease in depression, a sense of liberation from the past, a “burst of creativity,” and a heightened belief in the possibility of transformational change.


Sound too good to be true? Let’s give it a try with a writing exercise, based on McGonigal’s “triangle of what if.”


Taking X as an activity or event in your life, Y as a person, and Z as a place, reimagine your past counterfactually. For example, you might think of a conflict at home or at work. Maybe a team member spoke against your proposal on a conference call last week in a way that felt like a personal attack.


In describing the event, the person, and the place, include as much vivid detail as you can recall, asking what-if questions to alter the situation to your liking. Feel free to make up details as long as they’re personal. Invoking your “autobiographical memory” is important, McGonigal emphasizes, because it unleashes your unique talents and insights as you envision your desired outcome.


Now comes the most intriguing aspect of McGonigal’s concept of counterfactual thinking for me. Over the years I’ve written a number of columns on Rogerian persuasion, a non-oppositional, win-win approach to argumentation I teach in my communication course for the University of Minnesota’s Technological Leadership Institute. (Google “Stephen Wilbers Rogerian.”) The underlying principle of Rogerian persuasion is empathy, which involves understanding and affirming your opponent’s point of view before countering or rebutting it.


McGonigal takes the concept of empathy one step further by differentiating between “easy empathy,” based on common experience, and “hard empathy,” based on understanding experiences and thoughts that differ from your own. Hard empathy “isn’t necessarily something we feel,” McGonigal explains, “but something we actually construct.”


So for part two of your writing exercise, reimagine your XYZ scenario from your opponent’s point of view. What insights does this shift give you about the possibilities for the future?


To listen to McGonigal’s Aspen Ideas lecture, google “MPR McGonigal.” And just for the record, joining a nudist colony in Siberia was my idea, not McGonigal’s.



Seminars & email courses

Use writing to predict the past and remember the future

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Did you know you have the power to transform your workplace into a healthier environment? It’s right there at your fingertips. It’s called the power of writing.


Here’s an exercise you can do to unleash that power. Based on the thinking of futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, it involves asking what-if questions, thinking “counterfactually,” and “predicting the past and remembering the future.”


Think of someone in your workplace – or in your family, neighborhood, or social network – who bullies everyone around him. (I’ll use the masculine pronoun, but feel free to substitute the feminine.) Not only does this person mistreat people, but he also undervalues their contributions, exaggerates or misrepresents his own achievements, and creates an environment of insecurity in which individuals or groups feel pitted against one another.


Can you imagine an environment like the one I’m describing?


Now think of a time when that person attacked you. What did he say or do that threatened or humiliated you? How did you respond? What did you do or say? What were your precise words?


Now reimagine the encounter counterfactually. Do this in two steps: first in your mind, then in writing. Do both steps from two points of view: first your attacker’s, then yours. For both steps (and points of view), include as much personal detail as you can think of. It’s important to invoke your “autobiographical memory,” according to McGonigal, because doing so draws on your unique talents and insights. It helps you imagine how the world could be different. It helps you believe in the possibility of transformative change. And it helps you believe you can control, or at least shape, your destiny.


Next imagine your tormentor’s motivations, thoughts, and life experiences. You’ve always thought of him as a fundamentally insecure person who has learned that bluster is a way of getting his way. For him, intimidation, as well as playing loose with the facts, is an intentional strategy.


But rather than think of him as a person devoid of values, imagine his childhood, his upbringing, and the circumstances that have shaped him and made him who he is today. Rather than portray him negatively, portray him sympathetically (first in your mind, then in writing). Try to understand his point of view. Look for some way to connect with him without sacrificing your own values or self-interests. Next imagine him doing or saying something that makes you feel good about yourself.


Now reimagine your encounter with him by asking what-if questions. What if you had said this instead of that? What if you had “flipped the script” with an unexpected or noncomplementary response? Imagine a more satisfactory outcome than the one that occurred.


According to McGonigal, invoking your “counterfactual memory” in this way arouses your imagination, intuition, and logic. It also results in “a burst of creativity.” When you “remember a future that hasn’t actually happened,” she believes, then that remembered future seems more likely and achievable.


Thinking and writing counterfactually can do more than give you some peace of mind. It can also help you take control.




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