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The Power of Negative Visualization: Minimize Fear and Anticipatory Anxiety

The Power of Negative Visualization: Minimize Fear and Anticipatory Anxiety

In the back of my mouth are two lonely wisdom teeth patiently awaiting their long overdue eviction notice. They need to be pulled. Two of my four wisdom teeth were extracted three years ago and a week later I was supposed to make an appointment for the remaining pair to be pulled. Instead, because my first experience in the torture chamber, ahem, back room of the dental office, I avoided it. For the last three years, I’ve successfully dodged a myriad of follow-up phone calls from the dentist and well-meaning reminders from my wife.

I won’t go into the details but the procedure didn’t go smoothly. It was painful and a little terrifying.

I am now one of the 10-15% of people that are scared enough of the dentist that they avoid ever going. (Different from the 75% of people that experience anxiety but still go). But I know I’ll eventually have to overcome the fear and make the appointment.

This got me thinking about fear, anxiety, and emotional suffering caused by the anticipation of future events and how we can overcome it. The Stoic Philosophers practiced something called Negative Visualization. This is the practice of imagining undesired events, such as the death of a loved one, so that when the event inevitably occurs you are emotionally prepared to deal with it. It’s dark stuff to think about, there’s no denying that, but it could be helpful, especially to someone with a terminally ill loved one whose death in the near-future is expected.

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In addition to helping someone deal with a future event such as death, it also helps them better appreciate the time spent with loved ones. In William Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy he describes this idea by comparing two fathers – one who uses negative visualization and one who does not:

“To see how imagining the death of a child can make us appreciate her, consider two fathers. The first takes [this] advice to heart and periodically reflects on his child’s mortality. The second refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. He instead assumes that his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The first father will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second. When he sees his daughter first thing in the morning, he will be glad that she is still a part of his life, and during the day he will take full advantage of opportunities to interact with her. The second father, in contrast, will be unlikely to experience a rush of delight on encountering his child in the morning. Indeed, he might not even look up from the newspaper to acknowledge her presence in the room.”

In this way, negative visualization is a powerful tool for helping someone appreciate anything they value in their life. Simply imagine losing something important to you or being forced to live without it. A greater appreciation will naturally follow.

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Negative visualization is also used in business. There it is known as a pre-mortem and is enacted as a strategy at the beginning of a new project to dissect imagined scenarios where that project has failed to determine what could potentially lead to that failure.

Adjusting the Strategy: Using Negative Visualization to Overcome Fear and Anticipatory Anxiety

With a little tweaking one could also apply the idea of negative visualization to overcome the fear of an upcoming event, such as my inevitable tooth extractions. Overcoming fear and anxiety is different than overcoming grief and sadness, thus it requires a slightly different approach. Instead of simply visualizing the event that one fears, they would visualize something much worse.

If I imagine something far worse than getting my teeth pulled, such as James Franco cutting his own arm off with a pocket knife, like he does in the movie 127 Hours, then my procedure, complete with numbing medication and proper dental tools, doesn’t seem so bad.

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This helps turn my focus away from the fear of a negative outcome and onto hope for a positive one. It helps me focus on the obvious benefits of my situation over James Franco’s character’s situation in the movie.

At the dentist, I will be either sedated or numbed so there should be no pain. The dentist will be using the proper tools to remove my teeth so It won’t be a miserable marathon of agonizing pain like it would be when cutting your own arm off with a pocket knife. (I’m going to squeeze that visual into this article as often as I can!).

This technique of downplaying an event by imagining something far worse is used in other situations with different objectives. For example, my dad would often “sugar-coat” things rather than tell me the bad news upfront.

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As a teenager, before I had a driver’s license, I would have to call him to come pick me up from work. Even when he knew he wouldn’t be able to leave the house for 30-45 minutes, he would tell me he’d be there in 10-15 minutes. While this particular scenario still ended in me being frustrated when he didn’t show when I expected him (and I don’t agree with its usage), he still eliminated the frustration it would have caused me to hear upfront that I would have to wait for him.

Salespeople use this technique too – they call it softening the blow – when they have to tell a client the cost of their service.  If the actual cost of said service is $500, they might joke with a customer and say it’s going to be $1500.  When the client’s jaw drops, the salesperson says, “Ha ha, just kidding, it’s only $500.” The visualization of a far-worse scenario softens the blow of the real thing. Cha-ching – sale made.

The Stoics may have been the first to put negative visualization into regular practice, but similar methods have been applied by everyone from psychologists to my dad. It’s widely used and seldom recognized but it’s effective and it can help to both avoid suffering and amplify enjoyment and gratitude. Simply put, it’s a tool to help us manage our emotions.

Consider visualizing James Franco cutting his arm off with a pocket knife. Then go make a dentist appointment.

Featured photo credit: Frank MckEnna via unsplash.com

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Chris Egan

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Published on July 29, 2020

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

Have you been thinking of how you can be a more strategic leader during these uncertain times? Has the pandemic thrown a wrench at all your carefully laid out plans and initiatives?

You’re not alone. The truth is, we all want some stability in our careers and teams during this disruptive pandemic.

However, this now requires a bit more effort than before and making the leap from merely surviving to thriving means buckling down to some serious strategic thinking and maintaining a determined mindset.

Is There a Way to Thrive Despite These Disruptions?

Essentially – yes, although you need to be willing to put in the work. Every leader wants to develop strategic thinking skills so that they can enhance overall team performance and boost their company’s success, but what exactly does it mean to be strategic in the context of the times we live in?

If you happen to be in a leadership position in your organization right now, you are most probably navigating precarious waters given the disruptions caused by the pandemic. There’s a lot more pressure than before because your actions and decisions will have a much greater impact these days not just on you, but also to the people who are part of your team.

Companies often bring me in to coach executives on strategic thinking and planning. And while pre-pandemic I would usually start by highlighting the advantages of strategic thinking, nowadays, I always begin these Zoom coaching sessions by driving home the point that this pandemic has now made strategic thinking not just an option but an absolute must.

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Assessing and making plans through the lens of a good strategy might require significant work at first. Nevertheless, you can take comfort in the fact that the rewards will far outweigh the effort, as you’ll soon see after following the 8 strategic steps I have outlined below.

8 Steps to Strategic Thinking

As events unfold during these strange times, you’re bound to feel wrong-footed every now and then. Being a leader during this pandemic means preparing for more change not just for you, but for your whole team as well.

As states and cities go through a cycle of lockdowns and reopening, employees will experience the full gamut of human emotions in dizzying speed, and you will often be called on to provide insight and stability to your team and workplace.

Strategic thinking is all about anticipation and preparation. Rather than expending your energy merely helping your company put out fires and survive, you can put the time to better use by charting out a solid plan that can protect and help you and your company thrive.

Take the following steps to build solid initiatives and roll out successful projects:

Step 1: Step Back, Then Set the Scope

One of the things that leaders get wrong during their first attempt at strategic thinking is expecting that it is just another item on a checklist. The truth is, you need to take a good, long look at the bigger picture before anything else. This means decisively prioritizing and stepping away from tasks that can be delegated to others. Free up your schedule so you can focus on this crucial task at hand.

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Then, proceed with setting the scope and the strategic goals of the project or initiative you plan to build or execute. Ask yourself the bigger question of why you need to embark on a particular project and when would be the right time to do so.

You need to set a timeline as well, anywhere from 6 months to 5 years. Keep in mind that your projections will deteriorate the further out you go as you make longer-term plans.

For this reason, add extra resources, flexibility, and resilience if you have a longer timeline. You should also be making the goals less specific if you’re charting it out for the longer term.

Step 2: Make a List of Experts

Make and keep a list of credible people who can contribute solid insight and feedback to your initiative. This could range from key stakeholders to industry experts, mentors, and even colleagues who previously planned and rolled out similar projects.

Reach out to the people on this list regularly while you work through the steps to bring diverse insight into your planning process. This way, you will be able to approach any problem from every angle.

Bringing key stakeholders into this initial process will also display your willingness to listen and empathize with their issues. In return, this will build trust and potentially pave the way for smoother buy-in down the line.

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Step 3: Anticipate the Future

After identifying your goals and gathering feedback, it’s time to consider what the future would look like if everything goes as you intuitively anticipate. Then, lay out the kind and amount of resources (money, time, social capital) that might be needed to keep this anticipated future running.

Step 4: Brainstorm on Potential Internal and External Problems

Next, think of how the future would look if you encountered unexpected problems internal and external to the business activity that seriously jeopardize your expected vision of the future. Write out what kind of potential problems you might encounter, including low-probability ones.

Assess the likelihood that you will run into each problem. To gauge, multiply the likelihood by the number of resources needed to address the problem. Try to convert the resources into money if possible so that you can have a single unit of measurement.

Then, think of what steps you can take to address these internal and external problems before they even happen. Write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Lastly, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different possible problems and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

Step 5: Identify Potential Opportunities, Internal and External

Imagine how your expected plan would look if unexpected opportunities came up. Most of these will be external but consider internal ones as well. Then, gauge the likelihood of each scenario and the number of resources you would need to take advantage of each opportunity. Convert the resources into money if possible.

Then, think of what steps you can take in advance to take advantage of unexpected opportunities and write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Finally, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different unexpected opportunities and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

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Step 6: Check for Cognitive Biases

Check for potential cognitive biases that are relevant to you personally or to the organization as a whole, and adjust the resources and plans to address such errors.[1] Make sure to at least check for loss aversion, status quo bias, confirmation bias, attentional bias, overconfidence, optimism bias, pessimism bias, and halo and horns effects.

Step 7: Account for Unknown Unknowns (Black Swans)

To have a more effective strategy, account for black swans as well. These are unknown unknowns -unpredictable events that have potentially severe consequences.

To account for these black swans, add 40 percent to the resources you anticipate. Also, consider ways to make your plans more flexible and secure than you intuitively feel is needed.

Step 8: Communicate and Take the Next Steps

Communicate the plan to your stakeholders, and give them a heads up about the additional resources needed. Then, take the next steps to address the unanticipated problems and take advantage of the opportunities you identified by improving your plans, as well as allocating and reserving resources.

Finally, take note that there will be cases when you’ll need to go back and forth these steps to make improvements, (a fix here, an improvement there) so be comfortable with revisiting your strategy and reaching out to your list of experts.

Conclusion

A great way to deal with feelings of uncertainty during this pandemic is to anticipate obstacles with a good plan – and a sure road to that is practicing strategic thinking.

In the coming months and years, you’ll need to continue navigating uncharted territory so that you can lead your team to safe waters. Regularly doing these 8 steps to strategic thinking will ensure that you can prepare for and adapt  to the coming changes with increasing clarity, perspective, and efficiency.[2]

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Featured photo credit: JESHOOTS.COM via unsplash.com

Reference

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