There's a concept in improvisational theater called act as if: Don't be constrained by the literal reality surrounding us; instead, challenge our immediate interpretation of what's happening and act as if what's being represented onstage is real. This ability to transcend our initial impression and look at the experience from a new perspective is critical in allowing improv scenes to move forward. Writer and improv coach Ben Kharakh notes that, "Acting as if whatever’s happening is actually happening...keeps you from being stuck." [my emphasis]
This logic can apply to real life as well. When we're stuck or frustrated or upset, sometimes our response to the issue at hand is more problematic than the issue itself. In a sense, we're the problem--or, to be more precise, our mindset or mental model is the problem. At these times we have an opportunity to act as if. We can cling to our initial impression of what's happening and remain stuck or frustrated or upset--or we can challenge that view and act as if something else is going on.
There’s a difference between productive acting as if and unhelpful magical thinking, in which we shut our eyes, cross our fingers, and simply hope the problem goes away. Acting as if involves challenging our current perspective and beliefs, while magical thinking simply reinforces them.
To challenge our interpretation of a situation, we have to know what it is in the first place. We have to slow down, step outside our immediate experience, and get some critical distance on ourselves. We can do this with a coaching partner—someone who’s able to ask open-ended questions, reflect back what they’re hearing, and resist the temptation to immediately offer advice. We can do this independently—journaling in some form is often helpful, because the process of writing down our thoughts helps to organize and clarify them. And with practice we can do this in the moment, recognizing that our reflexive interpretation may not be the most accurate or helpful.
Creating this space allows us to identify alternative perspectives, including others that might not readily come to mind. This can be profoundly difficult work because it requires us to resist some powerful mental processes. As I wrote recently, “Even when faced with massive gaps in information, we tend to focus on the information at our disposal and rely on it to construct a narrative, as flimsy as it might be [and…] we're typically overconfident in the validity and coherence of our explanatory narrative.”
This confidence in our point of view usually serves us well—we’re generally quite skillful at making sense of a situation on the basis of limited information and relying upon that narrative to guide our actions. The problem is that at critical moments—when we’re under stress--our sense-making skills are impaired and the narratives they generate are deeply flawed, and yet we remain as convinced as ever of their accuracy. The key is to suspend belief in our point of view, and act as if an alternative interpretation might be the real story.
Photo by Kendrick Martin. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.