The Power of “What If…?”

Jan 8, 2023 | Coaching, Leadership

Many of my favorite questions to help me get unstuck begin with “What If….”.  “What if I wasn’t so hung up looking for the right solution?” “What if this person isn’t deliberately trying to get under my skin but has something of their own going on?” “What if this difficult situation could have unintended positive consequences”. For me these questions invite an expansiveness of thinking that can help me move forward when I have got myself stuck.

I don’t know about you, but when I am under stress, or plans spin out from my control , I start to lose the capacity to think clearly and I often start to spiral into an swirl of negative thinking that is not solution-oriented. There is good research on the brain that points to the fact that as soon as our brains perceive us to be under threat we jump to our default response of fight, flight or freeze. And there is no space for finding creative solutions or learning new things.

My default stress state is usually ‘freeze’ (*if you aren’t sure what yours is, imagine back to your last stressful situation and notice what your impulse was – for example was it to argue your way through the line to the check out counter, to run out of the airport back home or to curl up in a corner and hope it would all go away?). I tend to find myself wanting to hide under the bedcovers and hope someone else sorts the problem out. Given this is rarely a good solution, I am constantly looking for ways to unlock that state.

Some forms of questioning are more likely to make us even more stressed and on the defensive. There is interesting research that shows that starting a question  with ‘why…?’ is likely to trigger a limbic reaction. For me being asked if I can find the positive or the silver lining in the situation doesn’t help in the moment – it is more likely to increase my frustration or to trigger feelings of shame or guilt that I am making a big deal of something when others are worse off.

I’m not referring to the What Ifs of the past – an inclination to beat oneself up by conjuring up multiple alternative scenarios that might have led to a better present moment than the one I currently find myself in (What if I had not taken that promotion – would I have had more time with my family? What if I had skipped that party – maybe I wouldn’t have got COVID? What if I had got an MBA – maybe I would be finding it easier to find a job?). These what ifs only serve to make us feel worse.

But the What Ifs of the present and the future create new possibilities. They allow me to understand that there are more interpretations of the world than the one my brain is fixed on right now. In fact there are usually multiple pathways forward and multiple outcomes. I’m not trying to predict which is right. I’m just reassuring myself that I will probably never actually know and I shouldn’t get too hung up on a particular way of seeing the world.

It’s also a good way of uncovering our ‘core limiting beliefs’, beliefs that are so fundamental to who we are that we don’t even notice they are beliefs. A wonderful therapist  I work with once asked me, when I was trying to make a particularly hard life decision, “What if there wasn’t only one right answer to the decisions you are trying to make?” This blew my mind as I realized that I have a core belief that there is always a ‘right answer’ if you look hard enough. And while that way have thinking has supported me in many aspects of my life, it has also caused me a lot of stress and anxiety and has made it almost impossible at times to make decisions. The invitation this gave me was to be more intentional about whether I needed to treat a decision as a ‘one right answer’ decision (and sometimes I do) or whether I could be more relaxed and just curious about moving forward.

Another concrete example – there was a work opportunity I was really hoping to get that didn’t actually pan out. I spent some time feeling a little sorry for myself, and wondering what I was lacking that meant that I didn’t get it. And then I switched to my What If Mindset; ‘what if saying yes to this opportunity would have meant that I was then too busy or distracted to notice the next interesting thing coming my way? ‘What if the people I have met through this exploration become an opportunity for collaboration down the line?’ – of course I don’t know whether these what ifs are true or not. But that’s not the point? By exploring them we invite the possibility of multiple good outcomes and recommit to the present as is. Rather than getting caught up in a cycle of shame.

Questions: What are your current ‘what if’ questions? What are other questions that you find helpful in getting you unstuck? And can you ask them to yourself or do you, like me, find it easier if someone is asking them to you? If you journal about them what new insights might they lead you to?