Archive | Thinking Tactics

Empathy Bath

When you are chilled, a hot bath brings your temperature to normal. When you have a fever, a cold bath can bring it down. When you are tense, self-doubtful, jittery, or otherwise triggered, an “Empathy Bath” can bring your emotional state back to neutral.

“Empathy Bath” Tactic Overview

What: An “empathy bath” is a systematic process for introspecting the broad range of potentially conflicting emotions you are feeling, in order to regulate your emotional state.

When: Use it when you are tense, jittery, or otherwise emotionally triggered, and need a quick way to get emotionally centered.

How: For each family of emotions, speculate on why you might be feeling those feelings (both positive and negative). Give your reason in a full sentence.

Why: The 8 families of emotions cover all of the basic value-judgments that might be in play. By asking why you “might” be feeling each emotion, you can reveal not just acknowledged feelings, but also suppressed or slightly repressed feelings. By looking for both positive and negative versions of each family, you naturally balance disproportionate emotional responses.

Step-by-Step Instructions

1) Briefly describe the situation that has you emotionally upset.

2) For each of the following basic emotions, speculate on why you might be feeling this feeling in the current situation and why.

Anger: Who did what that they shouldn’t have?
Gratitude: Who did something nice for me?

Fear: What bad thing is going to happen?
Relief: What bad thing is no longer going to happen?

Despair: What good thing is never going to happen?
Hope: What good thing will happen eventually?

Guilt: What do I wish I had done differently? What regrets do I have?
Pride: What am I glad I did the way I did?

Frustration: What is giving me a lot of trouble?
Confidence: What am I doing with ease?

Desire: What am I longing for?
Aversion: What am I trying to get away from?

Joy: What have I succeeded in getting?
Grief: What have I lost?

Love: What person or thing or idea stands out as a true positive here?
Indifference: What don’t I care about at all here?

3) After you have finished naming all of the feelings, you may be grounded. If so, sum up your situation in a sentence.

If you are still feeling somewhat overloaded, I recommend you clarify the deep rational values at stake. To do this, first you may need to challenge first thoughts if any of your statements are false or exaggerated. In addition, go through each statement and identify any deep rational values at stake.  These are listed in the OFNR Quick Reference Sheet.


  • Write out each reason in a full sentence, so that you can judge whether it’s true or false.
  • For best results, check for the feelings in the order offered, which goes from easiest to hardest, most negative to most positive.
  • Don’t skip any feeling. Imagine why you might feel it, even if you don’t think you do.


Situation: Someone just cut me off making a turn.

Anger: He should look where he’s going.
Gratitude: I’m glad the guy behind me saw me brake.

Fear: I almost had an accident.
Relief: Thank goodness I was able to react in time.

Despair: These lousy drivers should be taken off the road.
Hope: Maybe defensive driving courses can help.

Guilt: I was a little bit distracted.
Pride: I’m glad I don’t text while driving!

Frustration: My heart is still pounding and I can’t seem to calm down.
Confidence: I’m glad that I have good reflexes.

Desire: I really need a little peace and quiet.
Aversion: I don’t want to discuss this with anyone.

Joy: I guess I feel good to be alive.
Grief: This reminds me of my friend who died in a car accident.

Love: I loved my friend.
Indifference: I don’t care what .

Summing Up: I need a little time to catch my breath and just appreciate that I’m okay.

Additional Comments

I developed this process for people who were inexperienced in introspection. It is not the fastest process–it takes 15-20 minutes to go through. If you are in a hurry, the AND List is the fastest way to calm down.

After using it, I discovered that it had the added benefit of revealing value-judgments that I would not have identified if I just introspected feelings I was already feeling. As a result, it is a great first aid process when you are emotionally overwhelmed.


References for Members of the Thinking Lab

  • For steps to challenge first thoughts, see the Three Pass Review
  • For steps to clarify your motivation, see   the Goal-Clarification process
  • You can give someone else an empathy bath, but then I recommend that you identify not just their feelings and the idea that seems to be behind it, but the deep rational value at stake. (See this discussion of  deep rational values aka universal values.) Otherwise you risk reinforcing their old baggage.

July 31, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Use Your Listening Skills to Help You Think

When something’s on your mind, talking over the issue with a friend is a real value. A good listener can gently encourage you to untangle your thoughts, without taking over the conversation and/or enforcing his own agenda. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a good listener on call every time you had something you needed to think through?

You can be that person for yourself–if you train yourself to listen to your own subconscious.

Listening to your own subconscious is similar to the kind of “active listening” you use when listening to others. You need to slow yourself down, stop multi-tasking, pay attention, and actually take in the thoughts you’re hearing internally. In active listening, the listeners repeat back what they’re hearing to make sure they get it. In listening to the subconscious, you are the listener and you write down what you’re hearing from your subconscious. In both cases, having the thoughts reflected back helps you get objectivity on them.

It’s particularly important to “listen to the subconscious” using “thinking on paper,” because listening to your own mind takes extra concentration. You don’t have another person there, keeping you on track. You don’t see body language and other cues that keep you connected to the conversation. So you need “thinking on paper” to help you focused on what’s happening.

Your subconscious is a storehouse of knowledge, values, and associations. If you are feeling frustrated, there is likely some very helpful information in there that could help you out of the bind. By taking a few minutes to listen to your subconscious, you can get the most relevant, most obvious information out of storage and into consideration where it can help you.

So, next time you need an ear to listen to your problems, and no one’s handy, lend an inner ear. You can be your own best listener.



November 3, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Deja Vu All Over Again

“How did I wind up here again?” We’ve all had the experience: a bad situation keeps repeating itself. Maybe it’s a confrontation with a particular person that keeps coming up and going badly. Maybe it’s the feeling of being overloaded by the administrivia again–even though you cleared it out last week. Maybe it’s seeing a project fizzle to a stop again. You keep gearing up on it, taking a step, and it never gets any momentum.

When you are feeling “deja vu all over again,” chances are you are “flailing” on the task. Flailing means trying the same approach again and again, without getting a different result. When this happens, you always need to step back, and change something farther back in the process. The mistake is always a few steps back, not right before you get in the mess. Here are a few ways you can take some steps back:

  1. Ask the experts–they often know a better way to approach problems. For example, there are great books on how deal with confrontation–and they all involve doing preparation before the confrontation occurs. (One I like is Difficult Conversations by Stone et. all.)
  2. Use a creativity process. Brainstorming and other creative processes are designed to help you generate alternatives. Brainstorming comes in many forms. A good book on it is: The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking by Paul Sloane.
  3. Sometimes you can just experiment. Write down how you always do the task. Then systematically change the process piece by piece to see what makes a difference.

The bottom line is: when you are flailing (doing the same thing, again and again, and expecting a different result), you need to stop what you’re doing and make a radical change.

Unless you like having deja vu all over again.


October 29, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

How do you know you need to think about that?

Some things need thinking. Some things don’t.

Thinking is a purposeful process of integrating new observations with existing knowledge and values to figure out something new. The goal of thinking is either to put something into words (conceptualize it), infer a conclusion, make a decision, or imagine a new possibility (as in forming hypotheses or coming up with possible solutions to a problem). Thinking is a means of achieving many goals, but most goals are action goals, not thinking goals.

If you’re stuck, you probably are confused about whether you need to set an action goal or a thinking goal.

For example, if your goal is “write an article” and you’re stuck, you’re stuck in action. You probably need to think about a few things before you can write, such as “what should my theme be?” and “what are the main points I want to make?”

In contrast, someone in my workshop needed to figure out how to train his replacement on new software which might or might not be released before he moved. In this case, the solution is not something he could figure out by himself. It was literally impossible for him to make a plan with so many unknowns. Instead, he needed to raise this problem with the other people involved to even get clear on the scope of the problem. He didn’t have enough information.

There are three tests for whether you can profitably think about something:

1) Is this a question that can be answered by thinking in general?
That is, is the goal to conceptualize, decide, infer, or imagine something? Can you  figure this out based on things you already know, or are observing?

2) Do you want and need to know the answer? If you already know the answer, you don’t need to think about it. If you don’t care about the answer, you shouldn’t waste time and effort thinking about it.

3) Are you the right person to figure out the answer? That is, do you have reason to believe that you know things relevant to the question? If you don’t know anything about the topic, you will have to do research or get information from someone else. That’s an action goal. You can’t think unless you have relevant knowledge to draw on!

If you’re not sure why you’re stuck, these three questions can help you figure out what you need to think about versus what you need to do:
What information do we need to answer this question?

  • What can I do in this situation?
  • Who can help answer this question?
  • What do I need to tell them about the issue?


June 30, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Ask An Easier Question

Asking yourself questions is essential in thinking. It’s the way you get information out of your subconscious and into conscious consideration.

Your subconscious is a huge repository of past observations, past conclusions, past training. It is where your expertise resides. But only some fraction of that information can be activated at a given time. Questions activate the information so you can use it into your thinking.

But what do you do if the information lies dormant–even when you ask yourself about it?

Suppose you ask yourself a reasonable question (like “what should I be doing right now?” or “how am I going to explain this to person X?” or “how are we going to get this done on time?”) and the response you get back from your subconscious is “I don’t know”?  Or the more emphatic: “Aaaaaye donno.”

When this happens, don’t despair. You probably know much more than your subconscious is letting on. What happened is that the question you asked was a little too hard for you. You don’t have a ready-made, pre-packaged answer for that question. You will need to put one together from pieces of information–pieces you can lure from your subconscious databanks by asking an easier question.

To me, “ask an easier question” stands for the more complicated thought, “soften up your subconscious with patsy questions it can answer that inexorably lead to your figuring out the answer to the question it resisted.” It’s like you’re playing “good cop” with the suspect–playing along with what you get, edging toward what you really want–a full confession of the truth!

So, for example, if I were a little stuck on a question like “how am I going to explain this to person X,” I might ask myself things like, “what does X need to know?” and “how would I explain it to someone else who’s not as touchy?” The right follow-up questions would be ones I felt I *could* answer. Spending the time on them would help me put into place the information I would need to build a full answer to the original question.

“Ask an easier question” is a sound bite to remember. When your subconscious says, “Aaaaye donno,” ask yourself an easier question, and find out what it *does* know that can help you with your task.

May 7, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Thinking on Your Feet

I often get asked, how do you apply “Thinking Tactics” to thinking on your feet? For example, suppose you are in a meeting, and your boss suddenly turns to you and asks for your opinion. How do you come up with a quick answer? You can’t stop to “think on paper” in that situation.

First, I want to point out that most of what we call “thinking on your feet” is actually “remembering on your feet.” Succinct, essentialized answers are rarely entirely spontaneous. If you know in advance that you will be asked questions (after a presentation, or at an interview, for example), it’s crucial to prepare for them in advance. Make a list of questions you might get and figure out your answers by sitting at your desk and thinking on paper. This gives you the time and quiet to think in depth. Then you can simply draw on that past thinking when you’re asked the question on the spot. And you look very sharp in the process!

That said, we all get into situations where we’re asked questions and don’t know the answers off the top of our heads. What do you do then? You can’t just will yourself to answer–that’s a prescription for going blank. Sometimes you can put off giving an answer, by promising to get back to the questioner with your thoughts.

But sometimes you need to say something right then. In this situation, I suggest you turn the conversation into “thinking aloud.” Do this deliberately. Say something like, “That’s a good question.  Let me think aloud here to see if I can work out an answer.”

When you give that preamble, you warn the other person that they shouldn’t expect a polished, succinct answer. You get tacit permission to ramble a bit as you follow your train of thought, which is what you need to do. You balance your need to do some thinking, with the listener’s need to hear your answer right now.

“Thinking aloud” has the same basic rule as “thinking on paper.” Use full sentences! That helps you think step by step. And since you have an audience, make each sentence as intelligible to the other person as possible. Your thinking aloud may turn into a discussion as they chime in with helpful information or answers to questions you pose in your thinking.

As soon as you have an answer, switch from “thinking aloud” to summing up: Deliberately bring the conversation back to the question and your answer. Say something like, “Okay, now I have an answer to your question….” Then state your answer as succinctly as possible.

Alternately, if you find that you are raising a lot of issues, and there isn’t going to be a quick answer, you could sum up with something like, “Well, you see that there are too many issues here, and I’m not going to get an answer off the top of my head. I think I need some time to look at the issues I’ve just raised so I can give you a responsible answer.”

By warning them that you are thinking aloud, then deliberately summing up your answer, you can maintain a professional demeanor, even when you’re put on the spot.

Next time you are impressed by someone “thinking on their feet,” pay careful attention to whether they are doing new, fresh thinking aloud–or are cashing in on previous thinking they’ve done. Either way, you can learn something about how to capitalize on your own thinking prowess when you need to “think on your feet.”



April 2, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Evening Review

To keep on track with a workload, you need to review your progress daily. I generally recommend taking 15 minutes in the morning to see what you got done, and what you need to do. However, there is a good case to be made to spend a little more time to review in the evening. I was inspired to do this after reading The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.

The evening is the perfect time to reflect on how the day went. Did you do what I intended to do? If so, what made that possible? If not, why not? How would I plan differently another day?

5-10 minutes of “thinking on paper” on these topics is very valuable, because it helps you figure out how to tinker with your schedule. It’s not always obvious how much time certain work will take. Nor is it obvious how much pleasure some recreational activity will bring. To arrange your days to run happily and productively, your need to review what works and what doesn’t.

This works better at night, when you can focus on looking back. In the morning, that can bog you down, just as you are trying to get geared up for the day. At night, it’s satisfying to take a few minutes to reflect. But there’s little risk of bogging down in reflection when you’re tired and ready to go to sleep!

As an added bonus, you get to sleep on it. So when you get to planning the next day, you have already percolated on any issues from the previous day, and a few ideas will probably have come up for what to do differently today. The bottom line: if you take a few minutes for an evening review, it takes less time the next day to get started, and less total time reviewing and planning. Who’da thunk it?



February 24, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments


Every tactic is useful only in a context. That includes my favorite general-purpose workhorse, “thinking on paper.” Sometimes it is more efficient to think in your head. Sometimes it is more efficient to discuss an issue with someone else. And sometimes it is more efficient to “freewrite.”

Freewriting is like thinking on paper: you record your thoughts in full sentences as you think them. It’s different because…you have no thinking goal. You record a stream of consciousness, without worrying whether it will go anywhere or not.

When I first heard about freewriting, I was skeptical, and maybe you are, too. But I have found it valuable for creative thinking tasks.

Sometimes when I am trying to come up with a new idea (e.g., newsletter topics or marketing angles), my thinking on paper becomes strained. Systematic questions that usually bring up good ideas stop working. In this situation, I need some way to stay on task, keep ideas percolating, and remove the strain.

Freewriting works perfectly for this. I still have the larger goal of generating a new idea. But my immediate focus is to simply record what’s going on in my mind, some of which is complaints, and some of which is banal. Within about five minutes of starting, some new ideas occur to me spontaneously.

Freewriting helps for several reasons. First, it completely eliminates criticism which can stop new ideas from bubbling up.

Second, it clears out the complaints and banality, just as thinking on paper does. Third, it keeps you at the ready to notice new connections when they get made. And they will. Connections to additional ideas are constantly being triggered from your subconscious. Even your stream of consciousness can provide stimulus for triggering those new connections.

So, if you are feeling stuck while thinking on paper, give yourself permission to freewrite for a few minutes, and see if that frees the logjam.




February 19, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The One Thing Missing from the Advice You’ve Gotten from Me

If you’ve been reading my blog, or my website, you’ve read about a lot of processes and procedures you can use to help get your mental wheels turning when you’re feeling overloaded, or conflicted, or doubtful, or otherwise not sure what to do. They’re great ideas. Believe me, I have used every one of them, and seen others use every one of them.

There’s just one thing missing: you only get the value from using the tactics. If you don’t use them, they’re not helpful.

So here’s some meta-advice, to apply both to what you read from me and to what you read from others. If you discover an interesting technique that seems useful, test drive it. Take that one idea and be a fanatic about it for three days. Use it 3-4 times a day, for several days, to see how it works, and especially, how it works for you.

This is how I develop every tactic I teach. I read about it, or hear about it, or make it up, and then use it like a fanatic for several days until I have seen it be effective again and again, figured out why it worked, and decided to keep it in my toolkit for the future.

For example–I made up the AND List technique because I realized I was in conflict and I needed to “hold all the values with care.” It’s a cross between Improv (which teaches you to use “Yes, and” rather than “but”), and NVC (Nonviolent Communication), which teaches that you can be in conflict and still value both sides of the conflict.

The details of the instructions came out of experimenting with it many times over several days. For example, the first step is to write “I am ambivalent,” because that makes it easy to get started. Or another example, the “AND” is in capital letters because when you’re in conflict, it’s cathartic to shout virtually.

In the classes I give, I can stop the class, and ask everyone do an individual exercise to test drive the tactics. 98% of the people who attend will try it. Most of them will find it helpful. (Typically, I do the exercise at the same time, and I find it helpful!) If they don’t find it helpful, they can ask questions.

You’re reading about tactics, here and there. It’s up to you to try them out. Try it, you’ll like it.


February 12, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Using Analogies for Creative Problem Solving

When you are stuck on a problem and need some new ideas, you can get creative ideas by making analogies to some other field.

An analogy is an abstract parallel between two quite different things. For example, you might analogize driving to project management. In both cases it helps to have a map (i.e., a plan) for where you’re going.

When you find one parallel, you can often find others–which is why analogies help with creativity.

For example, suppose you were a manager with an employee who was causing problems, and you were looking for ways of dealing with him. You might get some ideas by comparison to other human relationships. You might use strategies that parents use to manage children, if they were appropriate. Or you might adapt military management techniques for civilian use.

But if you are looking for something new, it pays to go farther afield. Suppose you were to compare the problem employee with a problem program on your computer. Here are four things you might do to deal with the problem program:

a) uninstall the program and use a competitor

b) reinstall the program fresh

c) upgrade the program

d) check users’ groups on the web for plugins or settings to get help with the problem

To complete the analogy, translate these back into suggestions for dealing with the employee:

a) fire the employee

b) ???

c) send the employee to training

d) ask around on discussion groups for suggestions for dealing with this particular problem

Of these, “reinstall the program fresh” didn’t have an obvious counterpart–so that case warrants more thinking. Here are three things that “reinstall the program” could suggest for dealing with the employee:

  • From the word “reinstall”: Write up a description of model employee behavior, then have a private talk with your employee to see if he’ll start anew and commit to this behavior.
  • From the word “fresh”: Find a different position in the company which is a better fit for the employee.
  • From the fact that reinstalling the program removes corrupted files: Make a list of all the prejudices and negative generalizations you’ve made about this employee and do some soul-searching on whether you’ve been fair and whether you’ve contributed to the problem. Then talk with the employee about your findings.

None of these are point-for-point analogies to reinstalling a program. But when you are using analogies to generate ideas, you don’t need to be that exact. The test is not whether the analogy passes a strict test, but whether you got a helpful idea.


For more ideas on how to use analogies in thinking and communicating, see Anne Miller’s book on “Metaphorically Selling.”



February 10, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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