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The Awesome Power of Two Words

“Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”Senator Robert F. Kennedy

The working of the human mind naturally lends itself to metaphor as in: the playground of the mind, the battlefield of the mind, the mind as a prison. What all these allusions depend upon is framing – the mind’s natural process of capturing an idea and using it to define and focus your attention on whatever is within its scope.

Framing is the process that truly confirms the Biblical statement: “As a man thinketh in his heart [Hebrew for mind] so is he.” If you think of your mind as a playground for ideas – it will be. If you think of it as a prison – it will be.

For some people their thinking does seem to imprison them through the spiraling of their negative thoughts; it brings ceaseless unrest.

What they need is a way to break out of that cycle to create mental freedom.

So what can help? Enter the two words: “What…if…”

Do not scoff at these little incantations – they are not magic in the Harry Potter sense – but given what they can do the results can seem magical. They can help you step back, step up and step out of a limiting way of thinking.

You have probably heard about the power of acting “as-if”. It seems so trite on paper and I think many people give up on the process because when they try ‘faking it’ the original behavior is so strongly engrained that they strain against it – and fall back.

But these two words can act to open up a new world of thinking and I’m going to tell you how.

So let’s say you want to start thinking more positively and you feel you can’t.

In Neuro-Linguistic Programming the challenge to ‘I can’t’ is usually: ‘What if you could?” Pick something that is possible in the world but doesn’t seem possible for you and ask yourself: “What if I could?” You need to be prepared to push yourself but what the question does is challenge your brain to find a way to make the transition work.

  • What if you could learn passionately and quickly?
  • What if you could do mathematics? What would open up for you then?
  • What if you were totally wrong about the sheer amount of potential you have?
  • What if you did resist smoking for a week and saved yourself £10? What then?

If no answer comes, ask again, and again. Yes, forcing it can work in this situation.

Several things can and will happen after this point. At the least you’ll start to create the possibility in your mind. Yes, you might fall back and say “well, that would be great but I’m just pretending.”

Understand that actually you are not pretending (in a physiological sense.

Neurologists have said that the same neural pathways are used to pretend as to do. That is why Korean War veterans came out of five years internment better golfers than they went in – by using mental rehearsal.

The resistance you experience is likely to be a higher frame like ‘it’s just pretending’ and you’ll need to deal with that. In fact, ask “What if pretending actually caused me to make a seismic shift in my thinking and suddenly I found myself starting to demonstrate those behaviors in everyday life?”

You may find a little loosening feeling but still feel you have further to advance. This is fine, merely question yourself as to what is stopping you, and ask “What if…[you had overcome it]. If you are not good at getting information from yourself yet see my article

You can then start getting a little adventurous by presupposing what you want to happen has happened. This technique regularly opens up new mental horizon for me.

  • What if I suddenly stopped feeling fear about taking aggressive action on my dreams?
  • What if I was able to love others regardless of their behavior?
  • What if I woke up tomorrow morning willing and able to change any belief?

Another great way of doing this is to use the Miracle Question format (by Steve De Shazzer).

What if, when I went to bed tonight a miracle occurred and when I woke up I had suddenly developed a learning state of mind that enabled me to take in and use information quickly and easily? What would be the first thing that would let me know this was the case?

This is the next level of pretending. Trainers often use two chairs for this – one for the ‘night before’ and one for ‘after the miracle’.

It seems so simple but often, just doing this causes a shift in thinking when you mind recognizes a more desirable state of affairs.

Asking ‘what if’ can open up new therapeutic and generative personal worlds. It has the power to heal and create.

  • What if I truly was significant?
  • What if I counted in this world?
  • What if my learning state enabled me to take that masters in 2 years instead of 3?
  • What if I woke up tomorrow morning and was able to recognize the positive intention behind the behavior and work with that instead of getting annoyed at what’s in front of me.

I created an extremely powerful use for the ‘what if’ questions in the NLP User’s Toolkit which you can find here: I use it almost every day and in coaching sessions.

Perhaps one of the ultimate applications of ‘what if’  is Borrowed Genius which involves putting on the ‘head’ of a respected figure from history and using a process called Image-Streaming to ‘think’ their thoughts.

You may wonder if this will work for you. I ask you to consider: What if it did? What if it could? What if it does?

Try it, and find out.

Products by Douglas Cartwright

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17 Responses to The Awesome Power of Two Words

  1. Pingback: Visioning Process – What do I want to create? « The book of inspiration

  2. Alex says:

    Great article! The thing that hit me the most was when you said “Understand that actually you are not pretending…”.

    I know people are always given great motivational advice and are always told to “feel good about themselves,” but saying it and believing it are two different things, and I think it was really important for you to bring that up here.

  3. Rochelle says:

    Really brilliant article. Thank you Doug :-)

  4. Kyle Beck says:

    This idea of reacting to a negative thought with the question “What if?” has been hard for me to actualize.  So often we put limits on ourselves that are hard to break out of.  And while it can be nice to dream, it takes a lot of work to change negative beliefs. 

    But maybe it’s just like you said, “Understand that actually you are not pretending.”  So I’ll keep that in mind next time I catch myself saying “I can’t.”

    Thanks Douglas!

  5. ML Quotes says:

    I’ve read on the “What if” technique, but this article showed me nice examples on HOW to do it.

    Be humble: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. Shunryu Suzuki

  6. Justin says:

    I am a big believer in knowing and understanding the mind and using it to our advantage. It can create freedom or limitations in our life experience, it is up to us to decide.

  7. Sean says:

    A lot of great and fascinating concepts here, thanks a lot.

  8. Fred Tracy says:

    This is a truly quality post. I can really see how saying “what if” and start shaking the foundations of our internal walls and open new doors and pathways.

    Thanks for this.

  9. Fred Tracy says:

    This is a truly quality post. I can really see how saying “what if” and start shaking the foundations of our internal walls and open new doors and pathways.

    Thanks for this.

  10. Donna says:

    “What If”…… simple and profound shifting technique~~thank you~~

  11. anon says:

    What if this was a well written article..even great?

  12. anon says:

    What if this was a well written article..even great?

  13. anon says:

    Ahh! BUt it is!

  14. Mindy Audlin says:

    Fabulous article!  I teach a similar process for “What If Upping” (using “What if” to CREATE possibilities instead of the familiar “What if it DOESN’T work?”)  Looking forward to checking out some of your favorite “What Ifs”!

  15. Pingback: The Practical Lawyer | Cordell Parvin Blog

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  17. Frank says:

    The KEY is to  futurepace and FEEL and experience the “what if” as it is happening in the future.

    REMEMBER Your brain can’t tell the difference between what is real or imagined.

    Thats why people get ULCERS from worries which are nothing but imagined worst case scenarios.

    All we do now is use this principle for a positive outcome as suggested here by Douglas.

    If you EXPERIENCE it in the future you now give your mind a CHOICE.

    Choice 1- Continue the way you have been going. Fearful of reaching your dreams

    Choice 2- RE-experience the positive outcomes you accessed in the past with this exercise :)

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