Time travel and magic wands

Building on recent posts about the listening attitude, the kind of questions good listeners ask, and how coaches can employ powerful questions, I want to continue exploring methods coaches can use to stimulate insight, motivation, and action in others.

There’s a fascinating fact about the mind at the root of this: We know that even later in life, the brain is quite capable of rearranging itself in response to experience. But what scientists have discovered is that visualization alone can create these same changes. In one Harvard study, researchers had volunteers practice playing the piano two hours a day and measured corresponding changes in the motor cortex; another group who merely mentally practiced evidenced the same changes. We’ve seen similar findings with regard to how meditation changes areas of the brain associated with empathy and happiness. Simply thinking can rewire the brain.

What this teaches us is that the brain doesn’t differentiate between what is real and imagined and that therefore visualizing can be a valuable adjunct to actual experience. Visualizing yourself giving a presentation, or having a difficult conversation, or confronting a fear is akin to gaining practical experience, and it will actually facilitate performance in real life. We talked recently about how a lot of time we tend to get hung up on problems and lose sight of our dreams. What kind of practice is that giving your brain? What if we gave our brains the chance to really visualize what it is that we want? Which approach is going to get you closer to your goals?

There are various ways to set people up for visualizing. “Magic wands” invite people to articulate their desires without feeling the burden of worrying about how they will be realized, which helps them get clarity on what it is they really want to achieve (e.g., Just suppose you had a magic wand and could instantly make this happen. What would be different? What possibilities might come up? How would you feel? What would you do next?). “Time travel” encourages people to imagine a time in the future where they have already achieved their goals. This can help them gain a sense of perspective on the process required to get there, as well as gain a better idea of what it took to get there (Imagine it’s three months, a year, five years from now and you’ve done what you set out to do. What do you see? What does it feel like? What helped you achieve this?). Encourage people to be in the vision with all of their senses – picturing the environment, the people with them, the feelings in their body. Also encourage them to shift perspective to see it all from a bird’s eye view and to take in what that perspective affords.  

Sometimes a coachee may initially feel silly or awkward “pretending.” I have to admit when I began to explore visualization exercises, I had to willingly suspend my disbelief. But if you get them to bear with you, you will both experience the power of visualizing. First, it is highly motivating to get to see and experience in your mind’s eye what it is that you want! The same enthusiasm and energy felt “in real life” becomes available to you as you mentally create a vision of your ideal outcome. Once you experience it, you will want to redouble your efforts to get it. It is also beneficial because what you “see” is not always what you set out to see, and these unexpected details can be leveraged into creating action, momentum, and accountability. Visualization is a powerful tool to add to your skill set, and it’s quite enjoyable to both witness and experience.


“A human being always acts and feels and performs in accordance with what he imagines to be true about himself and his environment…For imagination sets the goal ‘picture’ which our automatic mechanism works on. We act, or fail to act, not because of ‘will,’ as is so commonly believed, but because of imagination.” –Maxwell Maltz

“Visualization is daydreaming with a purpose.” –Bo Bennett

“It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” –Virginia Woolf

“When there is no vision, people perish.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson