Recently I was watching a couple of 4 year old kids make chalk drawings on the sidewalk. When one started drawing, the other one said, “But the hair is going the wrong way! It’s supposed to go down and be long.” The first kid, paused holding the chalk in mid air, looking a bit bewildered. I looked over my shoulder, and indeed the hair was going up. I nonchalantly chimed in, “Maybe the wind is blowing.” Pause. “Yes! The wind is blowing!” They both easily went with this story, and started to draw all the hair going up.

I kept thinking about this incident because it struck me how young we are when we are conditioned to right and wrong, good and bad, and the way things are “supposed” to be. Four years old — it’s a wonder any of us can escape our judgments and assumptions.

But it is possible to learn to loosen up our fixed ideas. We can cultivate an open mindset and alleviate some of the angst and struggle we may experience in trying to get it right.

In the following exercise we restate judgments as neutral questions or statements and then generate multiple versions of our story about how things are and why. It’s a series of prompts to take you into a creative improv exercise, which will almost assuredly make you laugh and get you to shift into a creative mindset.

The Exercise: “Whats wrong with your hair?!”

It goes like this:

  1. Remove the judgment and state the fact (i.e. change ‘the hair is going the wrong way’ into ‘the hair is going up’ — or if you want to turn it into a question, ‘can you tell me more about why the hair is like that?’). What are the facts? The hair is going up (assuming it is hair). Noteworthy aside: When we say it’s “wrong” we don’t actually get much information. If we said it was “good” we don’t get much useful information either, except about the opinions of the person giving the feedback.
  2. Ask WHY might the hair be going up? Answer it with “Maybe because…” And ask/answer it five more times. Write fast, don’t “think,” edit or censor. 1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 5 — 6 —

3. Take your whackiest or funniest reason and then add to it:

AND… (add a sentence)…

then BUT… (add another clause or two)

None of these statements need to based on reality as you know it, on the laws of physics, or morals. Go for science fiction, fantasy, prehistoric reasons. Maybe because…

Now if you look back at what you’ve got, there’s probably the kernels of a short story there. You have the implication of characters, motivations, perhaps even a whacky adventure or some weird tension. But you don’t need to take it any further (though you can if you want, for fun). You can leave the exercise right there, because it’s not about generating results, it’s about getting out of the box or getting unstuck.

Part of getting into a creative mindset is to do something active, not just think and spin about your situation. If it’s in the spirit of play, all the better. You know what your bigger problem or quest is, but sometimes you need to set it aside for a few minutes and do something to get into this other way of thinking by actively stimulating more flexibility. This exercise does that.

Why does this work?

By the time you ask the question six times, you’ve most likely spun off into the less conventional parts of your brain’s associations. That gets into your unique experience. Aka, you come up with original ideas, unique to you, because of your unique experiences and associations. It’s authentic because no one else is going to get from “hair product malfunction” to “it’s a fake skullcap with pipe cleaners sticking out all over it” to “it’s actually a wig because she had cancer” to “AND it’s made of pine needles BUT it’s hard to sleep on” except me, I’d almost guarantee it. And how I got there is my own secret that no one else has to know. You’ve inhibited the judging part of your brain by working fast. If you can let yourself be whacky, even silly, and get yourself to laugh, all the better. Humor has a direct connection to creativity.

Some background on the practice, borrowed from the arts

After creating the What’s wrong with your hair?! exercise, I realized that the first part of the exercise is inspired by Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, a feedback methodology that started in the dance world. I use and teach this method also, and find it incredibly effective in everyday communication. Asking neutral questions brings more curiosity, open heartedness and connection.

I’ve been a professional musician for 25 years. One of the things we do is practice a passage in wildly uncharacteristic ways in order to get to know it better, and get more flexibility and range. This is just as an exercise, not because that’s how we want to do it in performance.

What about applying “What’s wrong with your hair?!”directly to a real-life situation?

When applying this exercise to a real-life situation, what can be profound and confronting is that the story you’re telling yourself and the assumptions you make are revealed. It’s not always easy to pull apart those strands by yourself, and at this stage coaching and dialogue usually come in handy. The “fact” that you determine has a lot to do with the success of this exercise. For example, “Steve must not like me, because he always ignores me in the hall.” What’s the fact here? Is it “Steve is arrogant” or “Steve is afraid of me.” These are not facts, but assumptions which would completely close your gateway to finding out that Steve is visually impaired. You aren’t going to get there if you’re stuck with “Steve is arrogant” and trying to analyze why he’s arrogant. You can fool yourself that you are being curious, trying to find out why Steve is arrogant, but actually your own bias is still in the driver’s seat.

When you let free play lead your story writing, you’re more likely to be liberated from justifying your own biases. This is why humor and even being silly can be so useful. Then you’ll likely be surprised how much it reveals the kernels of the truth about the actual situation that you might not see otherwise — either in yourself or others, or in your material or situation.

In innovation and design thinking we’re trying to apply this kind of open perception to insights about other people — customers, clients, users. At THNK, School for Creative Leadership & Innovation, where I’m on the faculty, we use another fun Reframing Tool to create a new story around a situation by upending a core belief. You can try out this tool to get a new view on a personal or professional situation online.

In my What’s wrong with your hair?! exercise, I’m suggesting a playful means to reframe judgment that seems fixed. Rather than offering judgments, asking neutral questions gets you closer to discovering what your unique contributions can be. By becoming more aware of your biases and assumptions (and understanding those of others with empathy), asking open, neutral questions starts to make much more sense. This skill, which anyone can learn and practice, can help you give and receive more useful and forward moving feedback. It supports you whether your aim is to lead a creative team, get unstuck yourself, or to have a breakthrough in your thinking.

If you try this exercise, I would LOVE to hear about it!

If you’re a woman interested in further stretching your mind to arrive at creative solutions for seemingly stuck situations, check out a free live Get Unstuck Masterclass Dr. Sharmishtha Dattagupta and I will be giving 3 August 19:30 CEST. Click here to register.

Originally published at