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Emotions in Futures (Part 1 of 2)

In this two-part blog series, I explore the different emotions that could be present when taking people through futures thinking processes. As a coach and a futures practitioner, I’ve seen how powerful emotions can be in both denying and enabling anticipatory skills. By understanding emotions and how to work with them, I believe we can support people in creating transformational futures.


A quick primer on emotions


Emotions are signals from our body that tell us what needs to be taken care of for us to survive or thrive. Like ignoring warning lights on a control panel, not responding to these signals can lead to bad consequences. That’s why there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” emotions, just effective or ineffective ways of coping with them.


Emotions can motivate us to start or stop what we are doing. They help us to empathise and connect with others to build stronger relationships. Fear helps us avoid danger, while joy motivates us to seek out rewarding experiences. Anger can signal that our boundaries have been crossed. Feeling excited about a project may motivate us to work harder and achieve our goals.


Why is it important to address emotions when doing futures work?


Futures thinking involves a lot of questioning current assumptions, envisioning preferred futures and dealing with the strategies or roadmaps that follow from preferred scenarios. The same activity may excite one person, create cynicism in another and terrify others.


A lot of change management literature speaks of the need to handle both the cognitive and the emotional experience that people go through. In my experience, when people show “resistance to change”, there are typically unresolved emotions driving this behavior. The project or initiative might not get far without providing them with support.

 

In this article, two primary emotions are explored - Fear and Anger. I describe each emotion and provide prompting questions you can use to support people having these emotions.


Fear


Woman peeking through fingers
Some futures might scare us

“I’m afraid of how the world is turning out, that’s why I’ve decided not to have children.”

“If we don’t do anything, our competitors will disrupt our market!”

“AI is going to take away my job soon – I don’t know what to do to stay employable…”

Fear is commonly associated with feelings of unease, confusion, anxiety, panic or terror.


Typically, fear is an emotion that focuses on our Futures, especially ones where we perceive a lack of resources or capability to meet future demands or expectations.


In futures work, fear can present itself in many places. For example, when reviewing:

  • An ineffective status quo

  • Existential threats

  • Engaging in focal issues where we might seem ill-equipped to solve

  • Visions that are perceived as impossible to achieve without huge sacrifice.


Here are some questions to support people experiencing fear.

  1. What is the source of your fear? What is the worst thing that can happen? This can help one make a plan to review its likelihood of happening and manage it.

  2. What knowledge and capabilities can you gather to survive or thrive in those future scenarios? Backcasting, identifying gaps and making a learning plan to gain them can give one more confidence.

  3. What resources are already available that you’re not tapping into? Broader systems thinking and resource mapping might get one to realise that there may be more help and support than they initially acknowledge.

  4. What can you place trust in to move beyond the fear? Trust is an entry point to resolve fear. Some people can prep as much as possible and still not feel ready because of inherent uncertainty. At some point, they might have to trust something - the process, their own actions, the community, their faith, or a higher power, so that they can move forward with some optimism and hope.


Anger


Greta Thunberg holding sign that reads “school strike for climate”.
Greta Thunberg holding a sign that reads “school strike for climate”.

“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!”

“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”


Anger is typically associated with feelings of annoyance, apathy, frustration, resentment or hatred.


Typically, anger is an emotion that takes care of the need to have results NOW!, especially one where we perceive boundaries are crossed or standards are not met.


In futures work, anger can present itself in many places. When acknowledging:

  • Historical biases

  • Personal ethical and moral values that have been compromised

  • Injustice, especially with the weak, marginalised or minorities

  • Urgent and important focal issues that require action immediately.

When supporting people who experience some form of anger, here are some questions to help:

  1. What standards are you holding? Where do those standards come from? Are there other standards that compete or are in conflict with yours? Futures Triangle’s weight of the past and pull of the future could be a good way to explore standards that you and others hold.

  2. What is the impact you are committed to make? The space of preferred futures or Causal Layered Analysis is a good place to explore personal agency to take action.

  3. What do you need to forgive to move beyond the anger? Forgiveness is an entry point to resolve anger. For some, holding on to anger drives productive action. For others, they hold on without an end point of release, to their detriment. Yet, also know that forgiveness is not the same as forgetting.

 

I hope you have seen why emotions are important to address when doing Futures Thinking. Fear and Anger are two common emotions that futurists can help participants to process and overcome, using some of the questions I’ve shared. In Part 2, I explore two other primary emotions – Sadness and Happiness. Stay tuned!

 


References & Further Reading:

Damasio, A. R. (1999). The feeling of what happens: body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York, Harcourt Brace.


McLaren, K. (2010). The language of emotions: What your feelings are trying to tell you. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.


Harrell, S. Affective Foresight. Accessed April 26, 2023, https://www.apf.org/post/affective-foresight, APF Website.


Harrell, S. Affective Foresight: AI and the Emotional Singularity. Accessed April 26, 2023, https://www.apf.org/post/affective-foresight-ai-and-the-emotional-singularity, APF Website.



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