Books for Writers — Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray

We live in an increasingly divided world. Whether you’re gathering news and information from television, traditional newspapers, or online sources, chances are that you pay attention to people who share your beliefs.

When we encounter people on the “other end” of our political or belief spectrum, we can be amazed that they dismiss ideas that seem so obvious to us.

Dave Gray, author of Liminal Thinking, would say that we are engaged in a battle for the obvious.

As writers, we must understand our role in that battle. Reading Liminal Thinking is a great place to start.

While the book is focused for a business audience, its practices are particularly relevant for writers who hope to change the world, one reader at a time.

The Power, and Limits, of Our Beliefs

Gray defines liminal thinking as “the art of creating change by understanding, shaping, and reframing beliefs.”

If you’re a writer who wants to make a change in the world, liminal thinking is a powerful tool.

The book starts by summarizing six core principles that explain how and why we dig into our belief systems. (Read all six principles on the book’s website.)

To summarize, beliefs are models that we create to manage reality. They are human and social constructions that we share with others. Belief systems help us navigate a complex world.

Yet, like any model, they are imperfect matches to reality, with limitations and blind spots. Reality is complex and dynamic, changing more quickly than our belief systems can keep pace.

Shared belief systems protect themselves. Gray describes to “self-sealing” logic that glosses over any flaws in our models. When beliefs are tied to our personal identities, we work even harder to insulate them from change.

To make real change, we have to be able to step outside of those systems and look beyond our blind spots.

Writing from the Threshold

The word “liminal” means, among other things, on the threshold. Liminal writing requires working at the boundaries.

Writers, like readers, operate within their own belief systems. To effectively create change, we should adopt the practices of liminal thinking, questioning our assumptions and learning how to gently shift beliefs.

Gray lays out nine practices for liminal thinking. (Read all nine here.) Of those, the following practices are particularly important for writers.

Assume you are not objective

Understand that you, too, operate in a bubble of shared conceptions. I’ve written about The Curse of Knowledge, or the tendency to act as if others share our current knowledge. You might say that Gray’s book describes a Curse of Belief — the inability to see outside our own circle of things that seem obvious.

Things that seem obvious to you are not obvious to others who do not share the same sets of beliefs. Writes Gray:

“The obvious is not obvious. It is constructed.”

You need to be able to step to the threshold of your own belief system before inviting others to change theirs.

Triangulate and evaluate

Question your beliefs. Can you disprove them? Can you try on a different way of thinking and see how that changes things?

Comfort in our own beliefs blinds us to other potential realities. Writes Gray:

“Most of the time we are all walking around with our heads so full of ‘obvious’ that we can’t see what’s really going on.”

Ask questions and make connections

Try to understand the belief systems of others. For writers, this practice entails understanding your target readers and getting into their heads. You may have to ask people about what they feel and want, and truly listen to their answers without judgment.

Make sense with stories

You probably knew this was coming, but the best way to shift another person’s belief is to share a story. Stories are entries into different belief systems. Remember that beliefs defend themselves with “self-sealing” logic. Stories work their way through that defensive barrier. Writes Gray,

“If you give people facts without a story, they will explain it within their existing belief system.”

Take-Aways for Writers

As writers, we have a choice: do we continue to write and reach only those who already share our beliefs, or do we try to bridge the gaps? Do we attempt to spark change, loosening those hardened positions and finding a middle ground in which we can be heard?

If you hope to influence peoples’ thoughts or change behavior with your writing, then this short book will be invaluable.

Working in the liminal spaces may not be comfortable; stepping outside your own beliefs may feel both threatening and empowering. But it’s the best chance you have of becoming an effective agent for change.

Books for Writers

This is one of a series of posts about books that, while not ostensibly about writing, maybe very useful to writers. I will continue to add books to the list. Here’ are a few other posts that fit into this category:

How We Learn

Two Books to Build Resilience (Grit and Known)

Productivity for Creative People

You can find all of my book reviews here.

Originally published at on September 26, 2017.

Author, Writing Coach: Writing about Marketing, Technology, and Writing Itself (very meta).