By Matt Noyes. Adapted from Educating for a Change.

Talking about what we don't want can be the quickest, most concrete path to defining our goals. This activity challenges people to clarify and express their goals in a creative way.

Brainstorming what it would look like if, instead of your goals, your worst nightmares were realized.

Materials/Prep: flip chart or blackboard, markers, chalk

Number of People: Flexible, probably not more than 30 or so.

Time: 15 - 30 minutes, depending on the discussion.


  • Explain and motivate.
  • Describe a specific situation in which the participants want a good outcome, for example a local election or a union meeting, then ask participants to imagine the worst possible scenario and call out the features.
  • On blackboard or flip chart, take notes as participants call out features of the nightmare.
  • Stop the brainstorm when the list is thorough enough (facilitator can judge and ask participants if there are objections to stopping), or the level of interest is starting to sag.
  • Review the list and ask people what they make of it: what are the basic nightmare elements? What is the worst part of the nightmare, the thing you most want to avoid?
  • Reflection: Ask participants to relate the nightmare to their own experience. Has anyone experienced any of this in their work? What happened? What were the causes? What did you do about it?

Watch for/suggestions:
The nightmare requires a certain tone, humorous, but not ridiculous. The nightmare is most helpful if it is realistic, but exaggerated. These are all things that could happen, though probably not all at the same time. If something is too off the wall, urge people to be more realistic, remind them that the purpose is to define what you want to avoid that might happen if all goes wrong.

Read the participants, this nightmare approach is actually a short cut to goal setting (because it gets people to describe their goals in a fresh way) but it can feel like a pointless detour to an impatient participant.

That said, be bold and a little corny. Find the hams in the crowd and egg them on.

Reflection on the brainstorm can lead into a discussion of how to prevent the nightmare scenario in a specific case. You can also have people quickly brainstorm the "good dream" scenario, based on the opposite of the nightmare, and talk about how to make those things happen.

I often do a short version of this on my own when planning a workshop, to get unstuck. I ask myself what I really want to avoid or prevent. I also use it as a line of questioning in conversation with other people when we are planning together and get stuck, or can't agree on a plan, or if I don't understand their goals.

It can also be useful to imagine what the boss's nightmare scenario might be. For example, look at how the union and management representatives handle grievances and ask, "okay, you are the shift supervisor, what is your nightmare scenario? What are you most afraid of? What do you want to avoid? What could the workers (union, upper management) do that is your worst nightmare?" One person's nightmare may be another's fond wish. Imagining the boss's nightmare is a good way to get people thinking about their own goals in workplace organizing.

You can also do a nightmare scenario for your opponents in a union election -- for example, an entrenched union bureaucracy -- as a way of clarifying your analysis of their objectives, strengths and weaknesses (and your own).


NOTE -- Usually in this section of an activity description I describe how I used the technique in one workshop or another. In this case, I describe two real life "nightmares" I encountered that have to do with the process of planning workshops. I include them not as examples of the Nightmares technique, but to show how what happens before the workshop can influence what happens in the workshop, limiting what can be accomplished, or even making the workshop not worth doing.

Nightmare #1 -- What happens then the dog catches the car?
A group of workers has just won office in a large local union. They are honest, solid unionists and ran a great grassroots campaign. Great. BUT, in a month they will have to begin running the union and they have very limited administrative and representation experience. They have never run a union meeting or handled cases in arbitration; they have never made a budget for such a large organization; they have never managed an office, etc. To make matters worse, the defeated incumbents are still out there organizing the members against the new officers and they have the support of most stewards and staff. The new officers ran on an anti-incumbent program but never really defined what they would do differently; they have no common platform or plans. Already they are disagreeing about basic policy questions. Their attorney -- a supporter of union democracy -- suggests they get some training, fast. They call AUD.

What makes this a nightmare? Two things: first, the problem of winning on an anti-incumbent platform without shared values and goals. Knowing what you stand for, what you want to change, and how you plan to change it is crucial -- you may not know how to operate the union's phone system or use the membership database, but you if you have defined your goals you will be able to solve those problems in a way that is consistent with your principles and goals. Most important, you will be able to prioritize among the many demands on your time and attention, and assign tasks.

For the educator, the idea that education, or training, can fill the gap by simply depositing skills and information in the heads of the new officers is a recipe for frustration and failure. The traditional, "banking" idea of education or training is at work in the assumption that "education" - usually in the form of one or two workshops - can quickly fill in the gaps.

Still, as the educator in this case, it seemed to me that it was worthwhile for us to do our best and hope that the people could make it work. After all, you don't get to choose the perfect starting point. In the weeks before they took office, after helping them determine their priorities and most pressing needs, we ran a series of workshops on topics like: how to handle taking over a local, how to keep the fight for reform going when you are in office, how to organize on the shopfloor and make the grievance procedure more effective, how to run democratic union meetings, publishing an effective newsletter. The goal was not to train them to master each aspect of union administration -- that was not realistic in the context and time frame -- it was to help them get enough tools and confidence to survive the transition. And, to help them keep their eyes on the prize -- democracy and reform -- as they got involved in the many concrete problems of union administration.

They assumed office and survived the immediate transition, but within a matter of months their new administration fell apart. Without a clear strategy and goals, they were exposed to misunderstandings, mutual suspicion, and contradictory actions. Perhaps with time they could have developed a common vision and healthy group dynamics, but after a brief flurry of new initiatives, the leadership melted down in a nasty internal battle.

Nightmare #2 -- good intentions and bad methods
The trustee of a formerly mobbed-up local now under government supervision has decided it is finally time to hold local elections. It's been several years and the mob's grip on the local has been broken. He asks AUD to do a workshop for local members on running for union office, offering to pay the going rate charged by a local university labor studies program (a lot more than AUD usually gets for our workshops).

The trustee is planning on running for Local President and has recruited a full slate of candidates. He presents AUD with a timeline: the workshop will be held a week before nominations, which are just two weeks before the election. The local's attorney, also a supporter of AUD, sends over a copy of draft election rules and procedures, drawn up with the trustee, that the members have not seen. The whole process is to begin in a week or two.

When we discuss possible workshop ideas, the trustee makes it clear that the election rules will not be distributed to the members before the workshop and that if during the workshop a worker asks questions about the election rules, the workshop facilitator (me), is supposed to say, "I can't talk about that, please consult the local's attorney." The workshop is to be limited to the subject of union elections in general, not the specifics of this election.

Why is this a nightmare? First, because the short timeline itself made it very difficult for anyone to mount an effective campaign, except, that is, for the trustee and his slate. Even if a member were already thinking of running, by the time s/he had a chance to meet with like-minded members, review the election procedures and rules, write up campaign literature, visit workplaces, raise money to send a mailing to members, set up a website, etc. the election would be over. An educational workshop could help members learn how to ensure that the election was run fairly and what to do if they saw problems, but not how to run for office themselves.

The prohibition on discussion of the rules and procedures of the election just made matters worse. Participants in a workshop must have the space to think, ask, and discuss freely. It is certainly not the educator's role to give an official interpretation of the rules and procedures, but it is her/his role to help workers learn them and discuss their implications. It seemed that the trustee's plans left no real room for opposition.

We did not do the training. The trustee won the election.

NOTE: AUD's non-partisan role is often misunderstood or just ignored: AUD supports the democratic rights of union members regardless of their particular agenda or ideology. It is the union members themselves who should decide, democratically, what their union should stand for and how it should run. In this case, the trustee was a supporter of union democracy and a brave fighter against mob influence but that did not mean that AUD would support the trustee in his campaign for union election, or deny assistance to members who wanted to challenge the trustee (in this case there were none).