Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Ken had a quick conversation with his wife, Jenn, that has been on his mind all afternoon. He had called home during lunch to check on her. She hadn’t been feeling well and had taken the day off.
During the conversation, Jenn had mentioned her disappointment that Ken hadn’t cleaned up after himself and the kids before he left. Ken was frustrated and annoyed about this expectation, which he felt was unreasonable. Here’s how the rest of the conversation went:
“Jenn, you know I had to get to work. Would you rather I take a day off to clean the house and put my job at risk? And by the way, you’re not feeling so bad that you can’t do a few dishes.”
“That’s totally unfair,” Jenn shot back. “It would have taken ten minutes for you to clear the dishes up. Aren’t we a team?”
“Oh, so I risk being late for work to do something you are perfectly capable of? You had the whole morning ahead of you.”
“Ken, you had plenty of time to get to work. It was a simple request.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re not the one rushing to work.”
Ken felt himself becoming more frustrated with Jenn, who didn’t seem to be trying to see his side. The conversation went downhill from there.
But here’s what’s interesting. The quarrel occurred while Ken was sitting in front of his computer. You ask: was he on his cellphone? The answer is no. This was all happening in Ken’s mind.
That’s called rehearsing. It’s when you have an uncomfortable or an emotional conversation ahead of you, and you allow your mind to go to town imagining what you will say, how the other person will respond, what you will say back, and onward … and downward.
Rehearsal is a trip to nowhere. And a trip you can avoid.
There are a couple of problems with rehearsing a conversation in advance. First, rehearsal can be a set-up to have a conversation that is needlessly destructive. You’ve imagined the worst possible scenario in terms of how your partner might respond, and are armed with exactly how you are going to put them in their place. So well-armed, in fact, that you might only be half listening to what your partner says since you think you know the outcome anyway. And as you rehearse, the emotions can build up to the point that your feelings may be way out of proportion to the situation. You might even rehearse what you wish you had said about something that happened a couple of weeks ago and decide to toss that into the mix.
The result? Rehearsal can get you all primed up for a fight. With words and emotions that are way, way out of proportion to the situation. And hurt feelings and misunderstanding resulting.
Found yourself rehearsing a conversation with your partner lately? Well, that’s normal. But here’s what you can do to avoid the damage that rehearsing can cause:
Consider the risk. It can feel good to have that conversation of all conversations—or argument of all arguments—playing out in your head. With the exact words to say to gain maximum advantage over your partner. But all that rehearsing can leave you with an arsenal of mean, hurtful, or manipulative things to say. Letting loose with all that poison can cause lasting damage to your relationship. Also consider: how are you going to feel after you have caused pain to your partner?
Watch out for the kitchen sink. Once the rehearsal begins, your mind can easily start conjuring up memories of other discussions you have had, or wish you had, and what you could have said. And what about that time … ? That rehearsal in your mind may include all kinds of what feels like unfinished business. The result? Escalation! And the potential for more damage.
Adopt a beginner’s mind. Each moment in time is unique. Each conversation is unique. Remember this when your mind starts to drag you into rehearsing a conversation that hasn’t yet occurred. What if, instead, you said to yourself: “I can’t know what’s going to happen when my partner and I talk this out with each other. And I don’t need to arm myself as if preparing for battle. I will speak from my heart and listen with an open mind. We’ll work this out together.”
There’s a time and a place for rehearsing. Sure, rehearsal isn’t always a bad thing. Rehearsing a conversation can be useful when you’re deciding the best approach to asking your boss for a raise. Or talking to a neighbor about their barking dog. Or explaining to your teen why they can’t get a tattoo. Even then, expect surprises. But consider this: while rehearsal can help you to kick off a conversation in a positive direction, it’s not useful much beyond that because conversations evolve in real time. We can’t predict where they will go. Consequently, it’s still important to adopt a beginner’s mind from that point forward and let the conversation evolve naturally.
Protect your well-being, as well as your partner’s. If you or your partner are living with a chronic condition, then the fallout can be even more serious, with not only an emotional but a physical impact.
You and your partner. Avoid the conversation in your head before you have the real conversation. Have conversations in real time. Fully present. Open. And speaking out of love.
Have a tip for discussing delicate topics? Share your wisdom by commenting below.