Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 13;   April 6, 2022:

The Risks of Rehearsals


Rehearsing a conversation can be constructive. But when we're anxious about it, we can imagine how it would unfold in ways that bias our perceptions. We risk deluding ourselves about possible outcomes, and we might even experience stress unnecessarily.
A symphony orchestra in action

A symphony orchestra in action. Symphony orchestras do rehearse, but their rehearsals are limited and objective. The conversation rehearsals we conduct in our minds are sometimes repeated numerous times, and are rarely objective. Image by takazart.

To rehearse a conversation is to play it out in your mind, or perhaps aloud. We play out both parts of a conversation — both what we would say and what our conversation partner would say. Rehearsal can be a constructive part of preparing for a difficult or challenging exchange. It can be especially constructive when performed with a colleague willing to faithfully play the role of your partner in the upcoming conversation.

But there is another kind of rehearsal that's far less constructive. Because these rehearsals usually take place in the mind, let's call them imagined rehearsals. They tend to evoke strong emotions from the general category of anger — emotions like indignation, fury, rage, or wrath. Some imagined rehearsals take the form of reports of anticipated events, including phrases like, "I said" or "He/She said." Or they might include imagined scenes complete with actions, as in a play or vignette.

Rarely do imagined rehearsals prepare us for reality. Because we don't subject their scripts to tests of objectivity, we're free to bias our imagined rehearsals in directions that provide satisfaction instead of preparation. Instead of preparing us for possible actual events, imagined rehearsals prepare us for scenes unlikely to occur. When the actual event unfolds in a different way, our "preparation" might turn out to be misleading or even harmful, because the real event is so very different from the imagined rehearsal.

There are two kinds of imagined rehearsals that can be especially harmful. In what follows, I'll use the name Calvin for the person Conducting the imagined rehearsal. And I'll use the name Parker for Calvin's Partner in imagined conversation. By a coin flip, I'll use male gender for Calvin and female for Parker.

Premier rehearsals

Premier rehearsals Rarely do imagined rehearsals
prepare us for reality. We're
free to bias them in directions
that provide satisfaction
instead of preparation.
are imagined rehearsals of events yet to occur. In a premier rehearsal, Calvin imagines a dominating performance. Parker is utterly trounced, caught in multiple lies, shown to be biased, or convicted of criminal hypocrisy. Only Calvin's sense of mercy preserves Parker's few remaining shreds of dignity.

Premier rehearsals are dangerous for Calvin in two ways. First, the real Parker is a living, breathing person who can mount both effective defenses and effective counterattacks. More important, the real Parker certainly has knowledge Calvin does not. And the real Parker can use that knowledge in crafting those defenses and counterattacks. Because of the imagined rehearsal, Calvin is unprepared for these moves, and therefore probably overconfident.

Second, imagined rehearsals evoke strong emotions. In running the rehearsals, Calvin might experience significant psychic pain. The rehearsal might have been imagined, but the pain might be very real. And although actual rehearsals — for example, by drama companies or orchestras — are few in number, imagined rehearsals like Calvin's might run again and again and again. Imagined rehearsals can be exhausting. The energy dissipated in imagined rehearsals would certainly be better spent in devising strategy or enhancing future performance.

Rerun rehearsals

A rerun rehearsal is a rehearsal of an event similar to one that has already occurred. In a rerun rehearsal, Calvin tries alternative tactics that differ from those he used the first time around. In addition to phrases such as, "I said" or "She said," Calvin might use, "I wanted to say" or "I was thinking."

Rerun rehearsals can be even more harmful to Calvin than premier rehearsals, for two reasons. First, they foster a sense in Calvin that the past can be revised. Since Calvin has no such power, rerun rehearsals can become the basis for a delusional overestimation of his own abilities and likewise, delusional underestimation of Parker's abilities.

Second, rerun rehearsals occur after Calvin has experienced the event on which he bases the rerun. Any information Parker revealed in the event, and which came as a surprise to Calvin, is now in Calvin's possession. Calvin can use that information to revise his tactics, eliminating the disadvantage of surprise during the rerun rehearsal. This kind of revision further distorts Calvin's estimation of his true ability to deal with Parker.

Last words

Certainly there are other kinds of rehearsals just as damaging or painful as premiers and reruns. When you catch yourself conducting a rehearsal, ask yourself a question: "What could I be thinking about instead of this?" Answering that question is usually easy. The tricky part is catching yourself conducting a rehearsal. Here's an idea: get a conductor's baton. Keep it on your desk. Move it around once in a while to prevent it becoming a background fixture. Under $10.00 at Amazon. Go to top Top  Next issue: Cassandra at Work  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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