Unless we’re actors, we aren’t required to spend a lot of time rehearsing lines. However, many of us do anyway.
Many of us, that is, spend a lot of time planning the conversations we’re going to have with others. Perhaps it’s the difficult conversation we need to have with our significant other about something that might create conflict. Maybe it’s what we’re going to say to explain a mistake to the boss. Or perhaps it’s what we’re going to say when we’re meeting new people at a social gathering.
We might spend time crafting a tactful way to break up a relationship—considering which of the phrases “it’s really hard to do this,” “it’s not you, it’s me,” or “I just need some time to myself” would work best to soften the blow. We might practice greeting others, thrusting out our hands in front of a mirror and trying to say “good to meet you” in a confident but not presumptuous tone. We might contemplate how we’re going to respond to others’ anticipated criticism to make ourselves look blameless or contrite. “I didn’t know about this until the last minute,” we might practice saying while driving to our meeting with the boss. “My understanding was that someone else’s department was responsible.” And so on.
Sometimes we plan in real time, as the interaction is unfolding. In a conversation, we listen to the other person’s words intently for opportunities to crack a killer joke or tell an interesting story that relates to the subject. In an argument, we mentally tick off possible counterpoints as the other person is attacking us. On the phone, when we cannot be seen, we may even write down possible responses as the call goes on.
Perhaps the strangest form of rehearsal we do in our daily lives involves rehearsing for an interaction that already happened. If you think this doesn’t make sense, you’re right, but that doesn’t stop many of us from doing it. The most common example is when we get into an argument with someone and continue feeling steamed afterwards. We then try to relieve our discomfort by imagining more incisive or hurtful things we could have said to the other person. “I could have brought up that time when he left the keys in the car,” we say to ourselves. “Or I could have told him never to talk to me that way again.” We expend time and mental energy “preparing” for an interaction that happened in the past and will never happen again.
On the surface, rehearsing—at least, if we’re rehearsing for a future conversation—can appear helpful. We may sound smoother, more intelligent, more composed, and so forth in our interactions when we prepare our lines in advance. But rehearsal comes with a significant cost—it makes our interactions far less fulfilling, both for ourselves and our conversation partners. We find ourselves interrupting the people we’re talking to in order to get our prepared lines out. We find ourselves changing the subject, disrupting the natural flow of the conversation, to tell that great story. We find ourselves only half-listening to what others are saying to ensure that we have a witty or intelligent thing to say afterwards. And people can sense—consciously or otherwise—when our dialogue with them is canned, and it makes them anxious and uncomfortable.
Most importantly, rehearsing for interactions with others is based on the assumption that we aren’t good enough to live life without preparing to live it. The story we tell ourselves when we rehearse goes that, because we can’t live without others’ approval, and we can’t receive that approval without working for it, we must carefully craft our interactions to make sure others like us. The more we rehearse, the more we reinforce this destructive belief in our minds—and the more interacting with others starts to feel like hard work and a source of frustration.
I used to meticulously rehearse for my conversations with others whenever I could. When I was alone, I would play out my upcoming conversations out loud, devising witticisms and interesting subjects I could throw in to impress people. The most disturbing effect of constantly rehearsing was that I lost touch with what I actually felt and wanted. I became so focused on saying things that improved my relations with others that I seemingly forgot how to express my own needs and desires in conversation. When I finally resolved to stop rehearsing and inject some spontaneity into my interactions, my relationships with others took on a joy, creativity and emotional richness they’d never had before.
Sometimes, rehearsal is important for achieving our goals in life. When we have to give a speech or presentation at work, for instance, it helps to have some idea of what we’re going to say. But rehearsing for everyday conversations, whether in the work, intimate relationship or social contexts, ultimately serves only to deaden and dehumanize our interactions. If you find yourself rehearsing often, I invite you to at least experiment with having “unscripted” interactions with others. I think you’ll find that life is more fulfilling—and that you’ll deepen your emotional connections with people—when you try ad-libbing and improvising instead of reading prepared lines.