Running an Imaginary Conversation In Your Head?

There’s a conversation you wish you could have, or that you are going to have, and versions of that conversation just keep spinning around and around in your mind.

Perhaps you know that feeling?

Maybe you already had a conversation with someone, and it did not go the way you wanted, and you’ve since come up with a whole bunch of things you wish you’d said…. ”clever responses,” clearer explanations, or different wording that might have resulted in the understanding you were hoping for, or avoided the disconnection and conflict that actually happened.

Maybe you were trying to win, to be right – and would still like to?

For me, the endless rehearsing and (re)running of conversations in the head has sometimes been quite a grinding and exhausting experience. Typically it would cost me time, energy and sleep, but did not leave me with anything of value. Indeed, far from seeming valuable, it might simply stir up my frustration into anger and rage, or my confusion into overwhelm and hopelessness.

I like the idea of the human mind as being somewhat like a smartphone that comes with some pre-installed apps that you’re not able to uninstall even if you want to. One of these is the “Conversation Planning App” that has often turned itself on and used up a lot of my battery life. Worse still I didn’t know how to switch it off. I’m happy to say that I have two approaches now that free me from this particular app. One of them switches off the app. The other one simply uses the app to run a different kind of conversation.

So, firstly, where’s the off switch? Well, here’s one idea that sometimes works for me as an off switch, and might work for you. I literally speak to my own mind and say something like: “Thank you for trying to help me, but you can relax about this right now; I’ll call on you later when I want to think this through more.” This is an example of finding sincere respect and gratitude even for something that you’d like to stop. In this case, you’re recognizing that the mental habit of conversation planning is an example of your mind attempting to help and support, and yet you’re also being firm that you’re not looking for that kind of help and support right now. You might need to repeat this a few times for it to work.

If this “off-switch” approach does not lead to the kind of relaxing of my mind that I’m hoping for, I use a different approach. To continue the smartphone analogy, the app keeps running, but I tweak the settings to change the way the conversation in myhead is being organized.

So – what is this approach? Simply stated, I have the other person in my imaginary conversation suddenly develop Nonviolent Communication skills, principles and awareness. I envisage them being deeply grounded in self-connection and compassion for themselves and for me. If you’re not sure how to do this you could picture your favorite NVC trainer or practitioner role-playing the other person!

There’s another way I like to say this when addressing people who are not already familiar with NVC: have the other person suddenly start listening and speaking from the heart – whatever that means for you. Does it mean compassion, courage, kindness, honesty, empathy, a very real moment-to-moment desire to understand what you’re experiencing? What else?

Meanwhile – what do you do in your imaginary conversation? Well, you can just continue expressing yourself in whatever way is coming most readily to you. If you’re angry and expressing yourself in words that would typically lead to lots of disconnection and conflict, but you cannot find any other ways to express yourself in that moment, then just go with the words that are coming. If you want to try using NVC yourself, then go for it. After all, no matter how you speak, the other person is going to respond “from the heart.”

My examples of this kind of internal “mental play” might not capture the way you’d do it yourself, not least because in written sample dialogues I find it hard to convey the heart, the felt sense of truth-telling, and the genuine desire for connection and for everyone’s needs to matter that underlies NVC. Nonetheless, the beauty of this approach is that you can create the words the other person might say, based on how you think they’d speak with their hand on their heart. With that disclaimer, I’ll give a couple of examples to illustrate this kind of “conversation planning” mental play….

Example #1:

Here’s how things might go in a typical “conversation planning” mental play:

You (NOT trying to use NVC): “Why do you think you’re so right about everything? Why are you so certain that your version of reality is the only one?”

Other person (in your mind) responds (NOT trying to use NVC): “Why are you so defensive? Why can’t you even hear my point of view?”

And here’s how the mental play might go when you give the other person NVC skills:

You (NOT trying to use NVC): “Why do you think you’re so right about everything? Why are you so certain that your version of reality is the only one?”

Pause, breathe, maybe put your hand on your heart and find words the other person might speak “from the heart”…

Other person (in your mind) responds (trying to use NVC): “Hearing you say that, I realize that although I definitely want you to understand my viewpoint, right now I’d prefer to better understand your perspective on this. Are you saying that you don’t recognize yourself in the way that I’m describing you? That you’d like your actions to be understood in a different way than the way I’ve been understanding them?”

Example #2:

Here’s how things might go in a typical “conversation planning” mental play:

You (this time trying to use NVC): “The reason I’m feeling upset is that I don’t have a sense right now of support or even friendship in how you’re speaking to me. Also the way I’m interpreting your words is contributing to this sense – I’m interpreting you as attempting to make me wrong and you right.”

Other person (in your mind) responds (NOT trying to use NVC): “Why does it always have to be about you and your needs? You dress it up in nicey-nice language but you’re always just out for yourself.”

And here’s how the mental play might go when you give the other person NVC skills:

You (trying to use NVC): “The reason I’m feeling upset is that I don’t have a sense right now of support or even friendship in how you’re speaking to me. Also the way I’m interpreting your words is contributing to this sense – I’m interpreting you as attempting to make me wrong and you right.”

Pause, breathe, maybe put your hand on your heart and find words the other person might speak “from the heart”…

 Other person (in your mind) responds (trying to use NVC): “I’m not surprised you’re interpreting me that way, since I have done plenty of right/wrong thinking about you in our relationship, and tried to win and be right on many previous occasions. And I’m hearing how when you hear my words that way you get no sense of support or even friendship, and it’s upsetting when those needs are not met?”

You: “Exactly”

Pause, breathe, hand on heart, find words for the other person…

Other person (in your mind) responds (trying to use NVC): “Are you open to hearing something about what’s going on for me, or is there more you’d like me to hear right now?”

You: “Sure, I can hear what’s going on for you…”

Pause, breathe, hand on heart, find words for the Other person…

Other person (in your mind) responds (trying to use NVC): “Well, I think I do sometimes struggle to stay open and compassionate toward you, and to meet you with support and friendship. I find it really hard when I want a sense of care for me, or of mattering, and that doesn’t seem to be happening. The story I have at those moments is that you’re not interested in hearing my needs and including them in the picture. In those cases even if you’re really clear about your unmet needs, and really attempting to use NVC and not use blame or judgment of me in how you speak, I still fear that you don’t actually want to also include my needs. I wonder how this is for you to hear me say this?”

As always, any snippet of NVC dialogue can bring up the questions “what next” or “but what if…?” What if I say X? What if they say they don’t want to talk about it? What then? What next? In the typical “conversation planning” mental play these questions spin off into more disconnected attempts at imaginary dialogue, perhaps where you continue to try and win, and imagine the other person trying to do the same. Or perhaps your typical mental play has you continuing to try get the other person to listen with empathy and care, but the other person comes back with a far less welcome response each time you speak.

However, in my adjusted mental play the answer to every “What if/What next” is… The other person will remain committed to NVC, meaning committed to the kind of connection, kindness and authenticity that arise when speaking and listening from the heart. You get to imagine, and hear, what that might sound like, no matter what you say to the other person.

If you already see the potential power of this approach, I hope you’ll give it a go next time the “conversation planning” app turns on. It’s a bit like meditation in that the more typical ways of running the conversation in your head will keep trying to encroach on this new way of doing things, just like the thought engine encroaching on the stillness we might hope for when meditating. Again and again you might need to remind yourself “Hold on, I’m not running this imagined conversation that old way, I’m doing it this new way.”

If you’re not already seeing the potential power in this approach, perhaps you’ll give it a go anyway. After all, if you’re already engaged in the more typical mental spin of “conversation planning/running/rerunning,” which is most likely going to wear you out without giving you much of value, you might just as well try something new.

The benefits of this approach for me have included:

  • Greater empathy and understanding toward myself
  • Greater empathy and understanding toward the other person
  • A sense of using my time wisely
  • An often surprising sense of peace inside
  • An empowered alternative to speaking or sending off words over text, email, phone etc. that might lead to greater disconnection, conflict and a growth in my own anger, indignation etc.
  • A process I can use even with someone who’s no longer in my life, or no longer alive, or choosing not to engage with me currently

And finally, here’s another benefit that has to be experienced to be believed… Engaging in my suggested version of “conversation planning” can change how I hold myself and express myself next time I actually speak with the other person. The other person will likely pick up on this through that sensitivity we have as humans to extract meaning from tone of voice and body language much more than from words. The resulting real conversation can then start to resemble the imagined one, even though if the other person is not trained in NVC or has no conscious intention to use it.

If you try this out and would like to let me know how it goes, I’d love to hear from you.

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