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Is It Helpful to Rehearse Arguments in Your Head?

Running through verbal spats mentally ahead of time seems like a better way to prepare than it generally turns out to be

Attorney Stewart J. Guss argues for a living, so naturally he prepares meticulously ahead of any presentation. But part of his strategy is to deliberately leave gaps in his arguments, so he can save a few points “to have a stronger counterargument, when the inevitable debate crops up,” Guss tells me. That said, he wouldn’t recommend amateurs emulate his approach. “You might end up with a Swiss cheese argument — too many holes to keep track of. Forget about one and you’re suddenly arguing off-the-cuff, which you could have just done from the start,” he tells me.

Still, even if we don’t have a specific strategy like Guss, many of us spend a fair amount of time — whether it’s in the mirror, sitting in traffic or while out on an otherwise peaceful morning jog — rehearsing imaginary arguments. Naturally, we assume that this will give us a leg up on the perfect comeback or scathing last word. But the problem with this specific type of shadow-boxing is that we often don’t see the thin line between preparation and rumination. The latter of which occurs when individuals focus too much on negative scenarios that haven’t happened yet.

“If you think rehearsing an argument in your head is going to give you a boost when the disagreement actually happens, think again,” marriage and family therapist Silva Depania explains. As much as getting fired up may feel proactive, planning for a future argument in your head is largely reactive, as these rehearsals are usually centered around predicting what someone might say to you — something that’s entirely out of your control. This can result in “lots of confusion and flustered feelings later on when the reality of the argument doesn’t follow the script for the imaginary scenario you had concocted,” Depania says. 

Plus, instead of clearly communicating why you were upset in the first place, you may end up upset and defensive because your partner went off-script. “The disagreement will have a higher likelihood of spiraling into a fight in which neither your, nor your partner’s points are being heard,” Depania explains. 

Registered nurse and mindset coach Andrea Blindt agrees. “When we ruminate, we’re leaving the present moment and either going back into a past event, or are anticipating a future situation,” Blindt says. Not only does this remove a person further from solving whatever the initial problem was, but it takes a toll on their mental health in the process. Living in the future is simply stressful.

Instead of rehearsing future arguments, Blindt recommends figuring out why you feel the need to practice fighting in the first place. “Are you anticipating future turmoil? If so, why?” Blindt asks. You can also think back to real past scenarios — as opposed to fake future ones — to “reality test” if your anxieties are valid. 

In the end, you’re better off using that time and energy to figure out exactly what you’re mad about so you don’t lose sight of your point if an argument does occur. Once you’ve defined the problem, it may be helpful to brainstorm ways to deal with it that don’t involve controlling other people’s responses. 

At the very least, when imagining future arguments, it might not be so bad if they’re made of Swiss cheese and contain some holes. Because a genuine, off-the-cuff conversation is most likely to yield the best results in the end.