Practice Out Loud
I still remember the day I discovered the power of out loud practicing when it comes to assertiveness in difficult conversations. As is so often true, I learned it with the help of a client. I was working with an extraordinarily nice man who was in a very unrewarding, borderline emotionally abusive relationship. He was having great difficulty pulling the trigger on breaking up, which he knew he wanted and needed to do. Something about the idea of having that very difficult conversation, where his girlfriend might be hurt, might cry, might be angry and blaming, had him stopped cold. No matter how many ways we discussed how that conversation might go, what was behind his reluctance in terms of family of origin issues, he just couldn’t get over that final hump and do it. I was wracking my brains, trying to think of something new to try, when it occurred to me to do some good old fashioned psychodrama – acting the scene out in session.
Now, this isn’t a technique I’d worked with much, perhaps because I myself cringe at the idea of any kind of acting. I was the person in graduate school who would much rather be the therapist in practice sessions, where I could be myself, than try to be the client and call on my non-existant acting skills. But hey, I was desperate. My poor client was suffering in limbo month after month. So I was the girlfriend, and he was himself. I made him say the words over and over and over. And each time, he tried different words, a different order to what he needed to say, until he got more and more clear, more and more comfortable. He felt acutely self conscious at first, as, frankly, did I since I had to act out various responses his girlfriend might make, but we both discovered we could get over the anxiety and awkwardness of the situation just by repeating it until some of the fear wore off. Then I suggested he go home and continue to practice out loud, in the car, in the shower, anywhere he could feel comfortable continuing to try out versions of what he needed to say.
I can’t say I held out a ton of hope that our session and the homework would do the trick. The poor guy had been stuck on the issue for almost six months, and I didn’t flatter myself that my grasping at straws psychodrama inspiration was some brilliant move that would get him unstuck. Imagine my surprise and delight when he came in the very next week telling me he’d done it, he’d had the breakup conversation. He told me that practicing out loud was the thing that did it for him, described that he felt empowered by it, felt like hearing his own voice made him realize he had a voice.
Since then, I’ve used this technique a lot, especially when it comes to those very nice, conflict avoidant folks who struggle with assertiveness, and I’ve used it on myself, because I’m one of those folks too. It can be used for so many things besides a breakup conversation. Want to talk to your teenaged son about safe sex? Want to ask your boss for a raise? Want to tell your friend you’d really like her to stop giving you advice every time you share a concern? Want to forge an agreement with your wife on recreational spending? Practice it out loud, often, and you will discover the magic of your own voice.