Pressure-filled situations like difficult conversations tax our working memory. That’s bad news, since working memory is crucial for reasoning, concentration, and understanding. But here’s the good news: There’s a specific type of brief writing activity that can both reduce anxiety about and boost performance under pressure.
Note: I first published this article 2014 and am updating it to include more recent research. I’ve also added several new suggestions for making best use of the technique.
Difficult conversations deplete the brain’s “processing power”
Working memory is like a mental sticky note, cognitive workspace for holding and processing information relevant to whatever we’re doing or about to do. Working memory plays an important role in comprehension, reasoning, and concentration — just the kinds of mental activities central to effective communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution.
But working memory isn’t unlimited. It appears to have limits on both capacity and duration, getting “used up” by complex thinking, emotional toll, stress and worrying.
If you’ve ever taken a downhill skiing lesson, a dance lesson, or a mediation training and then had to perform what you just learned, you’re no doubt familiar with the mental challenge the first time you try to put all the pieces together smoothly. Add anxiety or worry about performing to the mix, and you’ve got the recipe for cognitive overload.
Psychologist and researcher Hans Schroder puts it this way: “Worrying takes up cognitive resources; it’s kind of like people who struggle with worry are constantly multitasking – they are doing one task and trying to monitor and suppress their worries at the same time.”
So if working memory is crucial for keeping our wits during conflict, but the circumstances of conflict are exactly those that deplete working memory, is there anything we can do to help ourselves?
Yes, there is: It’s called expressive writing.
Expressive writing makes the mind work less hard
Expressive writing is simply writing about your thoughts and feelings. Even ten minutes of expressive writing immediately before a high-stress event can have a big impact on your anxiety level and on your performance.
Says psychologist Sian Beilock, author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To,
Writing reduces people’s tendency to ruminate because it provides them with an opportunity to express their concerns. Expressing concerns gives people some insight into the source of their stress, allowing them to reexamine the situation such that the tendency to worry during the actual pressure-filled situation decreases.
Schroder’s 2017 research with colleagues Jason Moser and Andy Henion backs up Beilock’s 2011 research conducted at The University of Chicago’s Human Performance Lab. When we get our worries out of our heads, we help boost our own performance in the upcoming conversation. Says Moser,
Expressive writing makes the mind work less hard on upcoming stressful tasks, which is what worriers often get “burned out” over, their worried minds working harder and hotter. This technique takes the edge off their brains so they can perform the task with a “cooler head.
How to use expressive writing to prepare for a difficult conversation
Here’s how to capitalize on what we’ve learned from the research so far:
1. The benefits seem to be boosted by doing expressive writing immediately before the event that’s giving you stress, worry, or anxiety. If you’re about to confront a colleague, discuss a disagreement with your business partner, or go into a mediation, plan to find a quiet spot to write just before you begin.
2. Allow yourself enough time to write for about 10 minutes. In both the 2011 and the 2017 research studies, participants wrote for eight minutes and then sat quietly for 4 minutes before heading into the stressful task.
3. Be sure the writing is expressive. It must focus on your thoughts and your feelings about the upcoming event.
4. There’s no need to keep the writing in front of you later. The benefit of the expressive writing is to free working memory, so there’s no specific need to bring what you wrote into the conversation unless, of course you end up writing something particularly useful for discussion.
5. If you’re a mediator, make time for this activity before diving in. I routinely describe expressive writing and its benefits to my clients and build in time for it before we sit down together.