Have you ever been in a disagreement or tough negotiation and couldn’t get it out of your head later? Maybe you kept replaying all or part of it in your mind, or told someone (or several someones) about it. Maybe it stayed with you for days or even weeks. Maybe your frustration, outrage, righteousness or worry were fed by the replays.
Beware. Replaying a dispute for yourself or others carries a price it may not be worth. When you replay a conflict (or any situation, for that matter), you’re actually creating a well-worn neural pathway in your brain. It’s like a walk in the woods: If you take the same route every time, the path begins to get established and worn and easier to use. The more we “walk” a neural pathway in our heads, the more it deepens and and the easier it becomes to follow that line of thinking next time. For a little more on neural pathways and their relationship to memory and learning, try this article on Brain.org.
That’s a great way to memorize the multiplication table. But it’s an expensive trap in conflict and one that gets people stuck time and again. I see the results with too much frequency in my mediation work. It generally sounds something like this: Let me tell you what really happened. My version is the “right” one. I know it happened that way because I remember it clearly. The other person’s memory/story/recollection is fallible/crazy/wrong/a lie.
It’s an expensive trap because:
- Just because you replayed a conflict over and over in a particular way doesn’t mean that the memory or perception of it is accurate. It just means you’ve created certainty by the act of replay.
- It takes a long time — if it’s even possible — to become willing to consider that there are other ways of remembering, perceiving or understanding what happened. It’s alluring to stick to the same path, harder to beat a new path through the brush.
- If each side suffers from this same problematic clarity, a lot of emotional energy goes into try to help the other person “see the light” or arguing about who’s recollection is more accurate.
- If the dispute gets stuck due in part to this phenomenon, it can be expensive for the pocketbook, too.