The importance of parking lot conversations

As many of you know, I practice psychotherapy with couples. One theme that I’ve been thinking about recently is how many of my clients have productive, painful, and fearless conversations together in my office, but find it hard to do so outside my office. In the safety of my office, they are respectful and brave, and show impressive capacity to stay with very difficult conversations. Often, the conversations are not quite finished when our session is over, and I encourage them to try to continue the conversation sometime before our next session. After all,  I want my clients to be able to talk through their challenges together without me, and I know that’s what they want too. And yet, these conversations often don’t happen unless they’re in my office.

There are lots of good reasons for this phenomenon, of course. It’s scary to talk about contentious topics, and having an impartial and trained mediator can make it feel safer. Life can get busy, and there often seems like there’s no good time when both parties can sit down together and calmly discuss hard issues. 

What I have noticed is that occasionally, my clients will stand outside my office door, in front of the building, or in front of their cars, continuing their conversations, following our sessions.  They’re able to hold on to the feelings they’re having, they’re able to keep going with the risk-taking and the trust. And even if it’s just for a few minutes, it’s such an important building block to having more and more of these kinds of interactions.

So if you’re in couple’s therapy with me, or with someone else, let me make this humble suggestion.  If you can’t have a big conversation outside of therapy, that’s ok.  You might have good reasons that you’re just not quite ready yet. Building new habits can be hard, so take the opportunity given by your therapy session and practice the skill of taking the conversation out of the therapy room, and bring it with you outside the door, or in the parking lot. Even just a few minutes spent practicing honesty and vulnerability and respectful conversation with your partner will build the capacity to continue having more and more of them.

You might be surprised to find out that the parking lot conversations will build in length or in depth, or that you might have similar, brief conversations the night before therapy or other times throughout your week. Like anything else, new skills take practice, and the best way to do it is little by little, building confidence and experience. 

So, give it a try. Before leaving your couple’s session and rushing off to your next commitment, take a few minutes and keep talking to your partner. Tell your partner the truth, or ask your partner what he or she still wants to say to you. Try to talk and listen (even if just for a few minutes–you can even set a timer for five or ten minutes, so you know it won’t drag on forever) with respect and honesty, and let me know how it goes!