Learning to talk with no ranting or whining

How to talk to each other when you don't really want to

August 27, 2002|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

WOMEN HAVE a reputation for talking everything to death.

We cannot seem to rest until we have processed every relationship, every situation, through the inadequate vehicle of words.

Very often, things are worse for it. Certainly those closest to us, our husbands and our children, might agree. We often drive them away or make matters worse.

Harriet Lerner, a psychotherapist and a best-selling author, has been helping people - mostly women - deal with relationship issues for a decade in a series of books that began with The Dance of Intimacy in 1990.

In her most recent book, The Dance of Connection, now in paperback, Lerner deals with life's most difficult conversations: "How to talk to someone when you're mad, hurt, scared, frustrated, insulted, betrayed or desperate."

In it, she walks readers through a variety of difficult relationship situations in the anecdotal and conversational style that makes her books such a comfortable read.

"This book is about speaking wisely and well with the most difficult people in the most difficult circumstances," Lerner said in a telephone interview while on her book tour.

Lerner wants people to talk smarter.

Getting your point across "does not mean saying everything you think and feel. Expressing true feelings, while absolutely essential in certain situations, is highly overrated as a principle to live by," she says.

That's because words often fail us.

Not only do they fail to convey what we are really feeling, they fail to force an apology, they fail to change the other person's behavior.

This is especially true between married people who, unlike friends, neighbors or co-workers, have an enormous stake in talking things out to the satisfaction of both sides.

"It is a sad paradox that the more important the relationship, the more likely we are to be locked in narrow conversations," she says.

Being "true to ourselves" often means repeating the same words over and over again, never persuading the listener, never moving forward ourselves.

There is another way, Lerner believes. Conversation can not only release frustration and effect change, but it can also actually make the speaker a better person.

"Our conversations invent us," Lerner says. "The challenge in conversation is not only to find our authentic voice, but also to enlarge it. Not just to be ourselves, but also to choose the self we want to be."

That can often mean holding your tongue. That can mean not laying out a list of criticism and grievances in the name of honesty.

"For the woman, there are a couple of rules. You need to calm down. You need to get a grip on your own reactivity. Calm is contagious. And say it shorter.

"For the man, he needs to stop the entrenched distancing and stonewalling. He can say, `I love you, I want to be able to hear what you are upset about, but I can't hear you when I feel flooded.'

"He needs to find a way to end the conversation in a loving and helpful way. This is not the same as cold withdrawal."

Silence isn't useful when it turns into that kind of distance, Lerner says, but it does have its place in conversation.

"Silence might simply be listening to the other person and asking questions and saving your differences for the next conversation."

Or leaving them behind altogether.

Lerner opens this book with her favorite relationship anecdote: Two children are playing in a sandbox when a huge fight breaks out. The kids scream, "I hate you!" and run away.

But in no time, they are back in the sandbox, playing happily.

Two adults observe this and one asks the other how it is possible for these kids to be so angry at each other one minute and be happy together in, literally, the next minute.

"It is simple," one of the adults explains. "They choose happiness over righteousness."

Lerner offers in this book ways for grown-ups to connect, despite their anger, bitterness or hurt.

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