Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
October 2011 - Volume 11, No. 10
She:Why don’t we talk anymore?
He: What do we need to talk about?
She:Nothing in particular, it’s just that we don’t talk - about anything.
He:What should we talk about?(unaware he’s repeating himself).
She:Why should it have to be about something? Why don’t we just talk?
He:That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Of course it has to be about something. People don’t just talk about nothing.
She withdraws - hurt and feeling alone. He withdraws, happy that it’s out of the way.
There’s a major gender difference here that seems to generalize across the culture. When men talk, they do it to accomplish something. It has be be about something. Otherwise it’s wasted time. Back when we were courting a woman, it could have been “just talking” but underneath it had a specific purpose - courting her. Men use language to get work done - it’s goal oriented and focused. That can explain why when a man comes “home” he doesn’t want to talk - he’s left work.
Women on the other hand, when free to “talk,” use it to represent a relationship. Listen to women casually talking with each other. They’re not necessarily “accomplishing” anything, except to share the joy of being in a friendship with each other. (We men often call it “chatter”.) So when a woman asks a man (her man) to talk to her, she’s often asking him to enjoy being in relationship with her. And many women would much rather talk to a man than other woman, especially if the man knows and enjoys the art of good conversation.
Many women are starved for a good conversation - especially at home. And there are a lot of men who have no idea what they’re missing (at least until he finds it in another woman).
Personally I was fortunate in my upbringing. My parents were both excellent conversationalists. When friends would visit, that was primarily how time was spent. In those days, people like my parents would travel across the country by visiting and overnighting with friends along the way. Much of our own long-distance family traveling was visiting friends who were a day’s travel from each other. (I don’t recall staying staying being in a hotel or motel until my college years.) And it was the habit of my parents, when having or being guests to enjoy long hours of conversation. We children were put to bed early, while they and my parents would talk into the wee hours of the morning. They had a great collection of fascinating friends - and the joy of conversation was the glue that held them together over the years.
One old recollection was revisiting friends who were ranchers, out in the mountains of Colorado who, still lacking electricity, would light long tapers on the mantle at sundown - and when they had burned all the way down, it was time for bed - we children already long asleep in a bunkhouse.
A special aspect of the relationship with my father involved our extensive conversations. I recall whenever I wanted to ‘talk‘ he’d find the ability to put down whatever he was doing to spend time with me. It’s interesting that I have no recollection now of the subjects, but after all these years I easily recall the comfort of all those times of ‘talking‘ with each other. I’m told that he sorely missed those times after I left home for college and the larger life.
With my clients, there’s an assumed protocol that they come to each therapy session with some particular “issue.” And they’ll apologize when they don’t have a specific problem to discuss. But often our best sessions are not “issue” sessions, but simply opportunities for the deep healing that can emerge from within open conversation that serves the therapy contract.
Just start talking and listening. It doesn’t even have to be about anything. But frequently, from within the talking and listening, something emerges that may otherwise have never come up. The talking itself gives birth to a meaningful or important conversation.
Recently I’ve come up with two specific rules to assist this process. The first is that no offense ever be taken in response to another. So frequently in my office, one party will “go to defense” in response to the partner. So high is the anxiety that has replaced empathy. At that point, effective listening has halted, and the conversation is aborted. My rule is that whenever one is tempted to go to defense, justification or self explanation, Stop! - for nothing of value will follow. It’s the same with anger - once it shows up, don’t feed it by giving it back.
My second rule is to allow for empty spaces in the conversation. Don’t be afraid of the silences - and even more important, don’t leave each other during them. Even my telephone conversations with some close friends can include many silent spaces - with which we are mutually comfortable. If it’s time to leave, or you need to leave, do so with the appropriate courtesies that keep it separate from the meaning of the conversation.
The root meaning of the word ‘conversation’ can be roughly be translated as “hanging out with one other.” It’s the very act of this hanging out, even in our silences, that can open up deeper reservoirs of shared meaning and experience.
My experience of writing (which often emerges from internal conversation), especially these monthly newsletters, is that often I just start writing, and then something emerges from within the writing that becomes important. “Oh, so that’s what I’m writing about!” Once that gate is opened, the rest often just flows - often through a dozen or so subsequent drafts, as the internal conversation evolves. Each draft can reveal an additional facet of my subject; and I’m often reluctant to have to stop the process and let it go.
This is also the art of marital conversation. I happened to witness Dr. Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, being interviewed last Spring just before officiating the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. He spoke of marriage as two people embarking on a life-long enterprise of getting to know each other. So many marriages have stopped or lost that. And my consistent advice is talk to each other. Once the talking can begin, it’s miraculously followed by real conversation - the ongoing getting to know each other that can, at its very best, come best from two people committed to each other for life. Note that I’m not talking about communication skill, no, I’m talking about commitment.
Perhaps it’s significant that in the Genesis account of Creation, the actual act of Creating comes from the inner conversation of God. It’s not a question of who God is speaking to (we’ll probably never figure that out), but the fact that from within that conversation, God speaks - and Creation happens.
In like manner, a wedding doesn’t make a marriage. It only sets the man and the woman apart from “all others” so that they have a committed “conversation space” in which to build the marriage. And marriages aren’t built by talking that just ‘solves problems’ - but rather by conversation that opens and builds the (sacred) space to further knowing each other. From within the talk comes conversation. From within the conversation can come a “new thing” that didn’t exist before. (This is also an excellent metaphor for the marriage making/having children, or other gifts for the sake of the larger community.)
So when a married person comes to me complaining that “we don’t communicate,” something is seriously wrong. And usually sex has died as well - or at least never matured beyond the honeymoon period. (Sex is also a form of conversation - as attested by the old legal term for adultery, “criminal conversation.”) One particular vulnerability is that it can take only one party to effectively ‘kill’ the relationship by refusing true conversation. And it does die. Often one person ends up doing all the work of maintaining the relationship, and is soul weary. Dragging along the corpse of a marriage takes a lot of work, and is often done in the shadow of fear.
Next time you’re at a wedding, listen to the ritual words with this in mind. A rich and beautiful image begins to emerge. People cry for the hunger and the joy of it.
Perhaps the most important place on the face of the earth for learning the art of creative conversation is in our marriages. Talk to each other, even if there’s nothing to talk about, and then let a deeper conversation emerge - speaking and listening and exploring the ever-emerging wonders of this fascinating other person. And from within that conversation can come a lifetime of joy and wonder and passion - Life lived to the fullest!
Go for it. Talk to each other. And then...
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