When I was twenty-something my boss, who was thirty-something, told me “When you’ve been married a while, you begin to have the same conversation over and over again.”
I was newly in love and this seemed like an impossible nightmare. We – Mark and I – would never run out of things to learn, to say, to inspire, to challenge, to encourage, to deepen our love.
Now we’ve been married for thirty-something years and we’re working to keep things fresh: Mostly. It’s a journey. It’s a conscious effort. When you say “’Til death do us part” these days – man – that can be a L O N G time. How do folks keep conversations fresh, connective, helpful, real?
And, that’s only one challenge for “The Conversation” – that relationship heavy lifter; that bridge over troubled waters; that small brave rocket launched from one soul to another across unfathomable distances of culture, meaning and interpretation to land into what – hostile waters? Toxic air? Fertile ground? We often don’t know, when we launch that first “Hello!”
But, if we are to be in relationship to someone else we must keep launching our words as emissaries of hope and tentative connection else – what? Radio static? Terrifyingly unfathomable silence?
OK – enough of the hyperbole. I had fun there.
But I have – through years of conversations as a professional therapist, wife, mother, sister, friend – discovered The Rule of Five when it comes to learning about and engaging in great, powerful, connective conversations.
I figure there are ~
- Five Assumptions I’m Making
- Five Conversations
- Five Principles of Great Conversations
- Five Levels of Intimacy
- Five Conversation Killers
And, as luck would have it, there are five Wednesdays in April for me to share each of these!
Today I’m going with 1 and 2 since you’ll need to know my assumptions. And besides, I need week five for that little something special I have up my sleeve!
Five Assumptions I’m Making
- You want great relationships – not mediocre ones. This teaching goes beyond Conversation 101.
- You are self-aware and learning all the time. These ideas are not for the denizens of denial.
- You are willing to take responsibility for quality conversations. This is not for the whiners and complainers.
- While you can use this information at a one-off work social, these tips are intended for those wanting, or in, longer-term relationships.
- “Conversation” is not just about the words. It includes the silences and non-verbal overlays.
The Five [Types of] Conversations
When you’re in a relationship for the long haul (think partner, parents, in-laws, kids) your conversations have to be versatile. Marriages don’t survive on the “What’s your favorite movie?” or “How was lunch?” level.
You need to navigate the ~
- Connecting – the frequent comings and goings and ins and outs of relating;
- Deepening – the processing of life’s ups and downs;
- Transacting – the tasks of living and giving and taking that demand some finesse;
- Transforming – that invitation to grow oneself-up that relating precipitates;
- Healing – the willingness to apologize and forgive when we hurt one another.
These are different skills.
1. Connecting – the frequent comings and goings and ins and outs of relating
So OK – every relationship starts someplace. Maybe even at the office social. At one end of connecting therefore is that “What’s my opening gambit?” fear. How do I know if I even want to get to know X or Y more fully if I can’t pluck up the courage to say “Boo.”
Here’s an info-graphic based on shyness-expert Professor Bernardo J. Carducci’s five (that “Five” again!) stages of a successful conversation.
But out beyond the initial connection, every-day connecting and re-connecting comprise the warp threads of long term relating. All day, every day – with people who matter to us – we’re structuring our relationship through conversational bids for connection. They look like this:
- Did you see that sunrise? Boy it was breathtaking today!
- I found a new farm for happy-chicken, free-range eggs. What do you think of them?
- Oh, the neighbors are putting in a new planter box – I wonder what they’ll grow.
Yup – seriously folks. These are long-term-relationship conversational bids for connection. You know how you could blow it? By hearing them as slightly mad one-liners, instead of conversational openers. Sure they could be the mad mutterings of the old cat lady down the road, but if you want a great relationship with the mutterer in your life then you need to also hear what is underneath: you need to listen for the unspoken sub text, which is “Hi there! You’re on my radar. Am I on yours?” And yes, you need to respond.
These Connecting Conversations do not have to be long. A little friendly volley works wonders. Not in the mood? Nurturing the inner grump today? No worries, as Dan Wile writes, you can still honor the spirit of a Connecting Conversation by simply commenting on your state: “Hon, I’m all over those eggs. Right now I gotta dash. See you tonight – good luck with that meeting.” That right there – while brisk, is not brusque. It lets a partner know you heard and they are indeed still an important blip on your radar.
2. Deepening – the processing of life’s ups and downs
If Connecting is the warp thread, Deepening is the woof. Every day we rally forth into the world to study, work, play, teach, shop, search – whatever. And we come back with our share of triumph and tragedy. It’s with our loved ones that we process this stuff – or at least, ideally. It’s how we converse about these daily experiences that builds or erodes our mutual trust, love and attachment.
These conversations tend to go well to the extent one or both parties have some emotional fluency. For a brief overview I’m going to paraphrase from that master of emotional intelligence, Haim Ginott as explained in Chapter 1 of Faber & Mazlish’s How To Talk So Kids Will Listen (yes, this works for grown-ups too).
So, imagine it’s the end of the day and you’re regrouping as a family. One of you has suffered some sort of indignation and wants to use this Deepening Conversation (though they don’t use that term!) to process what went down. They want to feel better. To understand why it felt so bad. To see if they need to respond. What do they need to keep this conversation feeling helpful and good?
Here are 7 things they do not need!
- Denial of feelings ~ “There’s no reason to be upset. It’s foolish to feel that way. You’re probably just tired and blowing the whole thing out of proportion. Come on, cheer up!”
- Philosophy ~ “Look, life’s like that. You can’t always get what you want. You need to learn how to take things in stride. Nothing’s perfect.”
- Advice ~ “Here’s what I think you ought to do. Tomorrow go here and say that. Don’t get sidetracked…”
- Questions ~ “Well what did you do that precipitated this whole thing? Didn’t you think of that? Didn’t this same thing happen last month?“
- Defending the other person ~ “No wonder X did this. You were a total jerk! You’re lucky it wasn’t worse!”
- Pity ~ “Oh you poor thing! That’s just terrible! I feel SO sorry for you.”
- Psychoanalysis ~ “Has it ever occurred to you that the real reason you are so upset is that this reminds you of how your father treated you, and you always over-reacted to him?”
So, what might forward this conversation in a way that deepens your relationship?
- Empathy ~ “Boy that sounds like a rough experience. To have that happen at work, in front of X and Y, especially after all the effort you put in, must have been pretty hard to take!”
- Follow-up ~ “What do you need right now, to move forward with this?“
So, deepening conversations do more than Connecting. They let the other person know you not only heard them, but you are seeking to understand their experiences and get on their team. Once you respond thoughtfully, empathically, these conversations will keep spiraling deeper – have a go. See what you notice.
3. Transacting – the tasks of living and giving and taking that demand some finesse
These are those grittier conversations which often take place at that edge where we bug one another.
The proverbial toothpaste and toilet seat perennial arguments that marriages are purported to crash upon.
For these conversations, I am totally indebted to Marshall Rosenberg and his work in developing and teaching a process he calls Non-Violent Communication.
Whether you click on the graphic or download the PDF here – 4part_nvc_process – you’ll have a brief over-view of a hugely helpful 4 part process for figuring out how to have a conversation about needs that not only helps you get those needs met, but also deepens your relationship.
This is such a super important issue for great relationships, I’m dedicating the whole month of August to the topic. So – do please come back!
4. Transforming – that invitation to grow oneself-up that relating precipitates
The origin of the word and concept behind “conversation” – according to the online etymology dictionary, is ~
mid-14c., “living together, having dealings with others,” also “manner of conducting oneself in the world;” from Old French conversation, from Latin conversationem (nominative conversatio) “act of living with,” noun of action from past participle stem of conversari “to live with, keep company with,” literally “turn about with,” from Latin com- “with” (see com-) + vertare, frequentative of vertere (see versus).
which seems to imply a more snap-shot of what is than a transformative anything.
However, the fact of living together and being with one another can be transformative.
I’ve seen it in my work for years. We can be called forth to be better.
Again, a lofty topic worth taking time over, and here is a wonderful little book that will help you get there, from Mona Barbera.
Two key concepts to whet your appetite?
- The intense pain you think [the other person] is causing is really your own.
- No matter what [the other person] is dishing out, you can choose to give better back.
Mona’s book is targeting couples, but her ideas are universal and can absolutely help you use these forms of Transformative Conversation to do just that – to become a bigger you.
5. Healing – the willingness to apologize and forgive when we hurt one another
Another whopper as far as relationship resiliency goes, and one that is getting covered in depth in October (Apologizing) and November (Forgiving).
If you are keen to get a feel for how these conversations might look, you could visit these articles I wrote in 2012:
Come Fall, I’ll rework these articles – so again, do come back!
FIRST TIME HERE?
This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.
Click the box for the full list → →
If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.
SKILLS FOR UNDERSTANDING
SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”
SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.
SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity