How to Talk to People
By Alicia Fortinberry, MS
Have you ever wondered, "What do I say next?" or "Am I talking
too much?" or "When will this person stop hogging the conversation?"
You’re not alone. A client, Alexa, who is a successful business woman
recently confided, "I never know when I’m talking too much, so
I try to say very little, and to think beforehand to make sure it’s concise
and relevant. My husband always said I talked too much, and my parents felt
children should be seen (or not) but definitely not heard."
Jennifer, in contrast, isn’t afraid of saying too much, but used to feel
it ought to be cheerful and upbeat. She is now able to laugh at her own "plastered-on
smile" that she fronted herself with until her face ached.
Then there’s Mandy, who is a kind soul who seems to attract controlling,
garrulous people to her side and feel stuck with them. "How do you say "shut
up nicely?" she wonders.
Unfortunately, there’s no style book on how to speak to people. We feel
we are expected to somehow pick up the art of conversation as we learn to mouth
words: when to speak, what to talk about, and when and how to listen. Unfortunately,
all we have is the examples of the older people around us, usually our parents
and older siblings. But what do they know? Only what’s been passed on
to them, which may be dysfunctional or even largely nonexistent. Conversation
is largely learned around the dinner table, after all, and many families never
sit down together to eat.
My own family, and my husband Bob’s as well, were masters of the witty
repartee, usually at someone else’s expense. The most poignant memory
of my adolescence occurred when my father had just demanded a divorce from
my mother. His nicknames for her included the likes of "tiny tits" and "air-head." I
thought these were legitimate terms of affection. Sliding out a chair for my
mother at the table in a restaurant after my father had just broken the news
he tried to convey his sadness and affection. He said, in what for him was
a loving tone of voice, "Sit down, fat ass."
As you might imagine, it took me a while to figure out how other people
conducted conversations, business meetings and love affairs.
Yet Bob somewhere, somehow, learned the language of loving endearments. "What
a wonderful woman," he announces at regular intervals. "I only
love you because you’re beautiful. And you’ll always be beautiful
His total acceptance and interest in whatever I have to say has enabled
me to learn a new speech form. It’s not listed anywhere, in any book on linguistics
or etiquette that I know of. I call it "chatter." I’m convinced
it’s an exclusively female take on talk. In chatter you talk about anything
that comes to mind. "Look at that beautiful bird over there on that branch.
God, my cramps are killing me. God has a lot to answer for in creating the reproductive
process in women. Did I tell you what Gloria said the other day about her boyfriend?..."
You get the picture.
I can "chatter" with some women friends as well, the ones I feel
really close to. In her books, Deborah Tannen says that women bond through sharing feelings
and experiences. Chatter is a form of this type of communication. In true chatter,
you aren’t looking for a tactical advantage. You aren’t looking to
make a point. You are saying, in effect, "I am comfortable with you and
I trust you."
This is different from the endless "I" statements both men and women
use to pound a listener into dazed submission. What’s the difference?
In genuine chatter, you maintain an interest in what the person,
or person, beside you is thinking and feeling. You don’t wonder if they are judging you,
that would kill true chatter, and hopefully you do not honor judgmental people with your
chatter. But you do allow them space. You ask them occasional questions,
such as "What do you think of that?" And allow time for answer.
Good chatter includes silences. When we are in Sydney, our
balcony is aflutter with the small, green, red and orange parrots called, "lorikeets." They
squawk and squawk, then listen some. "I’m here, and this is my territory," they
say over and over. Then a silence that implies, "Where are you?"
Lorikeets don’t seem to have problems in understanding each other. They
mate for life and, as far as I know, have never consulted a couples’ therapist.
You, however, may still be wondering, "Am I being heard? Am I speaking
Here are some guidelines from my experience.
Ask. This possibility seems never to occur to most
people. Ask your partner, boss, child, "Please tell me what you heard me say just now. I want to
know if I’m being clear."
If you’re worried about talking too much, ask, "Am I talking too
much for you? Do you enjoy my style of speaking, or do you feel it’s hard
for you to be heard as well? What would I need to do for you to feel that I’m
listening to you as well as speaking?"
Of course, if your partner is male, or in the male
role, he or she may have difficulty in listening to what you have to say.
As I’ve said in this column before, they may feel they need to fix a problem, or they may feel
that any emotional sharing is a burden.
If they are with you they have chosen to be with a woman. A woman chatters.
If she’s healthy, she expresses herself volubly, fully and emotionally.
If they want more self-control in communications, they should be with
a man. Of course, they may set boundaries around when they can listen to you.
There may be room to negotiate. But never, ever give up your right free speech...very
What about in a work role, where communication is expected to be succinct and thought out?
Many women I know need to "think" out loud. Marissa, a student, found she needed to
talk for 20 minutes before her thoughts were collected enough for her to make a statement to her boss,
especially around her needs at work. "Fine," I said "Call up a friend or collar a colleague.
Talk to them. When you’ve distilled your message, then go talk to your boss.
"But what when about when someone’s talking drives you crazy? "I get annoyed and distracted
every time this fellow student comes over and wants to give me useless advice about upcoming exams or
compare grades," Rachel, a medical student moans. " I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but
she can be obnoxious and rude. What do I say?"
The answer, is, say what you need. Rachel finally told her co-student that she did not want to
compare grades or talk about school work with her. She expected the woman to be angry or sulk. Instead,
she seemed almost relieved to have been given communication guidelines. "We’ve actually
become friends," Rachel told me in amazement. "No one had ever told her how they wanted her to
be or communicate with them. Once I gave her my boundaries, she was happy to comply."
As for Jennifer, she’s learned another female communications skill that I call "bitch and moan."
This is when you tell your close friends what has hurt, annoyed or pissed you off recently. To be truly effective,
this method requires the use of specifics and, at times, colorful language. It is better for PMS than Advill,
better for depression than Prozac. Guys do it too, they just do it differently. They refer to taxes, a losing
sports team or the illegal or immoral use of inside trading on the stock market. It’s largely
euphemism, but it seems to work.
Whatever your communication style, ask yourself who you learned it from. Did they use it as a way of
dominating or sharing feelings? Does how you speak (or listen) bring you closer to people
or distance you? How can you get your needs met from others, and what do they need of you in terms of talking and listening.
Remember the advanced communications skills of "chattering" and "bitching
and moaning" and be sure to practice them often.
Let me know how you go!
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About the Author
Alicia Fortinberry is an award-winning health writer, and expert on emotional health and optimal relationships. Together with her husband and long-term collaborator Dr Bob Murray, she is founder of the highly successful Uplift Program, and author of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).
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