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Read more about Raising an Optimistic Child

Raising an Optimistic Child: A Proven Plan for Depresion-Proofing Young Children--for Life
(McGraw-Hill, 2006) by Bob Murray and Alicia Fortinberry

Read more about Creating Optimism

Creating Optimism:
A Proven Seven-Step Program for Overcoming Depression

(McGraw-Hill, 2004) by Bob Murray and Alicia Fortinberry

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 to me."

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 too much?"

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 free speech.

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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 Disclaimer: The information presented on this website is based on the research, clinical experience and opinions of Dr Bob Murray and Alicia Fortinberry. It is designed to support, not replace a relationship with a qualified healthcare professional.