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The Heart to Heart Conversation

Now that I am in my thirties, the number of former schoolmates who are getting divorced has taken a sharp uptick. Every single story of how and why they got divorced is different. But one common motif that runs across all the narratives is this: at some stage, they suddenly realised that they had not had a proper conversation for several months. This stage seems to just creep up on them, and sort of catch them unawares. And for most of them, it’s simply too late to recover things.

It’s almost as though that breakdown in quality communication is a harbinger of a breakdown in the relationship. 

“The communion that can be achieved by human conversation is of great significance for our private lives. It unites the members of a family—husbands and wives, parents and children. It is the spiritual parallel of the physical union by which lovers try to become one.

Please note that I did not say “the communion achieved by human conversation.” I said rather “the communion that can be achieved by human conversation.” Human beings sometimes—in fact, too often—fail to achieve it by their failures as speakers and listeners in two-way talk, especially in personal heart-to-heart talks.

When they fail, the sexual bond that unites husband and wife, unaccompanied by spiritual communion, usually fails to preserve their marriage. Divorce as frequently results from the failure to communicate intimately in heart-to-heart talks as it does from the weakening of sexual attraction.”

Excerpt From: Mortimer J. Adler. “How to Speak How to Listen”. 

At some stage in 2017, when my business partners and I were trying to salvage our doomed partnership, we enlisted the services of a business coach. Each one of us had to have a one-on-one session with her. During my session, she kept on asking me how I felt about certain things, certain situations and certain events that happened in the business. I often found myself at a loss for words. All I could say was,  “I don't know, I didn't feel so great about it.” Then she’d ask, “Not great how? Were you unhappy?  Were you angry? Irritated? Frustrated? What do you mean, ‘Not great’?’”

I found that it was very difficult to put my emotions into words. “Fidel,’ she said,  ‘you have a very poorly developed emotional vocabulary and we need to work on that.” When she saw my face fall, she told me not to worry about it, because most men have poorly developed emotional vocabularies, and talking about their inner worlds isn’t something that comes naturally to them. 

This is an idea that Jordan Peterson touches on in a very interesting video about the differences between men and women. You can watch it here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSXEHsYf8uQ

Practical Steps:

Now the heart to heart takes a lot of effort. It's not something that you just “get” right off the bat, especially  for men because we're not so attuned to what's happening within us. It’s hard for us to describe our emotions, fears, worries and anxieties, because most of them are intangible, and the intangible world of feelings and relationships is a stange one for us. So learning to navigate this strange new world is going to take an effort that will never go away. The best that can happen is that we will get used to making the effort, and it won’t feel strange anymore. But the effort itself will never go away.

STEP 1: CARVE OUT TIME TO REFLECT

The first step is to carve out quiet time for reflection and introspection. Meditation, journalling and prayer all help with this. 

Journalling can seem quite weird. Here are some words of advice from Samuel Johnson about journalling.

“He recommended me to keep a journal of my life, full and unreserved. He said it would be a very good exercise, and would yield me great satisfaction when the particulars were faded from my remembrance. I was uncommonly fortunate in having had a previous coincidence of opinion with him upon this subject, for I had Such a journal for some time; and it was no small pleasure to me to have this to tell him, and to receive his approbation. He counselled me to keep it private, and said I might surely have a friend who would burn it in case of my death. From this habit I have been unable to give the world so many anecdotes, which would otherwise have been lost to posterity. I mentioned that I was afraid I put into my journal too many little incidents. Johnson: “there is nothing, sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attend the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.” 

You may be wondering just how little is little? In another passage from the same book, Johnson advises Boswell:

“….to keep a journal fully and minutely, but not to mention such trifles as that meat was too much or too little done, or that the weather was fair or rainy.”

Journalling is hard work, and something that I have started and stopped several times. But I found tremendous solace in the passage below, again taken from The Life of Samuel Johnson…

He told me he had 12 or 14 times attempted to keep a journal of his life, but never could persevere. He advised me to do it. “The great thing to be recorded (he said) is the state of your own mind; and it should write down everything that you remember, for you cannot judge at first what is good or bad; and right immediately while the impression is fresh… For it will not be the same week afterwards.”

STEP TWO: SET ASIDE AN “OFFICIAL” TIME FOR IT

Second is to book a time for it, in a way that gives it the importance that the conversation deserves. 

“The personal or heart-to-heart talk usually involves two persons or at most only a few. It usually takes place under circumstances that are private rather than public. It is never the kind of talk that the persons involved would wish to have recorded in the minutes of the meeting, nor is it conducted by having a prepared agenda for the occasion. It may happen spontaneously without preparation, or it may be planned by one person and proposed to the other with a time and place appointed or set for its occurrence. However it happens, it is always a signally significant event in their lives, affecting them and no one else.”

Excerpt From: Mortimer J. Adler. “How to Speak How to Listen”. Apple Books. 

STEP THREE: MENTALLY COMMIT TO BEING VULNERABLE

Third is to face the fear of being vulnerable. The etymology of the word vulnerable.

I think that fear of being judged. One of the biggest, biggest enemies, the stand in the face of our conversations and we almost have to be open to being judged to being put down to being censored and realize that that's the price that was paid for having a good relationship with someone and I think that's what could be part of what many women mean when they say, Oh, I need to be more vulnerable and up to show vulnerability, maybe said aspect of being able to speak about weaknesses or dark side or not too attractive parts that are happening within us and to be able to just embrace the reaction, no matter how negative. It may be and to understand that that shake up is precisely the stress test that's needed to strengthen the relationships that we may be in.

AN ASIDE: FOR PARENTS
For Dad’s preparing to have a heart-to-heart with their children… remember your role is to listen, and nothing aids the listening task better than having prepared a set of open-ended questions that can break through the wall of monosyllabic answers that will be thrown in your face by youngsters.

You can find a great list of open-ended questions here:

https://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-open-ended-and-closed-ended-questions.html

References