I want to learn all I can, live as wisely as I can, and savor every moment on the journey.
This year I’ve been learning the art of having beautiful conversations, thanks to much practice with my best friend and to the personal growth I’ve been experiencing (hallelujah!) in the areas of assertiveness, self-care, and confidence. Here are some general principles I’ve found that lead to better conversations (of any variety) and that I’m trying to cultivate as habits in my life.
1. A sense of inner confidence and security is essential.
A thousand problems in my interactions with people can occur when I’m not in a secure, confident, and self-caring frame of mind.
In fact, that’s the whole premise of the psychological theory called Transactional Analysis: we have effective social transactions when we each stay in our “adult” mindset, as opposed to a “child” or “parent” mindset. We all have our own unique versions of “child” and “parent.”
When we’re in an “adult” mindset, we’re not trying to control the other person in any way. We’re just responsibly taking care of ourselves and letting the other person take care of himself/herself.
It’s easier said than done!
2. Be who I am.
My “child” mindset tendency is to try to please/pacify other people by acting how I think they want me to. That was my modus operandi when I was little…and I still often catch myself doing it.
I’m slowly figuring out that I can be polite and friendly and also disagree, or just listen politely without agreeing. I can also assert my own thoughts and stand my ground without being hostile. Who knew?
“I must be myself…I cannot sell my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
3. Let the other person be who she is.
My “parent” mindset tendency is to suggest ideas that I think will help the other person. I can get really carried away with that sometimes! But I’m learning, gradually and by mistakes, to reign myself in and just listen with sympathy to the other person.
Related to that, I’m also trying to teach myself not to insist on a positive ending to conversations. I think most of us do that—it’s a cultural habit to conclude a negative conversation with, “Well, at least ______” (the sun is shining, you’re still breathing, etc.). That can be really insensitive. Yes, positive thinking is very helpful for some of us when we practice it ourselves, but it’s rarely going to help someone else when we force it on them, effectively dismissing their pain.
(By the way, it’s also not helpful when we do that to ourselves: “Don’t worry about me, at least I’ve still got ____.” Dismissing our own pain to care-take the other person’s feelings is really counterproductive!)
4. It’s a virtue to tolerate slowness and silence during conversations.
I don’t have to say “uh-huh” to show I’m listening; I can use facial expressions and body language, and then I’m not creeping in on the other person’s airtime. Also, pauses in conversation allow for more reflection than verbal fillers do, and they help me relax.
But I can only tolerate pauses and reign myself in when I’m already relaxed, feeling okay, and in my “adult” mindest. If I’m anxious and let anxiety control me, I will chatter-chatter-chatter miserably, making everyone think I’m a social butterfly when I really want to just run away! How stressful it is to be someone you’re not! I am an introvert, but too often I pretend to be an extrovert.
For example, recently at a work banquet my husband and I attended, I was chatting it up with the people at the table until my husband and I stepped outside for a break. Then I put my head in my hands and said, “Oh my god, I am having such a terrible time. I wish we could leave.” He was totally surprised. “Really? You seem like you’re having a great time.” That was because my anxious, nervous energy was causing me to talk animatedly in the attempt to keep the conversation hopping, because everyone else at our table was the quiet type. But I’m the quiet type, too! I wasn’t staying true to myself and I wasn’t being an “adult”; I was in “parent” mode, trying to take care of what I assumed were other people’s social discomforts. Would it have been so bad if we had just mostly eaten in awkward silence? No. In fact, I would have felt SO MUCH BETTER.
“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” – Emerson
To Stay Strong
Why is it so hard to stay true to one’s self and remain in the “adult” mindset? I don’t know, but I think for me the keys are 1) practice, and 2) doing as much self-care as I can to keep myself feeling relaxed, especially in social situations where I’ll likely feel anxious.
When I do stay in my “adult” mindset; when I keep hold of the reigns of my mind and mouth; when I’m able to be relaxed, secure, and assertive in conversations; when I succeed at the art of self-caring self-control—then I experience the reward of truly beautiful and soul-feeding social connections.