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An Interview with the the Wall Street Journal: How Can “Talkers” be in Relationships with “Non-Talkers”

Posted Nov 16 2010 11:38am

I did an interview with a writer for the Wall Street Journal – apparently they like to report on relationships and communication styles and not just financial issues – and it should be on your local newsstand today. You can also read it here . She decided to only include a few sound bytes from me as part of a larger discussion so I’m including our entire conversation here for those who are interested. The title pretty much describes the nature of the interview. And let us all note right now the Wall Street Journal’s unwillingness to even mention my book. Not cool, money people.

Is there a gender issue at play here (e.g., do women talk more than men? The brain research shows that this is the case, but I assume it’s not an absolute, right?)

When I’m not at work I’m almost incapable of shutting up, so this is definitely not an absolute, more of a stereotype. This comes from a very general idea that women prefer having their thoughts be understood and validated where men tend to be more bottom line, problem-solving people. The reality is, however, is that men and women usually want both styles of listening.

One partner talking more in a relationship isn’t inherently a problem; rather, it’s when one or both parties perceives he/she is not being heard. Some people are very verbose when expressing themselves, others quite brief. As long as you are getting your message across and you know your partner as hearing it, you’re not likely to have nearly as many communication clashes.

Do you think opposites attract in this regard – that talkers do well with non-talkers – so if a talker is paired with another talker, will they strangle each other trying to dominate the talking?

Not necessarily. I’ve met many people who prefer to be the more “submissive” in conversations, but that can be due to shyness, an enjoyment of being more of an observer than participant or simply a brief communication style. If two talkers get together, the strangling will only occur if there aren’t subtle or overt rules in place to allow mutual expression (e.g., you talk for 5 minutes, then I go).

What happens when two non-talkers get together? Are they in heaven, or is this a bad combo?

This can go either way (as you can probably tell by now, psychology isn’t an exact science). Some people prefer comfortable silence and simply enjoy their partner’s non-verbal communication. Words aren’t the only form of expression. Touch, facial cues and body language can all convey the human experience very well if done correctly.

I’ve talked to so many non-talkers, especially men, who say that they just can’t process as much language as their partners and that they sometimes tune out. How can they learn to cope, to listen better?

The best way to avoid tuning out is to have the “talker” take quick breaks and have the “non-talker” attempt to relay back what was said to him, and then for him to add his thoughts. This helps both parties be on the same page. The non-talker should also feel free to say, “let me have a quick breather, I’m running out of listening gas. Let’s come back to this in a few minutes.”

How can talkers learn to keep the attention of the non-talker?

Pause, pause, pause! Ask for feedback, request his/her opinion. Conversation isn’t a monologue. Remember that you are talking “with” a person, not “at” one.

What can desperate couples do if one or both parties is not getting enough “talk time?”

I’ve had friends, as well as innumerable clients grapple over this issue, to the point where one person needs to be holding the “Talking Hat,” using an egg timer to put a cap on time spent talking by one party and even forcing one person to talk in sign language as a way to add brevity. Some have added email to their conversations so that one person doesn’t “zone out” and can go through the others’ thoughts line by line, and I had one couple who used an “it’s only X’s night to talk, Y can only write down thoughts to share tomorrow” method for keeping the conversation balanced.

These are just tools for couples who can’t get into a communication rhythm, where one person isn’t being heard or understood. It’s simply a way of breaking communication patterns, especially for more extreme or entrenched problems. As artificial as it may sound, if you are required to be holding an object to speak, or know you only have X amount of time, you’ll be more cognizant of your surroundings (i.e., the person you’re talking with). You’ll realize there are rules to communication and not simply a forum to ramble at your whim instead of being part of a dyad.

Do you think that technology (smart phones, email, texting) adds to this problem or helps solve it? For example, I have a friend who insists he’d rather text than email because he doesn’t like to talk much. But i find it to be a lousy way to communicate and hate it.

It’s a great way to communicate for people who are good writers and for those who want to simply address a single issue. Much can get lost in the written word so it’s important to be able to express yourself clearly. It’s also good for “closed communication;” for example, yes or no questions and issues, and much less useful for open-ended questions (e.g., tell me about your thoughts on this subject) and exploration. Kids seem to have callouses on their fingers harder than Jimi Hendrix did and can text ad infinitum, but for the rest of us, too much just leads to miscommunication. And carpel tunnel.

Is there anything else you want to say about this topic?

You want me to continue to be the “talker?” (laughs heartily at his clever pun)

For non-talkers, keep in mind that being silent is not the same as active listening. Be sure to be paying attention when someone else is speaking and use cues to suggest you are with that person (e.g., head nods, “yeah, I hear you” statements, etc.). Talkers, remember that it’s easy to forget there are other people in the universe. Twitter, Facebook and other tools of the devil have promoted as “say as much as you want, whenever you want” society. Pay attention to the feedback you are getting when speaking.

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