About a year ago, my friend Jill said to me: "It's hard to talk with some of my more extroverted friends, because everyone just moves on so fast. As an introvert, I need time. I feel like if I had just a little space of silence then I could talk, but when it's moving so fast, I can't break in. So people just think I'm quiet."
It occurred to me that I might be one of the friends who might be the conversational equivalent of a bulldozer. Jill is a good listener, no doubt; a natural empath. As a speaker, I have a tendency to go on long monologues that contain a lot of detail on what everyone said and also what I'm cooking these days and work and this amazing book of essays I just read and I've started drawing again, it's so fun, I've been mostly drawing animals from this book called 20 Ways to Draw a Cat and I drew Miyazaki-inspired artwork on my pink ukulele with a sharpie and you know how that movie Ponyo is so meaningful to me and I used the imagery for the birth of my second child and hey, don't you think we should start a band??
I told my therapist that I'd noticed conversations with some of my friends felt lopsided. Not just in their direction, but mine as well. I wanted them to be more balanced but wasn't sure how to achieve that.
"Time your conversations," he said.
"Wow, that seems aggressive," I said.
"Well, it's a practice. It's dyadic communication. In Jill's case, it could be a practice to claim her time. For you, it could be a practice to yield the floor. And it could be temporary. You could time the conversations until it just becomes second nature."
He has been my therapist for the last fifteen years and has not let me down once. He's been there through bad relationships, my marriage of thirteen years, the deaths of my brother and my father, and the births of my children, not to mention all the minutiae in my life. So I pretty much do what he suggests when it comes to things like this. Also, I'm a speech language pathologist, so it's not like structured conversations are a totally foreign idea. It's just that I've never actually been in one where I'm not the expert but a willing and possibly vulnerable participant. In the interest of seeing what might unfold, I decided to embrace the structure and the awkwardness it might entail. "All right, I'm in," I said.
In the interest of seeing what might unfold, I decided to embrace the structure and the awkwardness it might entail.
When hanging out with Jill one night at a kava bar, I ask her if she would be willing to try it with me. "I'm working on making my conversations more balanced with this timed-conversation exercise my therapist suggested," I tell her. I feel a little self-conscious and nervous even asking. "Would you want to help me practice that?"
She says she would be open to it. "How does it work?"
Here's how it works: Two people take turns having a conversation, with equal time for each. It can be one minute or it can be twenty minutes, on the topic of their choice. The other person listens, quietly. Then, when the time is up, the listener reflects back what they think they heard. Like, you literally have to say, "So what I think I hear you saying is ..." We make a lot of assumptions about what is being said. We also tend to bring our own neuroses to the table, so there's a lot of possibility for interference. This is an opportunity to get the facts straight as well as reflect the emotional content of what was said.
After summarizing, the listener says, "Did I miss anything?" If the speaker has anything to add, they do it now, and eventually the listener catches it all. They switch places, and the listener speaks for the same amount of time the speaker did.
After summarizing, the listener says, "Did I miss anything?"
"This is too much pressure," Jill says to me. "I don't know what to say!" We are sipping kava from coconut shells. Kava is made from kava root and is supposed to make you feel chill and alert. We are starting to realize that the task of timing conversations is more intimidating than we thought it would be.
Her cell phone is between us, the timer feature set for ten minutes. She flips the phone over. "I can't look at the timer," she says. "It's too daunting."
"It's OK," I say. "You can talk about whatever you want. I am just here to listen."
She stares at me, her eyes wide. It occurs to me that she might bolt.
"Listen," I say, "we don't have to do this. I definitely don't want to force it."
"No, no," she says. "I want to. Just give me a second."
She breathes in, then out, closing her eyes. She opens them. Then, she talks.
She talks about her eight-year-old son. He hasn't been sleeping well. It's really messing with everyone. She and her husband have tried all these things and it feels like they're at an impasse. He needs his back stroked; he needs her to stay. He clings. She's wondering when it will change. I'm listening, quietly, looking at her. After a while, the timer vibrates. "OK, thank God," she says.
"Now I am going to reflect back what you said," I tell her. I try to hit the main points of what she talked about. It's one of the more nerve-racking pieces of the exercise. Will I get it right? Did I listen well? Am I a good friend? But I try, and I get it mostly right. I do not offer advice or talk about my own experience. I simply reflect hers, repeating all the things she is trying to get her kid to sleep. "So you've tried everything, including staying in bed with him when you really want to be in your own bed. He has really been needing your attention at night, and it's a lot for you guys. You'd like to be done with it. And there's a big part of you that wants to just be there for him, so you're conflicted. You've been feeling stuck. And that's hard on you." Then, I ask her: "Did I miss anything?"
"No," she says. She wipes her eyes with the tips of her fingers. "I don't know why I'm crying," she says, laughing.
Then, it's my turn. I have absolutely no trouble going on a ten-minute monologue about my affinity for soups, my practice meditating, aikido classes that I've been taking, and my writing. I'm startled when the timer rings.
Jill is a total natural at reflecting and summarizing, and she gets to the emotional piece easily. "You're practicing making time for yourself," she says.
"Yes," I say. "That's right." Something about her noticing that, summarizing it in that way, feels like she really gets me. I can see why she teared up.
"It's not always easy," she adds, "to make time for yourself."
Listening to women is not highly valued in our culture. When we are talking about our ideas, our dreams, our reality, racism, rape culture, or our areas of expertise, we are routinely dismissed and harassed into silence. Apparently everyone is being a horrible mother, if you judge the volume of articles on ways we are damaging our children and need to change. According to the Internet, and I view the Internet as a large megaphone for society, women are doing everything wrong, starting with speaking up in the first place. But who is actually listening to women? We need to practice holding that space for each other to speak our truths shamelessly, even if it's as simple as "I'm so frustrated that I can't get my kid to sleep" or "I am making time for myself, even though the rest of society thinks I shouldn't."
Listening to women is not highly valued in our culture.
I still practice with timed conversations, but it has, to a degree, become second nature. Recently, a friend of mine revealed she was unhappy with me, that she felt I had not been giving her enough attention. My friend and I love each other, and we also push each other's buttons like no one else can. We were at a restaurant, waiting for our food. She was very quiet. Then, she turned to me and gently said, "Something has been bothering me. I texted you about something really meaningful to me and I don't feel like we spent enough time on it. I know you couldn't have known, since I didn't tell you, but I really wanted to get better attention for it." Internally, I felt defensive — I didn't want to face her disappointment, and I didn't feel like it was my fault. I even ran through the usual script in my head: What does she expect? I have two kids! A husband! I have other friends, too! A life! I can't respond to her every fucking text! All of which are true, and I could have listed each one by one, and part of me wanted to.
I thought of the timed conversations. Even though we weren't timing the conversation, I knew that letting go of my agenda of defending myself and just seeing what she was seeing, even for a moment, could help. It was a way of pausing before reacting that I had not understood fully before. Before protesting, before apologizing, I listened. I told her it sounded like she'd wanted to connect with me, and I hadn't been available, which was disappointing for her. Then I said, "Did I miss anything?"
She said, "No. That's it." Her eyes were shining. We looked at each other for a moment.
"How can I support you better?" I asked.
She said: "This." She smiled. "This is good."
Erika Kleinman lives in Austin with her family. She has work in the Huffington Post, Salon, the Baltimore Review, the Rumpus, Mutha Magazine, and elsewhere. She is writing a book about aikido and friendship.