Finding Your Voice

Harriet Lerner, from The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate

The thread that unites my work both as an author and as a psychotherapist is my desire to help people speak wisely and well, sometimes about the most difficult subjects. This includes asking questions, getting a point across, clarifying desires, beliefs, values, and limits. How such communication goes determines whether we want to come home or stay away at the end of the day.

This is no simple matter, as glib terms like communication skills or assertiveness training imply. Assertiveness is considered a good idea — if not a cultural ideal. But despite decades of assertiveness training and lots of good advice about communicating with clarity, timing, and tact, we may do our best to speak but still feel unheard. We may find that we cannot affect our husband or wife or partner, that fights go nowhere, that conflict brings only pain rather than an opportunity for two people to learn more about each other. We may have the same dilemma with our mother, sister or uncle, or close friend.

The Limits of “Good Communication”

We all want to communicate well and make ourselves heard. “He just doesn’t get it” or “She’s so critical” are sentiments I hear daily in my work. When we speak from the heart, we long for an ear to hear us, and we all have experienced that down feeling when we perceive ourselves as written off or misunderstood.

I wish I could reassure you that reading this book will guarantee that you will finally be heard in your most difficult relationships. Or that strengthening your voice will bring you the love and approval of others. Or that following my good advice will give you a deep sense of inner peace.

Truth is, nothing you say can ensure that the other person will get it, or respond the way you want. You may never exceed his threshold of deafness. She may never love you, not now or ever. And if you are courageous in initiating, extending, or deepening a difficult conversation, you may feel even more anxious and uncomfortable, at least in the short run.

All the assertiveness training and communication skills in the world can’t prevent a relationship from becoming fertile ground for silence and stonewalling, or for anger and frustration, or for just plain hard times. No book or expert can protect us from the range of painful emotions that make us human. We can influence the other person through our words and silence, but we can never control the outcome.

That said, what we can learn in the chapters ahead is enormous. We can maximize the chance of being heard and moving relationships forward. We can take a conversation to the next level when the initial foray doesn’t bring the desired result, We can stop nonproductive conversational habits so that an old relationship will take a new turn. We can clarify what we feel entitled to and responsible for — and what we really want to say. Or, alternatively, we can learn to sit more comfortably with our confusion. We can operate from a solid position of self, even when the other person won’t speak to us at all.

Toward an Authentic Voice

The challenge of finding an authentic voice within an intimate relationship is far larger than a word like communication can ever begin to convey. Authenticity brings to mind such elusive qualities as being fully present, centered, and in touch with our best selves in our most important conversations. Moving in this direction requires us to clarify — to ourselves and others — what’s important to us. Having an authentic voice means that:

• We can openly share competence as well as problems and vulnerability.

• We can warm things up and calm them down.

• We can listen and ask questions that allow us to truly know the other person and to gather information about anything that may affect us.

• We can say what we think and feel, state differences, and allow the other person to do the same.

• We can define our values, convictions, principles, and priorities, and do our best to act in accordance with them.

• We can define what we feel entitled to in a relationship, and we can clarify the limits of what we will tolerate or accept in another’s behavior.

• We can leave (meaning that we can financially and emotionally support ourselves), if necessary.

The second half of this list is about knowing our bottom line — that is, the values, beliefs, and priorities that are so crucial to preserving and protecting the self that we will not compromise them in any relationship. This is, perhaps, the most difficult challenge in couples.

In the abstract, any or all of these actions may seem obvious and easy. But when we are dealing with difficult subjects or significant relationships, nothing is ever simple.

Bold New Conversations

The challenge in conversation is not just to be our self but to choose the self we want to be. What we call “the self” is never static, but instead is a work in progress. That’s why we don’t discover who we are by sitting alone on a mountaintop and meditating, or by being introspective and “going deeper,” as valuable as these disciplines may be. The royal road for both discovering and reinventing the self is through our relationships with other people and the conversations we engage in.

In a sad paradox, the more important and enduring a relationship (say, with a partner or relative), the more we tend to participate in narrow, habitual conversations where our experience of our self and the other person becomes fixed and small. My goal is to challenge us to engage in novel conversations that will create a larger, more empowering view of who we are and what is truly possible.

Although I resonate with the phrase “finding our voice,” the image it evokes is deceptive. We don’t dig our authentic voice out of the muck, as a dog digs…

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