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Part Seven: Improving Your Relationship: Dale Carnegie on Marriage: The Art of Conversation

We’ve been looking at Dale Carnegie’s classic business book, How to Win Friends and Influence People and how the principles he suggests might be applicable to marriage.  I think so.  Basically, his book could be summarized as the art of being polite.  Our marriages could use some politeness.

If you want to know how to make people shun you and laugh at you behind your back and even despise you, here is the recipe: Never listen to anyone for long.  Talk incessantly about yourself.  If you have an idea while the other person is talking, don’t wait for him or her to finish: bust right in and interrupt in the middle of a sentence (p. 88).

The number one complaint of wives I hear it’s that their husbands won’t talk.  The number one complaint of husbands I hear it’s that their wives are critical.   Both of these complaints have to do with communication.  One: not enough; the other: too much.

Research bears this out.  Wives say two to five times more words a day then their husbands.  I think, for some I’ve met, it’d easily be 10 times more!  Really.  This doesn’t somehow make men or women superior.  It just is.  We each have our strengths.  Of course, there are outgoing men and some husbands who speak more words than their wives.  More or less…it’s not a problem.  It’s like, you know, normal.  What we do with it, though, matters.

That women are more verbal is one of the reasons men love women.  That men are more reserved as a whole is one of the reasons women love men.  For men, the women are cute and sassy.  For women, the men are a mystery to be uncovered, a challenge.  Most of the time this is totally fine.   Ninety-five percent of the time, this gender difference is enamoring and endearing.

But then there’s something we disagree about or a fear or a worry or an irritation needs to be addressed…and presto!  It doesn’t work so well.

The art of conversation is NOT the art of talking, but the art of asking the right questions.  This is why therapy works.  If there is one client, the therapist asks questions related to the topic and the conversation is largely the two of them looking at what the client is thinking and feeling and experiencing.  For some people, this is the first time anyone ever listened to them!  YIKES!  Pretty scary.  To be listened to is very soothing.  It helps untangle jumbled thoughts.  They come out in a linear fashion and you can look at what you just said and get some clarity.

In marital therapy on the first session, I have each partner tell me his or her concerns with the other partner listening in without comment.  Eavesdropping…with permission.  As Fred Craddock calls it: overhearing.  To hear two others talk about you or the things that concern you can have a tremendously disarming effect.  Sometimes people hear things or say things for the very first time.  Sometimes this can rattle some cages.  Sometimes this can soothe some hearts.  You never know.  Gentleness is stronger than strength.

It’d be nice if a husband and wife could figure out how to do this at home.  You know…actually listen.  Without the venom and glares.  Not too nice, though.  If every couple figured this out, I’d be out of a job.

Imagine you are at a party. You meet someone new and somehow the topic comes up about his old Chevy pickup.  When he says “old Chevy pickup” you are immediately interested.  The image conjures up riding in the back of Grandpa’s pickup on dry gravel roads in front of Grandpa’s place and the dust in your eyes and in the roof of your mouth and hanging onto the sides of the pickup for dear life and your body bopping around.  Your new acquaintance has an interesting anecdote and tells you about his old Chevy pickup.  You ask about it, the interesting anecdote and the old Chevy pickup.  You dialog about it.  You both are concentrating on your new friend’s Chevy pickup and the images it conjures up.  Later, to keep the conversation going, you might bring up your Grandpa’s old Ford pickup and the dust in your eyes and in the roof of your mouth and hanging on the sides and bopping around and Grandpa looking out at you through the rear window and his smiling at you.  And both you and your new friend laugh about the power of a Chevy or a Ford pickup to bring people together.

That would be an example of two people having a conversation: back and forth on one topic, with one person leading and the other bantering back here and there.

Here’s a true story, repeated millions of times every day around the world in every culture:  She wants him to talk and presses him to talk.  She tells him his silence is killing her and she’s so unhappy because he won’t say anything and other husbands talk to their wives and why won’t he talk to her?  She reads his mind and tells him he must not love her and he’s so into himself because he never says anything and she feels sooooo rejected because he just stares off into space and how she’s sure he’s just doing that on purpose to hurt her and she deserves to be happy and if he isn’t going to talk to her she’ll find someone who will and the more she presses the more he shuts down.  Then she tells him how again how she feels.  Then she tells him again how disappointed she is in him again in hopes of motivating him to NOT disappoint her.  And if he still stares off into space she tells him what he’s thinking because it is obvious to her if he’s going to stare off into space like that that he must surely be into himself and must not know how to communicate and he has no feelings and he doesn’t know how to express himself and he must be doing this on purpose just to irritate her and he’s a control freak and he’s just manipulating her by using his power of silence to get her goat.   She tells him he needs therapy to learn how to express his feelings, that he has a character defect and he’d better get some help.

Here’s a true story repeated many times in my office and in therapy offices across the land.  A husband comes in alone, looking forlorn and says to his therapist:  “The reason I’m here is because I don’t communicate.  I ball up all my emotions and I never let them out.  I need therapy.”  And then he proceeds to talk the entire hour, without hardly any prompting.  He even sheds a tear or two.  What?  I thought he said he didn’t communicate?  I thought he boxed up his emotions?  He communicated just fine.

What in the world?

He communicated because someone was listening and asking….and, no one was judging.

Here’s a surefire way to ensure your husband doesn’t talk to you:  Confront him on his NOT talking.  Point it out.  Make him anxious about it.  Raise it up the flagpole.  Point out his faults in no uncertain terms.  Use your hands to enumerate the ways he disappoints you.  Be very demonstrative and emphatic.  Jerk your head around to make your points.

The research is saying men will talk to their wives if the men feel safe.  Not judged or scolded or scorned or mocked.  And, I would add, put on the spot.  Men are actually pretty fragile.  A wife’s glare can reduce him to shreds.  Weak knees.  His heart starts to race.  He shuts down.  She panics.  Oh, no!  He’s not talking again! She pokes him, jabs him with words to try to see if he’s alive, like the grade school boy who takes a stick to poke the dead frog.  He shuts down even more.  She says meaner things to arouse something.  Get him going a little.  If he says anything now it’s only going to be mean.

She’s thinking he’s rude and indifferent.  He’s thinking she’s rude and critical.  They’re both right.

This doesn’t work.

Here’s a hint that some wives have figured out and God bless ‘em.  They’ve found, by trial and error, no doubt, their husbands will open up if they don’t feel pressure.  No pressure to perform.  They go on a walk and she doesn’t say anything for a while and all of a sudden he opens up.  She doesn’t interrupt him or tell him he shouldn’t feel like that or give him advice.  She listens.  She asks a question here and there or comments about his comments.  She primes the pump.  She doesn’t try to rip out the pump and drill a new well.  She’s not worried he’s not looking at her while he talks.  She’s not worried about that.  He can tell she’s not worried.  She’s not judging him.  He can tell she’s not judging him.  He has feelers out.  Really, really long feelers.  She’s listening.  She’s interested in what he has to say.  He can tell she’s listening.  She nods and laughs.  He laughs, too.  He asks her a question.  She has a twinkle in her eye.  She says something sassy.  They both laugh again.

This is an art.

Ever seen a bunch of men gabbing away?  They’re looking off into space or kicking the dirt or fiddling with something.  If they look each other in the eye it’s for an ever, brief moment, usually at the punch line of a shared joke and then they’re off looking into space again or kicking the dirt with their feet or fiddling with something.

This would be normal.

You’ve always had Chevy pickups?  Really?  That many?  No way.  Unreal.  Yeah.  Why Chevy?  Uh-huh.  I’ve had one Chevy pickup.  My Grandpa had Ford Pickups.  He had Ford everything.  I think he appreciated the company that made tractors for the common man and delivered him from horses forever.  I remember riding in the back of Grandpa’s pickup with the dust flying on the gravel roads and him lookin’ out the rear window grinnin’ from ear to ear.  No way.  Yeah.  That’s funny.

You know….a conversation.


Check out Dr. Wall’s series of blogs on Dale Carnegie on marriage.  Click here to see the entire series.


Dr. Bing Wall is a therapist specializing in marriage and relationships and issues facing single adults with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa.  To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.  For more information about Dr. Wall click here.

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