Firstly, I should point out that we do understand it’s pretty cheeky for two males to be writing an article saying: “Hey, this talking thing is really great… we should do this more… I can’t believe no one thought of talking earlier…” Especially when most men greet the phrase “We need to talk” with the confused terror of a deer caught in headlights and then respond in one of three ways:
“What have I done?”
“How did she find out?”
“Can I lie my way out of this?”
But in the process of doing all the interviews for our books we discovered there really is something in this whole talking business.
When we first thought about collecting words of wisdom we imagined the end product would be quite pragmatic – a set of tools, tips and shortcuts for living well. However, our interviews took us in many surprising and deeper directions. Very early on it became apparent that people want, and even need, to share their life stories and communicate in a profound and more meaningful way. But unfortunately we rarely, if ever, tap into this resource by sitting down and really talking with another human being, even people we genuinely care about.
This raises an important question. How is it that our generation is equipped with more communications technology than any before it, but so few of us spend any time really communicating? We all have home phones, mobiles, email, webcams, skype… but how often do we use them for conversation deeper than “What about those Hawks?”, “Could you email me that powerpoint file?” and “Did you see what Paris said about Nicole’s baby bump?” Communications technology is like the Ab-Roller for the Soul – we all buy it, we just don’t use it.
Wisdom handed down
Our Western culture doesn’t particularly have an oral tradition and doesn’t hand wisdom down from one generation to the next. We seem to perceive that even to need advice is a weakness. (Just try to convince a guy driving a car to ask for directions.) Our equivalent in modern society is disposable wisdom from celebrities. How is it we don’t want to hear tips on child rearing from our Grandma who brought up seven kids on her own, we’d rather get our parenting advice from Brad and Angelina on Oprah? If Aristotle were alive today, no one would know that he said “A friend is but a second self”… but we’d all know who he was dating and how he keeps his ‘summer toga figure’.
The sage next door
We believe it’s a huge mistake to only listen to people who are desperately trying to look like gurus. A woman with 12 kids may not be a motivational speaker with a headset microphone running seminars on peak performance, but if you want to learn about patience, time management and how to make every child feel like a unique individual, there are few who are better qualified.
Not self-help, team help
The self-help sections of bookstores are filled with experts offering their opinions as the one gospel truth. But, being pluralists and Aussies, we reckon anyone who says they’ve discovered “The One Big Answer to Life, The Universe and Everything” is trying to sell you something. There are so many life skills and different ways to look at the world, we really need to seek a second, third or hundredth opinion – then adopt what works best for us. We believe it’s time to shift the paradigm away from self-help and towards what we call team-help.
Get any Aussie bloke to talk
Another enormous lesson we learned is that men do want to talk, they need to talk… and not just about sport. The stereotype holds that women talk, and men don’t. Blokes are all supposed to be emotionally stunted and verbally challenged – it’s a stereotype we’ve bought into ourselves over the years. (Well, it does make for some great Stand Up material). But, in the right circumstances, guys will open up way beyond your expectations. It’s just that they don’t do it easily, and they don’t do it quickly.
Here are some tips on getting men (and a lot of women) to open up: Organise a time when it will be just the two of you for a while. If you want a man’s deepest thoughts you can’t blurt out in front of the whole family “Hey Dad, what do you think of me dropping out of school/moving to Latvia/marrying my best mate, Brian?”.
Another tip is to remember that men love doing, so get active with a man before trying to talk. Fix something, make something or go somewhere together and get a bit of bonding going first. Caution: the thing you do together can be go to the pub, but you’ve got a critical window between two and four beers to ask any questions that you want a serious answer to.
Ask questions differently
It’s also a good idea to start off letting a bloke talk about his views in the third person so he doesn’t feel it’s all about him. For example, if you are trying to talk to your dad, a great way to start is ask about what he did before probing for how he felt or thought:
“When you were young, what did you do on a typical Friday night, Dad?
What sports or social things did you love doing when you were young?”
And when he’s started talking make it more about his experience, but still in the third person. Ask: “Were there many opportunities for young people when you were growing up? What were people’s attitudes to money when you were young, Dad?”
A simple rule for any conversation we often forget is to ask open-ended questions. Don’t say “Was life different when you were 18?” because a man will say: “Yep.” (In his mind it’s “I’ve answered the question. Job done.”) Try asking “What do you think was harder/easier about being a teenager in your time?”
If you follow these hints, I promise that men will realise that talking deeply about their lives is a good thing. Or at least not the emotional equivalent to bamboo shoots under the fingernails.
Connecting takes time
We know that getting back to deeper levels of communication will affect people because it affected us. When we interviewed individuals we consider very dear friends we discovered sides and depths to them that we never knew existed. For example, one of the people in our book was best man at my wedding. We’ve known each other since we were 4-years-old, grew up in the same street, and he met his wife at my 18th birthday. Yet, after speaking to him for two hours, I know him better now than I ever had for the 36 years prior. And this theme was repeated again and again for both of us.
As satisfying as it is to know our relationships have been immensely strengthened by our interviews, we couldn’t help reflecting: “Why have I never talked this deeply with my closest friends before? They’ve told me about all these things they’ve gone through that, at the time, I didn’t even know about. I really suck as a friend.”
Find mentors and talk with them, listen to them deeply and you just might learn something. Our youth-obsessed culture is leading society to ignore the wisdom of experience and this makes us think of the axiom ‘those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it’.
When working as stand-ups, both Dan and I rail against the cult of celebrity: everyone is so keen to find out what the latest Australian Idol is up to that they ignore the meaningful connection of talking to people all around them. We say: “Stop trying to connect to life through the shallow emotions served up by Big Brother and Dancing With the Stars. Just turn 90 degrees and started talking to the person sitting right next to you on the couch.”
Change your life
Why not call someone whose opinion you admire, someone who seems very at home in their own skin, and invite them for a cup of coffee? Then ask them what life has taught them about love, family and well-being. Get them to tell you what they think brings true happiness. And ask them: “If you could go back in time and give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?” Then sit back, keep your trap shut, and listen. We guarantee it will change your relationship, and quite possibly, your life.
Writers, stand-up comics and communications experts, Daniel Gregory & Marty Wilson are the authors of What I Wish I Knew at Eighteen (2008) and What I Wish I Knew about Love. Both books are published by Allen & Unwin.
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