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Shanti Emerson: Life turns on our conversations

Every day we have conversations, some interesting and fresh, but mostly pretty mundane.

One of the miracles of human existence is speech. All we do is blow air and move our tongues and lips, and voila, we can express anything. Add tones, and we express different emotions. Such coloring happens automatically. With the addition of facial expressions and body language, conversations become even more real and interesting.

Words are so important. They can be daggers or rosebuds. Coming from another person, words can make you feel happy or proud or sad or furious or embarrassed or confused. It is truly a miracle that a few little sounds can make bridges or abysses between people. Same is true of a few squiggles on paper. Those written words can express an infinity of ideas.



I find it easy to converse with others, even strangers. However, it is so difficult for me to have deeply meaningful conversations with others. This is especially problematic with family and close friends.

I have had breakups with dear old friends without a word spoken. A friendship of 10 years can go down the drain overnight, and then I am left in grief, sometimes for years. I didn’t know what to say, nor did I have the nerve to call them to talk it over. Sometimes I’m the one who does the leaving, and other times I am the one left.




One of my closest relatives didn’t speak to me for 18 years, and I’m still not sure why. We now speak, but I am afraid to say anything not pleasant for fear that he’ll leave me for another 18 years (and I don’t have that many years left.)

I took a course in non-violent communication, but it seemed to me such a awkward way of conversing that one would have to talk only with people who’d taken this course.

Several times I’ve wanted to speak to an acquaintance about an incident. I’d write the need to do this on a notepad or calendar but would never follow up on it. Even the thought makes my entire body tense, especially my shoulders and stomach.

There are a couple of women I know who have no problem calling me to talk about an issue and, although my feelings may be hurt, I respect them for their ability to plainly speak their truth.

I used to email people when I needed to say something critical. Those emails always got me in trouble and were sometimes forwarded to other people. I even lost a friend because of an email.

At the suggestion of a friend, I bought the book, “Crucial Conversations,” enthusiastically knowing that it would change my life. I know that if my relationships change, so will the rest of my life. Relationships are what are most important to me.

I didn’t even finish the book! I realized I would really have to work to change, and I didn’t think I could do that this late in life. To alter the way I interact with others would require a lot of energy. Maybe if I had a coach, I’d do it. But on my own, I’m afraid I’d make a mess of things.

I did agree with a couple of their principles, though. Always respect the person(s) you’re dealing with. Don’t embarrass them or think you’re better. Just say your truth. Often it is good to lead with a humble statement like, “I’m not an expert on this …” It can put the others at ease. And then tell your story.

Active listening is important in conversations. If other people feel that you care about what they have to say and won’t be fault-finding, they will be willing to divulge more of themselves, and understanding can be reached.

Where one chooses to have important communication is also significant. Haven’t we all had disastrous results sending out an angry email? It’s best to meet in person, as we can see the expressions on others’ faces, know when we’re offending or comforting them, and witness the understanding or confusion in their eyes.

I wish I didn’t worry so much about what other people think, as it certainly affects what I say. Often I will not say anything, and then I’m stuck with all those feelings and thoughts that I needed to express but didn’t dare speak them out loud.

Not only is it difficult for me, and probably for a lot of other people, to face issues and express anger, but it is also hard to express admiration, appreciation, affection and love. When is the last time you told a friend you loved her or thanked a club member for his work?

Isn’t having successful conversations much more important than a lot of subjects our kids have in school? They’ll be talking to friends and family every day but will probably never use algebra or chemistry after graduation (and I used to teach algebra).

I try to push the envelope and challenge myself to grow. Today I met Diane Chayra, a woman who’d written a column critical of something I’d written in response to an commentary written by Alexander Teu. I was stunned. At the end of her column, she asked me to take a walk with her, and I accepted.

We discussed such notoriously volatile subjects as racism, immigration, gay marriage, etc. I think both of us are mature enough to deeply listen and feel empathy for each other. While we agreed on many issues, there were those where we differed. One thing I learned was that Americans of color do not want to be asked what their nationality is. Americans come in all hues.

Maybe, just maybe, this time next year I’ll have had a few more successful meaningful and crucial conversations.

Shanti Emerson lives in Grass Valley.


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