Captivating Conversations

I am re-reading The Captive (re-released as The Captive Duke, because keywords rule the world). This exercise is in aid of cutting 15,000 words at the request of a foreign language publisher, and is frankly Not Going Well.

One thing I notice though, is the extent to which my protagonists, Gilly and Christian, grow closer by admitting to one another, essentially, “I can’t do this simple task right now. I need help. I am overwhelmed.” Both have a history of making those admissions to people who should have cared but absolutely did not. Both can hear the subtext from the other even when couched in innuendo, irony, and silence.

I am very fond of this book (and much prefer its original Jon Paul cover, above).

I also happen to be reading Supercommunicators, by Charles Duhigg. The author, whose earlier work largely informed thinking presented by James Clear of Atomic Habits fame, turns his sites on how we communicate, and specifically on the characteristics of those people we consider, “Easy to talk to.”

The easy-to-talk-to conversationalist makes a great hostage negotiator, juvenile parole officer, guidance counselor, therapist, grandma… They are an asset to almost any situation. Duhigg’s analysis of the research suggests that such people share an ability to decipher very quickly what the conversational subtext is.

Whaddazat mean? Duhigg says that most of the time, we’re having one of three different types of conversations, asking to be either helped, heard, or hugged. A conversation asking for assistance focuses on practical issues and problem solving. Hearing another person out often involves relationship or social identity issues, and somebody asking to be hugged is looking to clarify and validate emotions.

All three types of conversations can start with, “Thank heavens it’s Friday!” but the supercommunicator will quickly decipher whether what’s sought is assistance, reflective listening, or emotional engagement.

I am good at offering assistance, at thinking through resources and limitations, looking for critical paths and critical gates. This is more of my top-down thinking in action, but my strong suit also informs how I am most comfortable listening. Oddly enough, I am terrible at asking for practical help myself. Once I understand that somebody needs a sympathetic place to vent versus an experimental design consultant, I can be abundantly sympathetic, but I don’t always change the channel fast enough.

I’m even slower to pick up on conversations that probe relationships and social identity–Who are we? Who am I? Who are you? Can I trust you? What do you believe will always be true about yourself? Where are your boundaries and how do you enforce them?

Duhigg notes that supercommunicators listen more than they talk and listen actively. They will frequently loop back over old ground to ensure meanings and emotions were accurately interpreted. They are quick to use humor to create connections or signal their own vulnerability, and they have the courage to be genuine.

When I think about Gilly and Christian, and what they earned by listening to each other, being brave, taking time, and patiently clarifying signals and subtext, I am inspired to try harder at this easy-to-talk-to business. When I run across a gifted listener, my whole soul is more peaceful and I end the conversation feeling like a more interesting, worthwhile, and articulate version of myself.

Who listens to you? For whom do you make the effort to truly listen?

PS: The web store $.99 discount this month is my Highland Holidays novella quartet, because the day lilies are blooming and that means summer vacay is here at last!

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12 comments on “Captivating Conversations

  1. My late Mom used to listen to me and my sisters do it now. They are who I get in touch with to just vent. My partner, unfortunately, is a rather typical male and if I complain about anything, he immediately has to come up with a solution, even when it’s not a situation that really has a solution. I’ve even given him my favorite Bonnie Raitt lyrics to explain my point of view (“I want a man to hold me, not some fool to ask me why”) but he believes he has to fix everything for me. My sisters are much better at just agreeing that the venting itself is important.

    I’m the assistance type. I think it may come from being the eldest child in my case. I’m pretty terrible at picking up social/emotional cues but I can listen well enough.

    And not only do I very much prefer the Jon Paul cover but his artwork is why I picked up “The Traitor” in the first place and discovered one of my most favorite authors. I also think it’s terrible they expect you to cut out that many words. If they don’t want your work the way you wrote it, then I think they don’t really want your work. Your words are the most important thing about your books, how you string them together, and what you say with them is why you are one of my most favorite authors. I know it’s a business decision for you, but I wish you’d tell them to take your work as it is or take a hike. I’m thinking not only for your sake but for the sake of the readers who won’t get the chance to hear your special voice.

  2. About 10 years ago,, I took an active listening course at work. It was part of a management training series.
    Active listening is very important in managing others and it’s a skill I use when I speak with people on the phone.
    I take a refresher class every two years and always pick up some tips.
    I listen to people differently- for example, in dog class I have to pick up and understand my trainers comments and use the immediately. I have to focus on my husband when he speaks with me. And I have a friend that I need to figure out what she is saying…or what she means to say.

    Who listens to me? My dogs, of course!

  3. I am reminded of, “Do you need help or want sympathy.” “I need to talk to someone.” “Well, you can always talk to God.” “I need someone with skin on.”

    An abbreviated conversation that has gone into my family’s vocabulary… “I was/am looking for someone with skin on”

  4. Pingback: Highland Deals and Captive Dukes | Grace Burrowes | I believe in love.

  5. Several comments:
    1) When I see the title The Captive, it sounds like the *woman* has been captured or kidnapped. The Captive Duke sounds like his heart has been captured by the woman.
    2) I like the original cover better (not just because pink is my favorite color). My eyes are drawn to the couple at the top first and because the cover and dress are the same shade, the cover seems “softer”.
    3) However, since your name is more prominent on the newer cover that must mean you are famous enough that people will pick up a book just because you wrote it (I can’t possibly be talking about me)
    4) Another author I read showed her readers how the blue dress on the original cover changed to pink on the Large Type cover *and* the setting changed from outside to inside. — the Large Type is a different publisher than the regular type and she had no say in the LT cover.

  6. Since I’m now retired, I find I don’t need the listeners I craved when working (Critical care nurse and nursing management). Back then, I often needed to bounce confounding issues off others. My go-to has always been my husband. He, too, was in healthcare and had good appreciation for my frustrations.

    These days, I still utilize my husband and I consider him my best friend. We’ve been married 41 years so we must be doing something right!

    I adore THE CAPTIVE and the original lovely cover. The new cover is meh and the indignity of chopping 15,000 words out of a book I love (FIFTEEN THOUSAND??!!) is akin to doing a lobotomy. The Foreign Language Publisher person might have a reasonable excuse for demanding that, but I consider it a travesty. Good luck to you, Grace. It must be excruciating.

  7. Grace, you’ve inspired me to reread The Captive. Thanks for the reference to Charles Duhigg and the reminder of “heard, helped or hugged.” Ever since I was in 3rd grade, I have been told “you’re easy to talk to,” “you can take a joke,” “you’re so calm.” Yet I didn’t see anything special about simply observing and absorbing the dynamics around me and certainly did not feel calm on the inside! After years as an corporate executive, I am now an executive coach. The listening has paid off, but it requires constant monitoring of my own triggers, judgmental tendencies and desire to give (rather than seek) solutions with my clients. My best listeners are my sisters and some very special friend-colleagues who remind me to take as well as give. Meanwhile, at home: in stereotypical Mediterranean fashion, my husband flares up quickly and forcefully, which masks his underlying fears (being taken advantage of, loss of control). Even though I know his subtext, I still get hijacked by his emotions. You’d think I’d learn after 40+ years of marriage to listen and reflect at those moments rather than get hurt, then defensive. It’s still a BIG work in progress.

  8. It is wonderful when you feel like you’ve been listened to. My training as a counselor has help me a great deal. I hope people find I listen, if not maybe that person will listen to me. Thanks for this essay, it is always great to spend time reflecting on anothers thoughts.

  9. The Captive with the original cover was the first Grace Burrowes book I ever read. I then dove into the backlist and have every story except the contemporaries. All have been read repeatedly so I’ve been rebuying them in ebook form. Grace Burrowes stories make me happy. Just had to say.

  10. The conversations between chatacters are the reason I have read and re-read your books. The dialog flows seamlessly. Nothing feels contrived or forced and there is lots of subtle humor that I appreciate. It all makes the characters feel real.