IT'S GOOD TO TALK...
based on a speech given by Peter Settelen at the Oxford Union
There's an expression that rolls off the tongue, oh so easily: `Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.' Nothing could be further from the truth. What you say to another human being and what they say to you has the most profound effect on you both. We're truly able to move mountains with words. And the power of words can destroy people's lives. It really does matter what we say to each other - and how we say it.
In all our lives we've all had moments, when we can honestly say, it’s been good to talk.
A conversation when we felt emotionally connected to another human being.
A conversation which gave us both a deeper understanding of each other.
A conversation when we felt totally in tune, totally in harmony, totally safe.
We knew we were both being heard.
Whether we were the speaker or the listener, we engaged in an exchange of thoughts and emotions. If we were doing the talking, we said thought by thought what was in our mind. Our friend echoed our every word and tone under their breath. Silently listening by saying it with us. After each thought, we breathed together and both experienced the emotion of what we'd just said. By watching our friend’s face and body we checked them out, to see if they understood. Not just understood, but felt the feeling in our words. Our friend nodded as if to say, they’d heard us. So did we, as if to say 'I heard it too’. We both experienced what we said at the same moment. Both joined through the breath to the thought and to the emotion. Magically there in our mind was what we needed to say next, ready to be spoken.
When we completed the cycle of thoughts, we both reviewed them as a whole. And in that moment, as we both breathed, we decided between us who was to carry on talking. We stayed in step with each other, as if only one person was doing the talking. Sitting or standing the same way. Moving and breathing together. Even if we were doing all the talking, our friend was always part of the process. Neither of us owned the conversation.
It belonged to us both.
With our true friends we feel as though we could tell them anything and still remain safe in their friendship. It makes us feel good, it makes us feel well. It makes us feel safe!
But what about when we meet someone for the first time? Every new person a new possibility. Maybe they'll become our best friend. Maybe they’ll become our lover
Maybe they'll hurt us in some way. Maybe they'll beat us up. Maybe they'll cheat us in business. Maybe they'll be the person we've been waiting to meet all of our lives. Maybe they’ll be the person we’ll wish we'd never met!
Even before the other person speaks, their very presence has an immediate effect on us. We try to feel exactly where they're 'coming from'. But who's going to come out of hiding first? Whose going to make the first move? Whose going to disclose a part of themselves, to let the other person feel safer? Which bit will be opened up to scrutiny and by whom? ‘‘Why do they want to talk to me? What do they want from me? Who are they really? Is it safe to tell them who I really am? Will it help me survive?’'
What I'm describing can feel like war. For so many, people that's just what it is.
For them, meeting people is not about love and affection, it’s about basic survival!
You know how sometimes when you meet someone and you know they’re judging you? Deciding whether you're worth knowing. Checking you out. Will you help them climb their ladder of success? Now, if you don't immediately come up with the goods
to reassure them that you’ll improve their chances of survival, they move on.
However well camouflaged they are, however magnificent their mask, behind it, they’ll be living their life in a state of total hysteria.
They’re so terrified, they don’t hear or see anything, except what they believe they need - in order to survive! Yet we can all see and hear through their mask, right through to their fear. If we really look, if we really listen. Listen to what they’re really saying. It may not be in the words they use, but it’ll be there in the way they stand, and the way they move. It'll be there in their face and in their eyes. And most of all it’ll be there in their voice. Yet all too often we’ll conspire with them to pretend that the person they’re presenting to us is who they really are, on the one proviso that they pretend that what we’re presenting to them is us. Neither is really talking, neither is really listening. A veneer of acceptable civility that’s wafer thin. We could strip it away - but we don’t?
But wouldn't it be wonderful if we did. If we felt safe enough to drop the mask and talk and listen as the person we really are, instead of remaining in emotional turmoil,
living an imitation of real life. An illusion that’s based on fear.
Why are we so terrified to talk openly and honestly without fear?
For the first few years of our lives the adults around us thrilled as we developed the ability to talk. They clapped their hands in glee, as we started to make more and more sense of the language we were learning. And then all too soon
it starts to go horribly wrong. Instead of smiles of joy we get:
‘‘Button your lip’ ‘Shut your mouth’ ‘
‘Don’t you dare speak to me like that’.
‘One more word out of you and you’ll go to your room’.
Then once we’ve been silenced we’re told:
‘Well spit it out then, come on’. ‘Cat got your tongue’
‘Stop bloody mumbling child... ‘
Or maybe the cruel sarcasm and public humiliation of:
‘‘The floor is yours Jenkins, what pearls of wisdom do have for us today... em?’
It’s not very nice, even now, to be talked to like that. What did it feel like, say, when you were four or five or six or seven? Maybe what was said or done to you was worse, even more cruel, even more unkind and destructive to your confidence, to your belief that you have a right to be heard. How did you deal with the feelings of confusion and hurt? How did you decide how to cope in the future? To cope with the belief that it wasn’t safe to express what you really feel - any more?
Every day I see people who’ve been de-voiced by someone during their childhood.
Their ability to talk openly and honestly without fear has been crushed with words.
Not just words, but the way they were used as weapons to wound.
You could say: ‘’Well, it happens to us all. We all get over it.’‘... Do we?
‘’The middle aged woman who speaks with a little girls voice. The man who tries desperately to get across what he’s trying to say, but it just won’t come out.
The woman who speaks in bullets, trying to be assertive, but knows that she's failing abysmally. The young man, desperately trying to be cool, but his terrified eyes always give him away. The woman who mumbles and just can’t look you straight in the eye,
because she’s too terrified you’ll probe her pain.
All of us are trying to cover up past pain. Trying to keep it hidden from prying eyes. But it leaks out every time we open our mouths. The truth is, we don’t talk to each other, not really - not most of the time. We exchange at best pointless pleasant platitudes.
Talking has become for the most part a necessary function to achieve our needs in order to survive. An empty experience that diminishes us all. And we talk and listen
from behind a public mask that hides our private pain.
Yet from behind that mask, most of us, most of the time, are searching and longing to hear something that reassures us that we belong, that we are included, that we are part of the whole, part of the community we live in and that our voice is truly being heard. Talking is always emotional - always personal.
You have a choice. If you want to stay trapped in a vocal time warp, continue to convince yourselves as others do, that emotion is not very professional. That you as a person are irrelevant. Convince yourselves that all the education and knowledge and understanding you’ve received in your life is to be used merely as a service industry to other people’s need to survive. Convince yourself that you’re OK to be just another widget in this world, indistinguishable from the next, except for your particular knowledge data base and grades. Support the suppression of an individual’s need to be heard and talked to as a person rather, than as a function of their job title.
Continue to believe that the mask works.
But what if you don’t? What if you want to be released from the confines created in your childhood?
Break down your barrier of fear - before it’s too late! Listen past another person's fear to who they really are. Believe it’s the people you meet and talk to, I mean really talk to, that matter most, as you try to define who you are - as you search to find your place and purpose in this world.
Know that you have the potential to form that future, by what you say and how you say it. Begin to talk and listen openly and honestly without fear.
And the next time you’re about to talk and your heart’s in your mouth, speak from there and change the world. And know for certain - it's good to talk.
© Peter Settelen
First Published by HarperCollins
Second Edition Revised and expanded available on:
Watch a BBC interview given by Peter Settelen
Listen to a BBC Radio interview given by Peter Settelen about "Just Talk To Me..."