How to have 'those' difficult conversations

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:10 pm on 6 July 2021

Anna Sale started talking about hard things by accident, and now she's made a career out of it.

The Death, Sex and Money podcast host shares some advice from her new book Let's Talk about Hard Things.

Anna Sale

Anna Sale Photo: supplied

Before hosting her podcast, Sale was a journalist, increasingly frustrated with the evasive talk of politicians she interviewed and craving a kind of journalism she couldn't find.

"I wanted to hear stories of people talking about when life went in a direction they did not plan, and when they didn't have an immediate answer or life hack and how they got through those times of uncertainty and transition."

At the same time, Sale's first marriage was falling apart, despite she and her then-husband's best efforts.

Although separating was very sad, she eventually realised it was the right choice for both of them.

"What the end of my marriage taught me was this unravelling and tension and conflict [was] because we were becoming two people who wanted different things in life."

Difficult conversations can lead you to the clarity to accept 'okay, this relationship has gone as far as it needs to go', she says.

"Hard conversations, the reason to have them is not because you're going to be able to fix whatever is causing you anxiety or grief or tension, but instead what it does allow you to do is describe to one another what you're experiencing, to compare notes, and sometimes that means you can support each other and help each other... And sometimes you can realise 'I'm not the person to do this with you', which is where I got to with my ex-husband."

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Photo: supplied

Sale devotes entire chapters to talking about the tough but unavoidable subjects of death, sex and money in her book - looking closely at each to reveal the specific challenges they present.

Talking about intimacy, romantic relationships and sex is tricky because it forces us to think about what we want and need in a relationship, she says.

In these conversations, 'showing your cards' is unavoidable.

"What you are figuring out with another person is what your needs and wants are - with intimacy, emotionally - and trying to figure out if they match up with the person you're with or potentially going to be with. So at stake in that… is this going to work out, is one of us going to get hurt, is one of us going to feel foolish or ashamed somehow?

What we individually want and need from a relationship can change and evolve, she says.

"That's because our lives change but it's also because our bodies change, what we want out of intimacy changes… all of that is changing. So when you create that openness of 'okay, what's going on with you?' you can really be honest with one another about how to meet each other's needs."

When talking to someone grieving a death, it's helpful to allow the loss to be something you can't fix - instead offer connection, Sale says.

"[Death] can be so overwhelming and you feel like people have this expectation that you're processing your grief and you're getting through it. That can be incredibly isolating at a time when you need people more than ever."

If someone tells you their grandparent has died, it can be kind to ask the person's name as an invitation to them to tell you more about their loved one, she says.

"Somehow the person who's just learning this information [often] thinks 'If I make them talk more about their dead grandfather they're going to feel more sad than they did before. But when you say 'What was his name?' it allows them to talk about what they love about this person they're mourning."

Money is difficult to talk about because a conversation about money is a conversation about a lot of things at once, Sale says.

"We're [simultaneously] talking about how much money we have in our bank accounts, how much stability we feel we have in life, we're also talking about our values that we were taught in our families of origin about money, independence and interdependence… and we also are talking about politics."

The more we're able to acknowledge our personal finances are the result of both effort and chance, the more we can help loosen the shame many people feel around talking about them, she says.

"Any of us who are honest about money know that what each of us have is the result of choices we have individually made and effort we have individually made and also histories that our families went through… and also about luck."

"When we clam up about money and pretend it isn't a huge influence on the plots of our individual lives we're not being honest about how our lives have unfolded and we're also not creating the opportunity for a little more sharing and helping each other."

The best way to approach a seemingly hard conversation is to enter the exchange "with the spirit of curious listening", Sale says.

"Being listened to feels incredibly empowering … when you make the intention to slow down the pace of an exchange and really listen to each other that's when some really transformative things can happen in a relationship."

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