2010-03-04 / Church

Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson

Learning How to Converse is Like a Game of Catch

Question: Last week you answered a question from my girlfriend. I’m the boyfriend who doesn’t talk very much. I’ve been that way all of my life. Part of the problem is that I just don’t like to reveal what I’m feeling. But also, I don’t know how to talk to people. I get really uncomfortable when I’m with people and I’m expected to say things. Can you give me some hints about how to express myself?

Dr. Dobson: It might help you to understand the basics of good conversation. Let me ask you to imagine that the two of us are facing each other about eight feet apart. You have four tennis balls in your hands, and you toss one of them to me. Instead of throwing the ball back, however, I hold it and wait for you to toss another to me. Eventually all four balls are in my hands. We stand there looking at each other awkwardly and wondering what to do next. The game is over.

Good conversation is something like that game of catch. One person throws an idea or a comment to the other, and he or she then tosses it back. But if that second person doesn’t return it, the game ends. Both players feel awkward and wish they could be somewhere else. Let me illustrate further.

Suppose I say to my son when he comes home in the afternoon, “How did it go in school today?” If he answers, “Fine,” he has caught the ball and held it. We have nothing more to say to each other unless I can come up with another comment — another “ball” to throw to him.

But if my son says, “I had a good day because I got an A on my history test,” he has caught the ball and thrown it back. I can then ask, “Was it a difficult test?” or “Did you study hard for it?” or “I’ll bet you’re proud of yourself.”

If my son replies, “Yes,” he has wrecked the game again. To keep the conversation going, he needs to throw back something of substance, such as “It was a tough examination, but it was fair.” Then our “game” can continue.

I hope you see that the art of talking to people is really very simple. It’s just a matter of throwing the conversational ball back and forth.

As for your relationship with a future wife, it won’t be enough to just throw the ball back to her. She’s going to want you to be more intimate than that. She’ll need to know how you feel about her, what you dream about, things that upset you, what you’d like her to do, how you feel about God, etc. You can learn to put these thoughts into words, even though you will probably never be a big talker. I suggest that you push yourself in this direction rather than saying, “That’s just how I am.” Your wife will probably have to make some changes to accommodate you, too.

That’s what a good marriage is all about.

Question: I’ve been aware of my husband’s unfaithfulness for some time now. I’ve taken him to task for it, which has resulted in some incredible, horrible battles. I have even made demands that he stop his infidelity, yet no change in his attitude and behavior has happened. What am I doing wrong?

Dr. Dobson: I’m afraid you’ve made the common mistake of misunderstanding the difference between expressions of anger and loving toughness. Simply becoming angry and throwing temper tantrums is no more effective with a spouse than it is with a rebellious teenager. Screaming and accusing and berating are rarely successful in changing the behavior of human beings of any age. What is required is a course of action — an ultimatum that demands a specific response and results in a consequence. Then you must have the courage to deliver on the promise.

Dr. Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.focusonthefamily.org).

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