Communication: One Subject At a Time


…when I realize,

…immediately and absolutely,

the existence of another person,

another free center of another world.

- Marjorie Grene

ot every conversation has to be a work of art with an abundance of “I” statements and a minimum of sub-text. But it would be nice to be able to create artful communication at will. And it would be heartening to have fewer missed connections – those times when, no matter what each of you say, you can’t seem to reach a mutual understanding in a discussion over an important issue with someone who matters to you.

People want to be heard and understood. And people want to understand. So people really do try to communicate effectively. But, truly, in my experience, 90% of the time when couples think they are having a discussion about an important topic they are actually talking at cross-purposes. Unbeknownst to them and despite their best efforts to express themselves, their discussion is fraught because they are talking about two different things. There is little chance of their reaching an agreement because they are seeking resolution to wholly disparate concerns. This is not anybody's fault. No one ventures into a conversation intending to slight their partner or to obfuscate the messages being transmitted in a tête-à-tête. Missed communication is a function of not understanding the dynamics of what happens to most of us when we try to converse with another person.

One of the major impediments to good communication and the topic of this article, then, is the tendency most of us have to hold two conversations simultaneously – and often without knowing it! Here’s an example:

Antony: What time are we supposed to be at the Thomas’ house tonight?

Cleopatra: I told you last week the dinner starts at 8.

Antony: So we’re supposed to get there at 8?

Cleopatra: I just said that.

Antony: Well. Sometimes you say that it’s not polite to get places on time.

Cleopatra: I just said that we’re supposed to get there at 8. Aren’t you listening to me?

Antony: I heard you. So you’re planning to be ready in time to get there at 8?

Cleopatra: Yes. I’m. Planning. To. Get. There. By. Eight.

A savvy observer would notice that there seems to be something a bit off about this conversation. The problem is that Tony is having the “I hate it when we get places late” conversation but Cleo is having the “You never listen to me” talk. This is a mundane example, but it illustrates the conversational dynamics of a split discussion. Either conversation, Tony’s or Cleo’s, is worth having. But when you try to have two halves of a split discussion simultaneously, you will feel like you’re talking with an imbecile.

Important Aside: We could defend the position that there actually are no mundane conversations. Every simple conversation is an opportunity to master better communication skills. If we learn to speak skillfully in the simple situations, when the difficult talks arise we will be better prepared to prevail.

Another Important Aside: Even though I use couples as the examples in this article, the dynamic of talking about one thing at a time is sacrosanct if any two people want to clearly understand one another – be it friends, siblings or parent and child.

For successful communication, the goal is to have a conversation about only one thing at a time. There is a strategy I call “Talk to the Feet” that helps couples learn how to set the stage for this more effective communication style. This strategy is effective between friends, lovers, parent and child, boss and employee and so forth.

Talk to the feet



Pull of the Moon

- Elizabeth Berg

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

- Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows



Send your questions to me at:


Picture yourself sitting on the front porch of a back-country cabin with your feet up on the railing. Now put someone who matters to you sitting next to you with her or his feet up, too. In front of the two of you are metaphorical mountains, valleys, rivers, trees, rocks, animals, clouds, plants and bugs. In other words, lots of things to have a conversation about.

Next, get into the mindset to play the child’s game of “I Spy”. (Remember that game? One person chooses something visible to everyone and the others have to guess what it is by asking questions.) Inherent in the rules of that game are the critical components of good communication: only one person is “it” at a time; the person who is “not it” has to work to figure the puzzle out; there is no assumption that the “not it” person should know the answer right away; the game involves lots and lots of questions; the person who is “it” works to answer the questions honestly; and there is victory at the end of the process when the correct thing is discovered. And most important – there are no losers in this game.

Here’s how you play the good communication game of Talk to the Feet:

Sitting shoulder to shoulder with your feet stretched out in front of you, decide who is “it”. We’ll choose Antony for illustration purposes.

The person who is “it” owns the topic of conversation. Their job is to pick something they “spy” in their life that they want to discuss. A good rule of thumb in day-to-day conversation is this: the one who speaks first owns the topic of the exchange. Antony wants to discuss his preference for punctuality but seems to be unable to do so directly.

The job of the other, the “not it” person, is to be a gracious and skilled sleuth. Cleopatra, in this instance, plays the game by first forcing herself to NOT assume that she instantly knows the answers. Her task is to figure out the topic of discussion and then work to understand the position of Antony as completely as possible. She must assume that Antony is “another free center of another world,” to use Marjorie Grene’s words and she must be interested in seeing that other world. Since Cleopatra is “not it” and her husband is not clear on how to broach what is bothering him, her job is to first figure out what Antony’s topic is.

Antony: What time are we due at the Thomas’ this evening?

Cleopatra: I thought I had told you the time.

Antony: Well, you probably did, but I wanted to make sure I had it right.

Cleopatra: Are you worried we’ll get there at the wrong time?

Antony: No. Not exactly. I just like to have the time nailed down.

Cleopatra: I’m not understanding why that’s so important in this case. It’s not a plane flight or an important meeting or anything.

Antony: I know. I just like to be on time. Even in social situations.

Cleopatra: So you’re asking about the time because you want to be on time?

Antony: Sort of. I like to be on time.

Cleopatra: You said that already. You’re always on time. You’re a very punctual person.

Antony: I try. I like to be on time.

Cleopatra: Okay. I’ve got that. What is your concern about tonight’s party?

Antony: Well, I can’t be on time if you aren’t ready on time.

Cleopatra: So the question you have is really this: what time will you be ready to go to the Thomas’ this evening, Cleo?

Antony: Yes. That’s it.

Cleopatra has ferreted out that what Antony really wants to discuss is her tendency to always be late. She now needs to demonstrate a willingness to work to fully understand his concerns and to do so, must resist the temptation to hijack the conversation and make it either about her beliefs around this issue or a defense of her habits.

Cleopatra: You don’t trust that I’ll be ready on time.

Antony: Well. No. You always seem to be about 20 minutes late.

Cleopatra: I’m probably late a lot more often than you are, true.

Antony: I don’t like to ever be late. It seems rude and sloppy to me.

Cleopatra: I can understand your position, but it’s just not that important to me…to always be on time. My friends are okay with me being late. But you’re not okay when I make you late.

Antony: No. I’m starting to really resent it. You know I like to be places on time.

Cleopatra: So even though my friends are okay when I’m late, you want me to be on time so you can be on time?

Antony: Yeah. They may not care, but I do. I want it to matter to you that I care.

Cleopatra: So, your feelings get hurt when I’m not ready on time and it makes you late?

Antony: Wouldn’t it bother you if you were I?

Cleopatra: Being late?

Antony: No. If I was ignoring something that is important to you.

Cleopatra: Are you saying that your concerns aren’t with being late, per se, but with me not paying enough attention to what’s important to you?

Antony: No. If I stop and think about it, it’s really about just this one issue. You are great about giving me attention, except around this. But this, this being on time, this is really important to me.

Cleopatra: So it’s my not paying attention to how very much punctuality is important to you. That is a special part of you that I’ve been dismissing.

Antony: Yeah. Yeah, that’s it. I keep muttering to myself “If she really knew me, she’d know how much this bothers me.”

Cleopatra: That makes me feel crappy to hear that. I feel that I DO know you well. But, now, because you’ve made this so clear, I realize I didn’t know how high a priority it is for you to be punctual.

Antony: It is. I don’t know why, but it really, really bugs me when I’m late.

Cleopatra: Now that’s interesting. I wonder why it matters so much to you and so little to me. Am I a rude, sloppy person?

At this point, Cleo and Tony have identified one topic to discuss – the ethics of punctuality. And at this juncture, Antony feels special for having been taken seriously, and Cleopatra feels proud of herself for having been able to stay in the listener role. They are now in an enviable position to launch into a deeply intimate talk about the roots of both of their attitudes about punctuality, shine on the party at the Thomas’ and have a great evening of talk and tenderness.

Cleo is eager to have her turn to be “it” to see if Antony can listen to her as well. The next evening she requests a game of Talk to the Feet with the roles reversed. Their conversation went something like this:

Cleopatra: I want to talk about feeling heard.

Antony: Okay.

Cleopatra: When I bring up a subject that’s important to me, I don’t feel like you really hear me.

Antony: I hear you.

Cleopatra: I don’t mean “hear” hear me, I mean “understand” hear me.

Antony: I understand you. You’re easy to understand. You always say just what you mean.

Cleopatra: You understand my words, but you don’t understand me.

Antony: Of course I understand you. Your words are very clear.

Cleopatra: I don’t feel like you understand me.

Antony: Well, I do understand you.

Cleopatra: No. You’re doing it right now. You are listening to my words but not to what I mean.

Antony: That doesn’t make any sense.

Cleopatra: You hear my words but you don’t think about what those words mean to me.

Antony: How can words mean something different to you than they do to me?

Cleopatra: I don’t know. Never mind. This just isn’t working.

Antony feels stumped and stupid. But, brave man that he is, he tries again. He restates what he does understand about their conversation so far.

Antony: There is something about the way I listen to you that makes you feel like I’m not really hearing you.

Cleopatra: Yes. It’s like you stay on the surface of words when you listen to me. When things are really important to me I need you to hear things a little deeper.

Antony: Cleo, you’re going to have to help me out here. What you’re saying makes no sense to me.

Cleopatra: I want you to assume that there’s more to what I’m saying than what I’m saying.

Antony: Still not helping.

Cleopatra: I want you to be interested in what I’m saying.

Antony: I am interested. I’m listening.

Cleopatra: But not listening the way I need you to listen. I need you to want to hear more.

Antony: Why would I want to hear more than what you are wanting to say? Like I said, you are very clear when you talk.

Cleopatra: But I always stop short of the true subject when I talk to you. I always feel like you really don’t want to know more.

Antony: I guess I never knew there WAS more.

Cleopatra: When I talk with my women friends, we almost always end up digging deeper and finding a new level of understanding. It feels great.

Antony: So you want me to understand you more like your women friends understand you.

Cleopatra: I guess. They just seem to know what kinds of questions to ask.

Antony: Well. It helps to know that talking with you is more like digging than just hearing.

Cleopatra: I think that’s interesting, what you just said. It does feel like you don’t want to know more, that you just want me to finish my topic so you can respond.

Antony: That’s probably because I feel like I have to have an answer ready when you’re done talking. It never occurred to me that I could just have questions.

Cleopatra: I think that’s one of those basic man/woman problems – men are trained to think they have to have the answers. It makes for a lonely conversation, though.

Antony: You feel lonely when we talk?

Cleopatra: A little.

Antony: But you don’t feel lonely when you talk with your women friends?

Cleopatra: Not very often. I usually feel really heard and joined.

Antony: “Joined”? What does that mean?

Cleopatra: Well, it’s like they want to root around in the topic with me until we all understand it a little better.

Antony: Like we’re doing now?

Cleopatra: Yes! Just like we’re doing now!

Passionate kiss. Fade to black.

Didn’t Cleo and Tony do a great job? They were able to disentangle the original “conversation” that they had tried to have into the two distinct parts. Tony got to have his conversation and Cleo got to have hers.

When you see both halves of this conversation played out one-at-a-time, you can see how complicated they each are. It’s no wonder there can be no resolution if two people are engaging in two parts of two different knotty conversations simultaneously. Tony and Cleo barely got through these topics when they were broached separately!

The route to success in Talking to the Feet is to use your imagination as you both explore new relationship territory. Obstacles to good communication are much more easily avoided if conversation can be seen as an activity where everyone wins.

Reviewing the strategies

• By sitting shoulder to shoulder and facing their feet, both people are alerted to the need to stay focused on the new rules for communication rather than slipping into old conversational (or fighting) patterns. With this different physical orientation, the speaker will be free to stay in his own head and try to uncover the truest truths about what he is thinking. He won’t be distracted by the nonverbals of his partner as he sorts through his thoughts. He will be able to keep his focus on the “view” before him. With the new orientation, the listener will be forced to pay attention to the speaker’s words with her mind’s eye to discover what she thinks he is trying to say. Not facing each other also lowers defensiveness because it makes the topic appear “out there”, out in front of the couple rather than between the couple.

• The person who talks first owns the subject. No matter how stimulated the “not it” person is to react with another topic or how entitled the “not it” person feels to defend herself, the aim of the “not it” person is only to understand what is on the mind of the person who is “it.” In order to do this well, there must be trust that the “not it” person will get her turn later.

• The talker’s job: try to know what your topic is and state it. If you’re not really sure, it can be extremely helpful to alert your listener that the early part of the conversation will need to focus on identifying what’s specifically on your mind. It is very common to have only a vague, intuitive sense of what you want your topic to be, so don’t be shy about launching into a discussion about what may be on your mind. Here is a good place to try out those “I” statements.

• The listener’s job: It is much, much, much harder to be a good listener than one might imagine. Because it is such a nonnegotiable interpersonal skill, it has its own article: Listen! The articles on empathy, positive feedback and stipulation would also be helpful to read. Suffice it to say here that, as the listener, you should try very, very hard to remember to not assume that you understand the speaker's point of view. Ask questions and offer tentative reflections of what you think the speaker is trying to communicate to you. Also, I would be remiss here not to point out that one bad habit to watch for when you are listening is the tendency all humans have to assign motives to speakers. We do this without realizing it, so it is critical when you're trying to be a skilled listener to check in with yourself to see what assumptions you are making about the speaker's intentions. If you find that you have assumptions, it would be wise to check them out with the speaker, because people tend to be wrong about the motives of others a very high percentage of the time. This misapprehension is due to the fact that we cannot help but project onto others our own habits, fears and flaws. These projections distort our vision with a confirmation bias that can lead us even further away from the true insides of the speaker. In a nutshell, then, if you want to develop skill as a listener, do not think that you know at the outset what the speaker is saying or why she is saying it.

Having a conversation about one topic at a time is an effective dialogue strategy in that it optimizes the chances of effectively transmitting important information between the discussants. That careful communication process also avoids a terribly painful side effect of poor communication, which happen this way: When we are talking at cross purposes, the receivers of an initial transmission are not receiving the packet of information sent to them by the first speaker. Too often they are busy getting their packet of information ready to launch back instead of deeply listening. And, even more sadly, they start the launch preparation process in their minds halfway through the first speaker's message. What that means is that their response packet is going to be received as an emotional non sequitur. In other words, the tone of the reply packet will be off BECAUSE it is about a different topic. This disconnect is jarring and hurtful to the original speaker because it is a rejection of her initial packet of information which tends to feel like a rejection of her.

A conversational non sequitur is the opposite of respectful interpersonal stipulation. If, instead of the premature information reply, our initial packet of information about what is going on in our heads is fully received with even the most modest of skill, we feel both connected and safe. Those positive interpersonal feelings leave us able to deepen the level of conversation and therefore deepen the relationship as a whole.

Here are a couple more examples of attempts to have split discussions simultaneously and then sequentially.

Roy and Dale talking simultaneously

Roy: Did you feed the horses?

Dale: What?

Roy: Did you feed the horses this morning?

Dale: Of course I did. I feed them every morning.

Roy: I didn’t see you go out to the barn.

Dale: Well, clearly I did since I just said that I fed the horses.

Roy: When did you go out?

Dale: What difference does it make? I fed the damn horses.

Roy: I just want to know when you fed them.

Dale: Don’t you believe me when I told you I fed them?

Roy: Yeah. I believe you.

Dale: Then what’s the problem?

Roy: Why can’t you just tell me when you went out?

Roy and Dale talking sequentially

Roy: Did you feed the horses?

Dale: Well, I do every morning, so, yes…I did feed the horses.

Roy: I didn’t see you go out to the barn.

Dale: I went out right before you got up.

Roy: Oh.

Dale: Did you want to go out to the barn with me?

Roy: No.

Dale: I don’t understand why you want to know when I fed them.

Roy: I just didn’t see you go out.

Dale: That’s because you were still in bed.

Roy: That’s good.

Dale: What’s good?

Roy: That I was still in bed.

Dale: So you wouldn’t see me go outside?

Roy: No. It’s that I didn’t forget that you went outside. I didn’t see you, that’s all.

Dale: You’re worried that you had forgotten that I had gone out to feed the horses?

Roy: Yeah. A little.

Dale: Do you think that you are starting to forget things?

Roy: No. Yes. I don’t know. Sometimes.

Dale: I haven’t noticed that you are any more forgetful than you’ve always been. I think you are just worried because you turned 70 last month.

Roy: I just can’t seem to remember things like I used to.

Dale: Tell me about it. The other day I called Trigger “Nellybelle!”

Rather than having a fight precipitated by trying to cover up a fear, Dale and Roy were able to have a comforting discussion about how scared they both are to be 70 years old. The next morning Dale broached the subject that had gotten activated in her during yesterday’s discussion.

Dale: I’m unhappy about something.

Roy: What?

Dale: I feel like you count on me too much.

Roy: What do you mean?

Dale: It seems like you are always looking to me to decide what you should do next.

Roy: What’s wrong with that? I want to make sure you get a vote in what I do.

Dale: Okay. I appreciate that. Is that all it is, a vote?

Roy: What are you worried about?

Dale: It just seems like you depend too much on what I say…on what I want.

Roy: How can I care too much about that? We’ve been married for almost 50 years. Who else would I depend on?

Dale: But what will happen to you if I die first?

Roy: What? Are you sick?

Dale: No. No. No. But one of us is going to die first.

Roy: Yes. That’s true. You’re worried that I won’t manage if you die first?

Dale: I don’t know. I worry about all the work that I do around the ranch. How would you manage?

Roy: Dale, are you trying to manage my life from beyond the grave?

Dale: (Laughs.) I guess so. But can we talk about how you would manage?

Roy: Maybe we should talk about how to make our lives more manageable before one of us dies.

Dale: Oh, dear, Dear. You’re right. I guess we need to have that conversation.

After a few months of serious talks, Roy and Dale sell the ranch and move to a condo in Dallas to be closer to their grandchildren. Trigger retires to a stud farm.

And finally, Lyle and Julia cross talking

Lyle: I’m going to play hockey tonight after work. Okay?

Julia: Fine.

Lyle: What?

Julia: Nothing.

Lyle: Your words say “Nothing” but your face says “Something.”

Julia: No. Go ahead. Play hockey.

Lyle: I’m only playing once or twice a week.

Julia: No. It’s okay. Go play.

Lyle: Okay.

Lyle and Julia talking one at a time

Lyle: I’m going to play hockey tonight after work. Okay?

Julia: Fine.

Lyle: Doesn’t seem like it’s fine.

Julia: Sorry. It just caught me by surprise.

Lyle: Do you not want me to play tonight?

Julia: No. It’s fine. Really. I’m going to yoga after work, so I won’t be home anyway.

Lyle: You’re sure?

Julia: (Pauses.) Yes. It really is fine. I think playing hockey is good for you and I know how much you enjoy it. It’s okay.

Lyle: Okay. Have fun at yoga.

Julia initially got reactive to Lyle, but when they stayed with his original topic (I want to make sure it’s okay with you if I go play hockey tonight), they didn’t fight. But Julia brought up her own topic the next night.

Julia: Sweetie, I need to tell you something. I was a little miffed about the hockey talk yesterday morning.

Lyle: You said it was okay if I went to play.

Julia: You’re right. It was okay. Let me be more specific. I was miffed about how you brought up the fact that you were going to play hockey.

Lyle: Come again?

Julia: It felt to me like you ambushed me with it.

Lyle: How so?

Julia: It’s sort of a big deal when you play hockey. You don’t get home until late and I’m usually asleep by the time you get home.

Lyle: You don’t like it when I play?

Julia: No. Really. It’s fine that you play. It’s great, actually. I like that you stay fit. I know it makes you happy. And I like having an evening to myself.

Lyle: But something bothered you yesterday.

Julia: It’s how you brought it up. It was not really a question. It had already been decided. You were informing me that you were going to play. If I hadn’t wanted you to go, I would have had to be the bad guy and make you cancel your plans.

Lyle: You want me to get your approval before I make any plans?

Julia: Not exactly.

Lyle: What do you want?

Julia: I want to feel that you understand the impact you have on our relationship.

Lyle: I’m not following.

Julia: When you make bigger plans, like playing hockey, without checking in with me first, I feel like I’m supposed to work my life around you.

Lyle: Like my life comes first…before our relationship?

Julia: Yes! I try to think of you when I’m living my life. Not that I always choose the relationship first, but I always think about it first.

Lyle: I can see that. I can see how much I trust that you do that.

Julia: You don’t have to always choose me, but I need you to always think of me.

Lyle: That I can do.

Not every conversation has to be perfect, but, with a little practice, many of the conversations you have during your busy day can lead to perfectly wonderful feelings of closeness and tranquility. It's as simple as learning to talk about only one thing at a time.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.