I'm a sucker for self-help books, the kind that women read and then try to get the men folk to talk about.
Topeka's Harriet Lerner writes books about relationships that both sexes can benefit from. She wrote "The Dance of Intimacy" and "The Dance of Anger." Her latest minuet is "The Dance of Connection."
The subtitle hooked me: "How to Talk to Someone When You're Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed or Desperate."
That covers about 68.7 percent of my waking life. How could I not read this book?
"The Dance of Connection" is about how to talk to people wisely and well when you're all messed up about them. Lerner is charmingly blunt about her own shortfalls, writing, "People are my stock-in-trade, but when I'm anxious or angry enough, I have the brain of a reptile."
Lerner spends one chapter, for example, pointing out all the things that can spoil an apology.
Sometimes we apologize for exactly our share -- as WE calculate it. (Meanwhile, of course, we also calculate how much and for what the other person should apologize.) Sometimes we apologize but then tag on a little rationalization -- I know it's been so long since I called BUT I haven't had a free second.
Lerner's chapter on being given the silent treatment is also good. She reminds us that the person who refuses to speak to someone may not, herself, know why. Meanwhile, the rejected party may cling to grief about this thinking that if he stays upset long enough, the person who did the rejecting will realize the error of her ways -- "which won't ever happen, of course," Lerner writes.
The book is written for women, Lerner says, though men are also invited along for the ride. This led me to ponder my belief that men, in general, have a harder time than women of finding their voices and composure when emotions run high.
Why would that be? Here's what I figure.
Feminism was born amid lots of nasty jokes. But after awhile the laughter stopped and feminism gave women a voice and more economic clout.
The male equivalent of feminism was the men's movement, which led to lots of nasty jokes -- about drumming in the woods and sensitive men. But the men's movement -- with its emphasis on learning to connect heart, mind, soul and language -- has remained something of a joke.
Too bad, I think. Many men, through no fault of their own, don't possess the words or the inclination to express the complexity of their inner lives. "As I tell my girlfriend," says one guy I know, "I have two emotions: happy and not so happy."
I believe that the imperatives of manhood have changed. Most of us don't have to remain calm anymore as lions charge us from the bush. Instead, manhood requires composure and honesty when our feelings are so charged that they might overwhelm us. It requires being fully present when conversation gets edgy. It requires speaking, quietly, when we might either fall silent or yell. It means sitting still when we'd like to storm out the door.
"Through our speech and our silence, we become smaller or larger selves," Lerner writes.
With so much riding on taming our words and making them true, men and women alike need to choose them carefully and bravely.
-- Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at www.research.ukans.edu. Martin's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.