How to talk
Kathryn Mannix spent her medical career working with people who have incurable, advanced illnesses. Her first book, With the End in Mind: Dying, death and wisdom in an age of denial, was an attempt to restore our understanding of death. Her second is Listen: How to find the words for tender conversations.
She spoke at this year’s Greenbelt festival.
I’m struck that your book is called Listen, but the subtitle is How to Find the Words… I tend to think of listening as being where you shut up and let the other person speak, but there’s so much in the book about finding the right words to get the other person to the point where they’re willing to talk.
I hadn’t really anticipated writing this book, to be honest, but it grew out of the correspondence from my first book, With the End in Mind. A lot of people said, ‘You’ve convinced me that though this is daunting stuff, we need to talk about dying because we feel worse when we haven’t and we wish we had. But how do I have the conversation?’
Interestingly, this was both from the general public – ‘How do I talk about this with my family? If I could just give my dad a really good talking to, then everything would be alright’ – but also from nurses and doctors, saying, ‘What if the family gets upset? What if I get sued? What if it isn’t the right day to have that conversation yet?’
I realised that I’ve got quite a lot to say about conversations that are daunting but important. Almost always, when people talk to me about them, they’re worrying about what they should say. They go into the conversation with a kind of script: ‘I’m going to break my relationship up using this script’; ‘I’m going to discuss with my partner why there’s not as much money as there should be in the joint bank account with this script,’ whatever it is. And then they’re so busy thinking about the words that they need to say that they’re not available to listen at all.
So I went back to my publishers and said, ‘I think I’ve got a book. It’s about conversation, and it is going to be called Listen because that’s the thing that everybody forgets is the most important part of the conversation.
I want people to trust themselves: since we were about two we have been able to articulate in words what was going through our minds in a way that people could understand. We didn’t have a script, we just open our mouths and stuff comes out that communicates. So if you’ve established the space in which you’re communicating, you will find the words. And they are more likely to be appropriate words if you’ve listened first…
This article was published in the September 2023 edition of Reform