Help for the tongue-tied

A U book on making assertive speech has just been translated into Hebrew for Israelis, usually considered effortless talkers.

Dibur Assertivi 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dibur Assertivi 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israelis seem to be among the most talkative people in the world, judging from what you hear on the street and the number of cellphone minutes they use every month. So it may be surprising that, nine years after New Harbinger Publications published the book Talk to Me in the US, Israeli publisher Focus would decide to translate it into Hebrew for the local audience.
Titled Dibur Assertivi: Keilim Letikshoret Hevratit Ye’ila (Assertive Speech: Tools for Effective Social Communication), the 187-page, softcover book is not scientific, based on clinical research or written by psychologists. The authors – both from San Francisco – are laymen, but apparently with a lot of practical experience. Carole Honeychurch, who has a master’s degree, is a freelance writer on, author of several books and a “relationship expert.” Her co-author, Angela Watrous, has similar credentials.
Around the world, whatever language they speak and in whatever culture they were raised, people have trouble making conversation. It may be with a coworker, superior at work, spouse or other close relative, date or acquaintance.
Many businesspeople become tongue-tied when they have to speak before a large or even a small group.
For some, speaking is traumatic and turns into a phobia.
Others who don’t know what to say at parties or other encounters have difficulty making personal and social contacts.
One doesn’t hear of Hebrew courses in the style of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, so this volume should offer some relief.
The authors offer 50 chapters, each focusing on a specific problem or topic, from learning how to deal with bores, narcissists and overdisclosers to disagreeing with people without insulting them, dealing with aggressive behavior, and starting or disengaging from conversation.
The book is nuts and bolts, and its advice is very down-to- earth.
The chapters, only two to four pages apiece, are divided among three larger sections: “Transmitting the Message,” “What Are You Talking About?” and “Get Into the Beat.”
The original English chapters are much more jazzed up – “Wallflowers Anonymous (Starting Conversations, Speaking Up)”; “The Trusty Switcheroo (Changing the Subject)”; “Shock the Monkey (Spicing Up the Conversation)”; “Thanks for Sharing (Dealing with Overdisclosure)”; “I Don’t Think So (Contradicting Tactfully)”; and “Get Outta There! (Disengaging from Bad Conversation)” – than the Hebrew version, which I read.
The Israeli introduction notes that the book is aimed at helping readers make more efficient conversation and maximize their communications and their gamut of inter-personal relations, especially the light conversation known as small talk.
“It is meant to supply the right answers to frustrating situations resulting from social embarrassment and even avoidance of functioning in certain social situations that results from social anxiety,” it continues.
There are many ways to “get stuck” in conversations, but it is difficult to be rescued unless one is trained in such situations. Thus the volume explains the “rules of the game” for dealing with such jams.
“Even though many of us think we are wonderful conversationalists because we communicate well with family members, friends or colleagues, this is no proof of efficient talking skills,” says the introduction to the Hebrew edition.
“When placed in unfamiliar surroundings and [around] strangers with whom we must suddenly communicate, many Israelis become confused or helpless, because we don’t know what to expect. We don’t yet know the social language used by people we don’t know and, of course, we don’t have a clue what they expect from us.”
Assertive speech, the authors write in the body of the text, is talk “lacking unnecessary fillers” such as “I don’t know,” “I think that,” “uh,” “Do you understand?,” and the Hebrew favorites of “ke’ilu,” “beseder” and “haval al hazman.”
Just avoiding such fillers will make you seem more intelligent, the authors declare. If you aren’t sure what to say, it’s better not to be phony and try to look as if you know. Instead, remark: “That’s an interesting question, I never thought about it,” “What do you think?” or “Really, I have no idea.” Admitting that you don’t know something, instead of making it seem that you know everything, broadcasts sincerity and self-confidence, the book advises. Especially when one is in the position of lecturer or moderator, there is no sense in making believe. It’s preferable to respond: “I don’t know. I will check my sources and get back to you with the answer.” The worst thing is to “stammer half truths.”
Assertive speech means speaking clearly in a way that honors the person to whom you are speaking and, at the same time, expresses everything you want to say, the authors continue. “It is not an accusation or judgment of others on what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ but determination to present things from our personal point of view on how we see the situation and feel about it.”
When one is present at a social event largely with strangers, it’s natural to cling to someone familiar. But there is the danger that if you hold on to this person as if he or she were a lifesaver, you will get stuck and not meet anybody else.
“Exclusive conversation with one person during a social event is liable to cause damage and harm your personal image,” the authors say. “You are ignoring everyone else and blocking all opportunity to make contact with them.”
Shy people who find themselves in this situation should move away from the familiar person at least part of the time to encourage others to talk to them.
The authors provide examples with names to illustrate the 50 different lessons.
For example, in the chapter on “Breaking the Ice,” they discuss Peter, who received his first invitation from work colleagues to come to a gathering at a cafe. One new person in the marketing department, called Monica, interested him, but as he was very shy and felt like a “little brother” in such situations, he didn’t know how to go about making a connection.
Determined to make a change, he grabbed a chair just opposite Monica. When his colleagues made small talk, including details of a movie that had just premiered, he managed to make a few comments, but nothing that caused anyone to sit up and take notice.
Only when they were about to leave, Peter kept up his eye contact with Monica and asked her how she felt in her new job. As his colleagues had heard about this before, they went on their way, but Monica remained and started to talk; Peter was in seventh heaven.
“I did it!” he told himself. “I broke the ice!” When they were back at work, the pair continued to be in touch and even developed a serious relationship.
Breaking the ice is easier if you make eye contact, smile, ask a personal question (but not too personal) and give the impression that you are really interested. Even if you are a poor conversationalist, the person you want to connect with will think otherwise.
In their yearning to be accepted by a social group, individuals sometimes provide too much personal information and details. Jacob, another person whose story the authors recount, felt inadequate when his friend Wes always knew how to charm everyone present and use just the right amount of humor. When he was walking home with Wes, he asked frankly: “What is it about me that nobody listens to my little stories? Why am I always frustrated after these encounters?” He friend turned to him and gave him some sound advice: “Don’t exaggerate.... You have to be balanced in what you say. For example, don’t give details about [some] family problem of your sister and about how she got stuck in traffic and arrived late to work. It’s tiresome.
And when we’re all eating spaghetti, it’s not pleasant to hear about your stomach problems.... You have to be considerate with other people’s feelings.”
When Jacob implemented his advice, he found significant improvement.
The authors add their own suggestions: Become familiar with your surroundings. Don’t tell long and complex stories. Choose a subject for your conversation that is most suited to the situation and the people present.
Sometimes you can be more intimate, but it depends on the audience. Spice up your conversation in moderation.
Choose the most relevant and interesting details. Learn from others. Provide a punch line that will make your audience interested in what you say. A moment before the peak of what you have to say, take a breath to make them pay attention. And once you have reached the peak, if you see from their body language that it’s enough, stop talking.
Changing the subject properly is an art, to reduce or prevent any boredom or suffering that listeners have to endure. If what the speaker has said upsets you (for example, if he badmouths politicians, when your husband is one), delicately change the subject by saying: “I can’t bear hearing about politics now. Have you seen the latest A Star is Born?” Some shy people are embarrassed even to excuse themselves to go to the bathroom in the middle of lively conversation, the authors note, but doing so “is an opportunity to be honest, clear and practical.”
There is also a paragraph devoted to how to avoid embarrassment if you’re responsible for audible flatulence, pieces of parsley stuck in somebody’s teeth or “errant nose debris.” Watrous and Honeychurch suggest saying “Oops!” to make light of it in the first case, and to mention the problem when no one else is around in the other two.
One’s tone of voice is critical in assertive speech. Always suit the timbre to the place, audience and topic of discussion, as tone of voice is a matter of sensitivity and practice, and an inappropriate one can offend. Usually you should not use a loud voice unless you’re talking to people who know you well, and even then you should be careful, as shouting is a big turnoff. People find a pleasant, relaxed and stable voice more pleasant than screaming, just as they prefer the former to whispering or incomprehensible words.
While smiling naturally is good advice, loud and wild laughter usually is not. The authors suggest that such a reaction may mean that the person has difficulty controlling himself but may also be using it as an escape to hide nervousness. Sometimes inappropriate laughter can be forgiven, of course, because it hints that you agree to something, that you’re interested and are taking part in the conversation and are a “nice person.” If you feel you are about to laugh wildly, take a deep breath, filling your lungs with air, and then let it out slowly.
“Don’t be afraid of a moment of silence from time to time. It’s OK, and it’s natural. It doesn’t mean that the conversation is dying out and has to be filled with endless chatting,” the authors write.
Finally, one should avoid senseless and nasty gossip.
Something unpleasant about somebody else in the elevator at the office can easily be overheard.
“Remember! You never know who is liable to hear you when you are doing it,” they conclude.