with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 109: Communicating what you really mean (with Misha Glouberman)

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June 16, 2022

Why is most communication advice so fluffy? How can we actually communicate better? Why do we sometimes fail to say what we mean or what needs to be said? What counts as "nonviolent" communication? To what extent is avoidance of conflict and confrontation a result of agreeableness versus cowardice? What aspects of divorce aren't talked about enough?

Misha Glouberman helps people communicate and connect better. He teaches a course called How to Talk to People About Things, online and in person, that helps people get better outcomes in their most important conversations at work and at home. He is an expert facilitator and designer of online and in-person events. He hosts the Trampoline Hall Lectures in Toronto, and is the co-author, with Sheila Heti, of The Chairs Are Where The People Go. He does lots of online events, so join his email list to learn more about them.

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Misha Glouberman about transparency and communication, risk aversion in relationships, and divorce.

SPENCER: Misha, welcome.

MISHA: Hey, Spencer, it's so nice to be here.

SPENCER: It's great to have you. I wanted to start talking to you about the topic of communication (which I think is a funny topic because it's so important in all of our lives), how we communicate with others, both in our personal lives, in terms of making friends or communicating with loved ones. Also in our work lives, communicating to our colleagues or giving presentations. And yet I feel like so much discussion of it is fluffy and kind of useless. And so I want to dig into how we can actually communicate better. What should we be doing?

MISHA: I'm really curious already about what you feel is the fluffy and useless part of it.

SPENCER: Yeah, it just feels like, a lot of times, people are giving advice that people already know. But the problem is not that you don't know it, it's that you don't do it, if that makes sense.

MISHA: I think that's exactly right. Increasingly, when I teach these classes on how to communicate, how to talk about difficult issues, one of the problems I have is exactly the thing that you describe. When you tell people what they need to do and they're like, "Yeah, yeah, of course, we know that." But I think there's a level at which we don't, or that (like you say) at the moment, you don't. For instance, everybody knows that they should listen more, that it would serve them well to listen more. If you tell people that, they're like, "That's not big surprising news." But when you look at how people actually behave in those situations — in the most important situations where the stakes are highest — what people do is they absolutely stop listening. And they often don't notice that they've absolutely stopped listening. So as you say, a lot of the important stuff is figuring out how to translate that sort of knowledge into actual behavior, which is hard.

SPENCER: Yeah, I agree about the listening point. If you're trying to have a better relationship with a loved one, really listening to what they're saying, really trying to understand their point of view, is so valuable. If you're in a disagreement with someone, it's so useful. Even if you're just trying to persuade someone. People tend to think that, when they're pitching to an investor, they should spend almost the entire time talking where, in fact, asking a lot of questions and understanding how investors look at the world can be super valuable there. So given that, why do you think that people struggle to listen?

MISHA: I don't know. First of all, I just want to say how much I agree with that point and I want to amplify that thing that you said before we come to the other part. That idea that it's going to serve you well in all of these contexts is an idea that I really try to push in the stuff that I teach because, very often, when you tell people that they should listen, like listening is such a kind and generous behavior that people think you're telling them to be nice. And one of the things I really have to emphasize is to say, "No, it's really in your interest to listen." So you started off with loved ones, we want to listen — and of course we do, because we love them — but then the example I often give is like, even if you're a con artist coming into town wanting to rip people off, you can rip them off much better if you understand them, and the way to do that is to listen. So if you love the person, if you hate the person, it doesn't matter; it's always going to serve you well.

SPENCER: So you con artists, listen up. Misha's got some advice for you. [laugh] I'm just kidding.

MISHA: Luckily, the good con artists are already listening. But yeah, I don't know what makes it so hard. I think that when we get really stressed out, we sort of forget. Or when the stakes get high, we get so wrapped up in trying to make things go our way, that we forget that there are other people and that they have agency and that they have beliefs. And I'm not sure why that is. It's not surprising that we wouldn't be good at this; it's not what we're evolved for. We're not evolved to have these subtle, complex negotiated conversations. But I don't know the explanation for...I don't know the why but I know the what, and the what is that what happens is that people forget that the other person has a point of view and has agency. They start to almost see the other person as if they're an object that they can control, which of course, they're not. And if you try to do things that way, it doesn't work.

SPENCER: I wonder if part of what's going on is that we're very persuaded by the things we ourselves say. So we already believe our beliefs, we believe our 'facts'. And so we're like, "Oh, how do I get someone else to agree with me? I'm gonna give them my beliefs and my facts (because those are clearly right) and they're going to be persuaded." And it's sort of a failure to model how different other people's minds are and how different other people's information sets are. And so we're just saying, "What would convince us?"

MISHA: Yeah, it's naive realism, right? I assume you know, and I assume maybe your listeners know. Naive realism is just the idea that everything is exactly as I see it. All of my beliefs are true. I see the world exactly as it is. And if other people see things differently from me, that's because there's some deficiency in them. They're missing some information or they're stupid, or maybe they're bad, but my worldview is just completely accurate. So yeah, we're sort of inside of our heads. The thing I always think is that we're all walking around inside of a movie where we're the protagonist. I'm the main character, and these other people I pass on the bus are like extras. And then there are sort of supporting cast or the people in my life; everyone's sort of inside their own version of that story. And in the version where I'm the main character, of course, my desires really matter and everyone else's desires are a little bit less important. And my goals really matter and everyone else's goals are a little bit less important. And we all kind of see the world that way a lot of the time. And again, I think the more we get into high stakes situations, the less we're able to exercise the kind of metacognition that's required to remind ourselves that that's not the way the world normally is. When we're really calm, I can be talking to someone and be like, "Oh, I have a point of view. They also have a point of view. And I can do the metacognition to understand that." But the more we get stressed out, the more those parts of our brains or our minds don't work as well. And you start to fall back into like, "No, no, I'm the hero here. I'm the good guy. I'm the good guy, they're the bad guy."

SPENCER: I like the way you emphasize what it feels like to be a person. Because I think this is a lot of what happens when, if we're thinking about something we deeply believe, what it feels like is we're just right. Now, if you're a reflective person, you can acknowledge, "Hey, I've been wrong about some important things before. So probably some of the things I'm really confident about are actually wrong. Furthermore, I'm just one person and other people who are as smart as me might really disagree with me. And so that's another reason to think that I'm probably wrong about some of this stuff." From the abstract outside view, you say, "Well, I'm probably wrong about at least some of my really deeply held beliefs." But when you zoom in on any particular belief, you're like, "Well, I'm definitely right about this one. I'm definitely right about this one."

MISHA: Exactly.

SPENCER: That was a paradox, right?

MISHA: Yeah, we can't make the leap from that general statement to the specific. It's not even like, 'I'm probably wrong;' it's that I'm almost certainly wrong. If you think about the range of beliefs that I have that other people might conceivably disagree with — it might be like (I don't know), say I have 100 different beliefs that other people might disagree with — what are the odds that I'm right about all of them? Even if you think there's only a one in 10 chance that I'm wrong about each one (like, I'm pretty certain), that's still, I guess (whatever it is), like a 1 in a google chance that I'm right about all of them. It's almost impossible. And it's so hard for us to...I'm the one person in the really would literally be the one person in the world who's right about everything, because someone else will be wrong about all the other things, a wild thing to think.

SPENCER: That's a really good point. I would also say I think there's something interesting about this sort of beliefs, where you have like two big teams that disagree with each other. You've got blue team/red team, or Team A and Team B, and they have a diametrically opposed view on some heated topic. The interesting thing about those is that — if you think of that as a reference class, that sort of belief where you're on one team; the other team (which is about as big as your team) disagrees — people are wrong more than half the time on those views. And I say not just half the time, but more than half the time, because what if both teams are wrong, right? So in the best case scenario, one team is right. So if we view that as a reference cost of beliefs, they're a really atrocious reference class, because people are wrong more than half the time on beliefs of that sort.

MISHA: Anything where people disagree — the kinds of things that we talk about is beliefs — people are wrong substantially more than half the time. We don't think of it as a belief that the sky is blue; maybe a philosopher would call it that. When someone says, "What are your beliefs?" You don't say "The sky is blue is a belief of mine;" you say, "I believe in individual rights, I believe in racial equality, I believe in..." A lot of those things are things that we call 'beliefs' specifically because other people don't always agree with them. I believe there's no God; that's a belief of mine. If you think of all the humans who ever lived, I'm in a very tiny minority in that belief. So it's funny for me to think like, "Oh, yeah, me and 1% of humanity that think there are no supernatural forces, we are right." I do think that, but what I'm also saying is 99% of all the other people who ever lived are wrong. And of course, the point with the religions, too, that if you think Jesus is the Messiah, you still think all the other religious people are wrong, and all that kind of thing. So I think, with most of our beliefs, we think more than half the people are wrong and one person is right. I don't know if that's true.

SPENCER: I think it's important here to distinguish between ways of disagreeing that are not about facts. So there's the factual question of, was there a person named Jesus that lived in a certain particular time? There is a fact of the matter about that. And then there's additional facts; you could say, "Well, did he walk on water?"

MISHA: The important facts are like he was the Son of God and walked on water, and rose from the dead. Yeah, yeah, for sure.

SPENCER: Yeah, exactly. But then there's a lot of things that we have disagreements about that really are not about the facts. They're about, you value this, I value that. And we might frame it as being about facts, like I might pull out facts that show I'm right, and you might pull out facts that show I'm wrong but really, fundamentally, we just disagree about like, what's good. Or maybe I just want my team to get resources and you want your team to get resources. So I just want to make that distinction that, if we limit our discussion to just about facts, I think the other things we said are true, but then there's just some things where facts are not even the right way to frame it.

MISHA: Yeah, for sure. And I think part of what's interesting is that our inclination is to treat those things as the same. If you think about it from a logical perspective, an empirical fact almost feels to me like they're in different grammatical modes. In one of them, you're describing a state of affairs; the other one's in the imperative mode like, what should we do? So given that COVID spreads in these particular ways (that's an empirical question) what should we do? (that's the question in the imperative mode). We treat them like they're the same. And we treat them — I think both in our conversations and also in our minds — we treat those normative claims as if they were empirical claims, and they're completely different types of things but we treat them as the same.

SPENCER: Well, I think this connects to Julia Galef's idea of the soldier and scout mindset where, if you're in the soldier mindset, you're just trying to win an argument, you're just trying to prove yourself right. If you're in the scout mindset, you're trying to figure out what's really true about the world. And when you're in the soldier mindset, you're just trying to win, so you're throwing everything you can think of at the problem. If a fact supports your view, throw it in. If a moral argument supports your view, throw it in. You're not necessarily carefully distinguishing what the debate is really about. Let's say you and I disagree about something. I don't know what we actually disagree about but let's suppose we disagree about climate change. And one of us was arguing that climate change is not that big a deal and the other one is saying it's a huge deal. Well, you might frame this as a disagreement about facts. You might also frame this in other terms, in moral terms like we need to protect the Earth and our responsibility to people around the world even if we're not personally gonna be affected, etc. And I'm just saying, when you're trying to win in a debate, you don't necessarily clearly distinguish; you're just throwing anything you can at the problem. If you think the fact supports your view, you're gonna pull out that fact. But also, if you think a moral argument supports you being right and the other person being wrong, you might pull that in. And so you're just lumping everything together.

MISHA: Yeah, absolutely. Not to come back so much to the classroom stuff, but when we teach communication skills, a big part of what that is with people is understanding the difference between facts and interpretations and values and feelings...understanding which one is which, and the degree to which we just don't do that. We just naturally lump them all into the same thing like they're the same thing but they're really different and they behave differently, and they do different things. I do a bunch of different things but most of what I do is, I help people connect and communicate better and I do that in a bunch of different ways. So one thing I do is I teach these courses called "How to talk to people about things" (I teach in person and online), and they help people navigate important relationships and conversations at work and at home and all that stuff. I also do hands-on help, like coaching people with those (actually in those) conversations, so facilitating the conversations. I do that in organizations. I help make conferences and other events better places for people to connect. So I design and facilitate conferences and events so that they actually become sources of connection as opposed to just being information dumps or wastes of time. Those are some of the things I do. There's probably more but that's the main stuff.

SPENCER: So in addition to listening more, what are some other pieces of advice you have when you're teaching people how to communicate better?

MISHA: So one thing is, I think it's right that you do have to listen more. And I think for the many years when I taught this stuff, I really focused on listening more and listening better, which is incredibly important and hard to do. You can spend a lifetime learning to listen better. It's really deep and complicated stuff. But the thing that I started to see more and more is that, when people are in difficult conversations or high-stress conversations, there's two mistakes they make, two things they don't do. And the first mistake they make is that they don't listen or they don't listen well, or they don't absorb things or whatever. But the other thing that's sort of more surprising is that they usually don't actually say the thing that needs to be said. And very often, it looks like people are saying the things that need to be said. They'll be angry, they'll be shouting at each other, all those kinds of things. But if you actually talk to people about what's going on, they've said things that are sort of adjacent to what needs to be said or that are a watered down version or something else altogether. So you both need to listen; in the communication stuff, you need to be curious and listen, need to be transparent, and actually share information. And then the one thing that people end up doing instead of that (and this is kind of the big picture)...transparency and curiosity are at the bottom of the pyramid that I'm drawing in my mind and at the top of the pyramid is just control. I think the biggest mistake that people make goes into what I was talking about earlier, that the umbrella problem there is, you forget that the other person is a person with beliefs and agency, and you start to see yourself as in control of the whole situation. And because you're in control of the whole situation, you think, "Well, I don't really need to ask questions of the other person because I know what's going on. And I don't really need to share information with the other person because I'm in charge here, and I try to control it." And then what happens is that, when we try to control conversations, we start pushing and pushing to get our way. And when we push on people, they push back. And so they push to get their way. And then we push back and they push back and all of a sudden it escalates into this thing where people are pushing each other. And sometimes that's really, really big and violent and visible. But more often it's sort of happening quietly under the surface, like people are just quietly sort of tense and not working it. So there's three ideas: listen more and be curious, actually say what you need to say and be transparent, and do both those things in the service of (sort of paradoxically) understanding that you're going to get your best outcomes if you loosen your control on the conversation and don't try to control it all yourself.

SPENCER: So can you give an example of what kind of thing someone will do and then what it would look like for them to say the important things instead?

MISHA: The typical thing that will happen is someone will...say that you work with someone and the thing that happens is they often show up late for meetings. And the fact that they show up late for meetings is something that other people are talking about; it's causing a lot of stress for the members of the team, it's been going on for a while. You recommended this person for the job, and you personally feel kind of hurt, and you feel responsible for it. And every time when they come in late — all of these things are going on for you: you feel mad, you feel upset, everybody's stressed out, it's causing people problems — and they come in late...the meeting is called for 9, and they come in at 9:12. And what the person says in that situation is, "It's 9:12." And it feels like you've said all those things, right? But you haven't; you haven't talked about all of the other things. And you might even have a conversation where you say, "It's 9:12," and the person said, "Oh, traffic was really bad." And you say, "Well, we were supposed to meet at 9." And they say, "Well, yeah, traffic was really terrible." And you say, "Well, maybe try harder to be on time next time." Now those people are going to feel like they've had the conversation. But what you haven't said is all that stuff, like what you haven't said is, "The pattern of you being late all the time is really a problem for us." What you haven't said (which might be important) is, "It makes me feel really bad when you're late all the time." They probably have a whole bunch of things, too. When they say the traffic is really bad, the thought in their head isn't that traffic was really bad. They probably have a story in their head, too, where you're really hard to work with because you're passive-aggressive, or they're thinking, "Why are you always hounding me about being on time? It's not such a big deal." So there are all these things going on inside of the people's heads in that really small conversation, that aren't being said. And the answer isn't to say those things out loud as they appear in your head, but the answer is to begin to give voice to them. Another example I thought of (which was an example for me)...this was actually the moment where it became clear for me that I was like, "Oh, I do this." It was in a class that I was talking with a guy named Roger Schwartz (who was great) and he was teaching this stuff, and I was like, "I know all this stuff. I know all this stuff." And they were like, "Well, take a conversation you had that didn't go well," and I was like, there's this time I was facilitating a meeting of some volunteers that I was running. And bit by bit, I was getting the sense that they were disengaged. And I was worried that they weren't liking some of the things about the project, and especially that they weren't liking how the meeting was going. So I was trying different strategies to make the meeting go better. And it started to feel worse and worse and it started to feel like they weren't paying attention. At the end of the meeting, I felt really crappy; I felt like it was a really bad meeting. And the thing I realized in retrospect was like, what I had done was, I perceived a problem. That was a problem that we were having together. What I didn't do was name the problem. At no point did I say, "Wow, it feels to me like you guys are disengaged on my right. What's going on? What can we do?" What I did was I just tried to fix it. So I'm like, "That's my job. I'm the facilitator. It's my job to fix it." So what I was doing — even though it felt to me like I'm just doing my job, trying to make this meeting go better — what I was actually doing was noticing a problem, keeping it secret, privately trying to solve it using strategies that I was concealing from the other person. I wasn't doing this [inaudible]. It wasn't nefarious, it wasn't people who were my enemies. But because I was stressed out, it didn't even occur to me at that moment that I could maybe say to people, "Hey, I'm getting the sense that this meeting isn't going real well. How's it going? How's it landing for you?" Which would be transparent ("Hey, here's how it's looking to me") and curious ("Is that right?"). So those are a couple of examples.

SPENCER: In both of those examples, I feel like an awkwardness avoidance kind of heuristic might be operating where it's just like, there's something uncomfortable about being transparent, and you're making a big deal of it, or you're divulging more information about your internal state than you want to to a work colleague or something like that.

MISHA: It's an instance of what seems to me to be like a universal problem that we face as humans, which is that we don't like to do something that's going to be painful now, that will have better pay-off later. And that can be both in a really long-term timeframe...even here, to say that difficult thing is hard. So we're like, "Well, let's just not do that," even though of course, saying that difficult thing will help solve the problem. The most extreme example of that (that you see a lot)...I've had people bring in transcribed conversations that they've had in their workplaces that didn't go well (and I might see this too, in real life, but we see it dramatically in the transcribed conversations). The number of times in workplaces, when someone says, "Hey, can you go do that thing?" and what the person is thinking is like, "No, that's impossible." And what they say is "Yes," because yes feels good; it feels good to say yes. When someone's like, "Can you do that thing?" saying, "I don't know, that's gonna be really hard," that feels unpleasant. Saying, "Yeah, I can do it," that feels good; what doesn't feel good is absolutely everything that happens afterwards [laugh]. And it's that terrible trait we have as humans, where we just can't...the hyperbolic discounting or whatever it's called, the present bias that makes us just avoid any amount of near-term pain, no matter how much long-term benefit it would bring us or long-term pain it would avoid for us. It's sort of comical. I agree, it's awkward; it's awkward to say those things.

SPENCER: My friend has a great trick in that kind of situation where, when her boss asks her to do some work that's unrealistic, she'll say, "Oh, that's no problem. Which of my projects that I'm doing now do you want me to stop so that I can get this done?" Instead of just saying yes, she will explain the trade-offs, she'll be like, "I'm happy to do that. Here are the trade-offs. If I do that, then I'll have to cut out one of these three things." And then usually the boss will be like, "Oh, okay, actually just keep doing what you're doing," because it's not actually that important compared to the other stuff.

MISHA: Yeah, that's awesome. If they were in my communication class, I'd be like, "That's the perfect thing to say, except the part at the beginning where you say, 'No problem,'" [laugh] because that's not true. You say, "I'd love to do it. Yeah, I'd like to do that. And here's the, you know..."

SPENCER: You can communicate that you're not being difficult and you can communicate that you want to help them while also explaining that there are trade-offs; you don't have an infinite amount of time. The stuff you've been saying reminds me of nonviolent communication. Do you want to talk about that for a moment, how it connects or doesn't connect to what you're saying?

MISHA: I use a bunch of different frameworks, and NVC is one that I know a bit about but it's not what I'm most expert in. One thing I've noticed for sure though is, pretty much any book you read about this stuff (I feel like there's 30 different approaches), and all of them, like 98% sort of grew up with each other. So when I read the NVC book, I was like, "Oh, yeah, this all makes sense and this is very, very similar." So I think with NVC, there's definitely the thing that I was talking about earlier, about not trying to control the conversation. That's I think what he means by nonviolent; I think what he means by violent is like controlling, like trying to much of NVC is saying like, "Here's how I'm feeling. Here's what I want." But you never speak in the imperative mode, it feels like, in NVC; you never say, "Go do this." And you're certainly never trying to make the other person do things your way, so that feels very compatible. The other thing that seems very compatible in NVC (that I recall from reading the book) was that, when we were both talking before about how important it is to draw distinctions between things like facts and judgments and feelings, NVC seems incredibly important on that, right? So he's really like, how can you describe this situation in ways that are just facts? So saying like, "It's too noisy in there," and he's like, "That's not a fact because that's a judgment." Saying, "I can hear you from the other side of the door" is a fact; "it's too noisy" is a judgment. He's really interested in that distinction between facts and judgments, which is also critical in these things. I think that he puts a lot of emphasis on (which I love) his feelings. The emphasis that NVC puts on feelings is, I think, awesome and wonderful and really important. Some of the other models, they all account for feelings, but they maybe don't put them quite as front and center. So I think the difference between all the models is often just how much emphasis they put on the different facets, but they all talk about the same things.

SPENCER: For those listeners that don't know about NVC, there's four basic steps. The way that I think about this is: the first step, when you have some kind of conflict or problem with another person is, you observe the facts to that person. In this example you gave of someone being late to meetings, you might say, "Hey, I've noticed that you were a little bit late today. And I also noticed that you were late for the last three meetings." It's a fact; it's not disputable. It's just something that is definitely true. The second step is noting your feelings, so you might say, "When you've arrived late for meetings, it has made me feel annoyed. It has also made me feel worried like you might not be wanting to come to our meetings," or something like that. Then you uncover desires as the third step, so you think about what are your desires, wants, values that are creating these feelings for you. So you might say to the other person, "You know, I have a desire for our meetings to get started punctually and to not waste people's time as they're sitting around waiting for a person to show up." Then you finally make requests — and this is ideally something really concrete that you're asking if the other person can commit to — like, "Would you be able to commit to showing up within the first five minutes of our meeting time going forward?" That's kind of the basic framework.

MISHA: And to me, if we tie that into this sort of curiosity, transparency...I was talking about lack of control, and curiosity and transparency; they're all there. So first of all, the huge thing that NVC is, you're not trying to control the other person; you're just saying things, so that lack of control is there. The transparency piece is enormously there, too, which is the idea that you name all those things; you say, "Here's what the issue is." And part of that transparency, curiosity is really set...there's a way in which conflating your judgments and your facts is a way of being incurious; you're like, "Oh, everything's just the way it seems to me." But you're saying, "No, no, I'm gonna be curious enough and disentangle it," and really pull out the facts, and say, "Oh, I have all these feelings. What are the actual facts here? I'm going to name them." So that curiosity is there, too. And the transparency of really saying what's up there is there, too. I feel like there's something in NVC (there must be something in NVC) that's actually about asking the other person something other than just really do this thing for me, but I forget.

SPENCER: I think they encourage it to use on both sides, so both parties would be using it. But one of the tricky bits about NVC, I think, is that, a lot of times, the other person is not going to be engaging in this, and it can feel a little artificial if you're going through this process. They're like, "What are you doing right now?" It doesn't feel organic. But I think they would say, ideally, it's used on both sides. You're both observing facts, you're both noticing your feelings, uncovering your desires, making requests, etc.

MISHA: When I teach this stuff, one of the things I say (usually early on) is, "This is not a class in how to talk to other people who have taken his class." That would be [laugh] a lot to hope for. So if NVC is only a tool that works when you're talking with other people who've done NVC, that really reduces its value a lot.

SPENCER: I think you made a great point. Maybe in the book about it, they go into this. But I think, at least those four basic steps, what feels like is really missing is a step that's trying to understand the other person's point of view [laugh], right?

MISHA: Yeah. In terms of that story that you gave, there's a couple things...I want to be like, "Yeah. How are you feeling?" Even with someone being late, to be like, "Yeah, it seems to me...I've noticed you were in at 9:12 today, and you were in at 9:14 yesterday and 9:06 the day before, and I feel this way about it, and I'm curious how this situation looks to you." And you can say, "It feels to me like there's a pattern of you coming in late and people are upset about it. I'm curious about this situation." One thing I would do before I make the ask is, I would say, "I'm curious how all this looks for you." Because there's all sorts of information that you might be missing. It might be that there actually is some really specific reason they've been late for the last four days that you didn't know about. It might be that they're like, "Yeah, your guys have a set of cultural expectations about starting meetings on time that's really foreign to me," which is definitely something that's really different in different cultures and comes up. There's lots of stuff you might not know. They might be like, "Yeah, I'm so incredibly nervous about these meetings that I'm in the bathroom hyperventilating for 10 minutes before. And so what would really help would be if you and I could talk about a way for me to be less nervous in these meetings." You don't know. There's a world of a million things. So you want to ask that question. My suspicion is that NVC wouldn't tell you not to do that but I don't know how NVC would address it. If I were teaching that situation, that's what I would say. Find out their story first. You don't want to be the you think about it, I'm in the meeting room, someone comes in late, the story is they come in late. They're living some narrative where all this stuff's happening and they're running late into a meeting room. That's going to be a very different story. You want to hear what that story is. You need both those stories present in order to resolve the situation because right now you're just stuck in your story, really.


SPENCER: So how about I give you a communication challenge that I had recently and you can analyze it for me and help me decide what I should have done. What happened is, I got an email from someone making an introduction to me to someone else. Generally speaking, I think it's a good practice to do double opt-in intros, you know, where you ask both people. This person didn't do that. They just made an intro immediately in an email; they had not asked me about it. And then the way the email described the other person, it really sounded like I would be doing this person a favor to meet with them. But then at the very end of the email, it flipped the framing to make it sound like they were also doing me a favor by making this intro. Now, I value my time a lot — I feel like I don't have enough time to do all the things I want to do already — and I felt kind of annoyed about the framing because it felt like they're really asking me for a favor, but then they're trying to frame it as if they're doing me a favor and they didn't get my approval. So I was really tempted to write this person back — remove the other person from the email (because I didn't want to embarrass them) — and basically just call out what I was experiencing, like, "Hey, I would have liked you to ask me in advance rather than just making the intro. And also it felt to me like you're asking me to do you a favor, but then you framed it as though you're doing me a favor." That's kind of what I wanted to do. But then I was like, "Ah, it's so awkward. And this person might think I'm a jerk." So in the end, I ended up emailing them both back and being like, "Oh, sorry, I think I'm not the best person to help you with this situation. Because of technical reasons, I'm not the person to bring this question to," on what the email was about.

MISHA: Either of those responses seemed to me like perfectly reasonable responses.

SPENCER: I felt like I was being a coward, honestly. That's why I'm bringing it up.

MISHA: I think it depends. The biggest deciding variable there, for me, would be what's your relationship to the person sending you that email? Because if that person is a person with whom you have an ongoing, important relationship — if they're a co-worker, or someone you're good friends with — then I think it's important to be in a pattern of being able to talk to each other when there's problems and, if you don't do that, you're right, you're being a coward. You're forming a precedent in the relationship where people don't talk about problems with each other, which is a bad precedent to be setting (or an unproductive one). On the other hand, if it's someone who you hardly ever have interactions with, you sort of want to do just a cost-benefit on the...I mean, I'm a big fan of having conversations, but you don't have to have every single conversation. You kind of have to do a cost-benefit on how much time and energy is this going to take. If it's someone you're never going to interact with again, and then to resolve this might take (I don't know) 15 minutes of your time — you have to write that email, you have to make it thoughtful, then they might want to talk to you about it, you know, it might lead to a conversation — if it's someone you're never going to deal with again, it doesn't matter. So that, for me, is probably the biggest variable. So who was the person? Were they someone that you're close with?

SPENCER: Yeah, they're an acquaintance. They're not a friend; they're an acquaintance. You know, I like them and I think, possibly...but we're not at the level of actually being friends.

MISHA: Yeah, it depends also how much you want to deepen that friendship, and what sort of relationship you want to have with them. Because the other thing, too, is now you're gonna have a bit of a bad feeling about them. If they're an acquaintance you're happy to keep as an acquaintance or've just distanced yourself from them. And I think that's the thing to know where we think backwards. We think, "Oh, to be better friends with that person, what I should do is not tell them this difficult, awkward thing." But in fact, the opposite is true. If I choose not to tell them this difficult, awkward thing, what I've actually done is distanced themselves from each other. There's now something I dislike about them, that I'm keeping secret from them, that I'm not sharing with them, which is to say we're less close than if the opposite were true.

SPENCER: Well, I think that's right but I think it's high variance, right? Let's say I had said to them the honest feelings I had had, one way it could have gone, they could have said, "Oh, you know, I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to be that way." And then they could have given...explaining their perspective and explaining what they would do differently next time. Maybe they say, "You know, I actually thought this person would have been really great for you to meet. I thought you would get a lot out of it." The other thing is that they could write back and say, "Okay, why are you making such a big deal out of this?" You know what I mean? There is a response where it just blows up the relationship completely.

MISHA: I guess when I say distance, that maybe wasn't clear. What I'm not saying is, if you're transparent, that's going to attract people toward you, and if you're not, you're going to repel people away from you. I don't mean 'distant' in that sense. I mean more in the sense of, you are choosing to have a relationship that, to me, feels like a more distant relationship in the sense that you're choosing to have a relationship where people don't talk to each other. You're creating a more distant relationship in the sense of a less honest and intimate one, if that makes sense. So I'm not saying it's going to repel or attract them; I'm saying it's gonna affect the quality of what that relationship is like. Does that make sense? One thing I'm really interested in, is I want to hear a bit more said, in that choice that you made, that you felt like you were a coward. And I kind of ignored that; I was just like, "Oh, no, no, no, no." So that was an example of me maybe not being as curious as I want to be in this conversation. Because I'm curious to know more about what makes you think that you were being a coward in that situation?

SPENCER: Well, I think the more costly thing for me to have done would be to be honest with the person. But I value a world where people get feedback. The kind of world I want to live in is one where, when people do semi-'jerk-y' things (I mean, I don't know if what the person did was really 'jerk-y'), but when people do things that sort of rub other people the wrong way, they like to find out. And then that enables them — if they're willing to take that feedback into account — it helps them be better people. By just brushing it aside and not addressing it, I acted less in line with the sort of world I want to create.

MISHA: Right, so you're not creating the world you want. Do you feel like you're not working in alignment with your values in some way? Is that part of it? Or just...

SPENCER: Yeah, I think so. But that being said, you know, I think on the other point, is this really how I want to invest my mental energy with this acquaintance of mine? I'm working on other things that I think are really important for my value system and, you know, you gotta pick your battles. So maybe I acted reasonably, but there is some part of me that's like, that's not in line with the world you want to create.

MISHA: Right, so you reduced the cost; there was an expenditure that you could make that would get you closer to the world that you want, and you chose not to make that expenditure. And then, in retrospect, well, maybe that expenditure wasn't really worth it anyhow, because it's such a large expenditure compared to this small step that would be toward that world. Is that right?

SPENCER: Yeah. There've been other times where doing this kind of thing has paid off well. For example, there was a person who sent us comments on some of the stuff that I write, and they wrote something that I thought was kind of troll-ish, like it was the sort of thing that you could see discouraging other people from posting, and kind of making the experience of posting or commenting on my work more negative for some people. And so I told them about it. It's not someone I know; I only know them through them commenting, but I told them in a private message. We talked about it, and they were very cool about it and they took the feedback well; and that felt really good. Like, "Okay, this person actually could be a contributing community member, and they just needed some feedback maybe." At least that's know, fingers crossed.

MISHA: I guess in all these things, it's like any other bet, it's like any other gamble; you're like, what's the expected utility of this bet? Like, how much is it going to cost me? Even in terms of your values, you can't raise every single issue that comes up all the time in your life and give it all the time that it could possibly need; it's unrealistic. So it's a cost's a cost benefit with risk, because it's all probabilities. And so that's a great example where you're like, "I don't know, maybe I'll talk to this person. Who knows? There's a chance it could blow up and go terribly. There's a chance it could make things a little better. There's a chance it could lead to this really interesting new relationship." You don't know. But you make those bets all the time.

SPENCER: Let me give you another scenario and you can give me your perspective, a communications perspective. This is actually sort of a generic scenario, in that, I've been in a similar situation quite a few times in my life. It's not a specific scenario, and I imagine many people have also experienced this, where you have a close friendship with someone, but you end up in a dynamic where it feels like a substantial proportion of your friendship is you trying to help the person or give them advice, or listen to the problems they're having. And so it ends up feeling like both imbalanced — like you're helping them a lot more than they're helping you — but also, instead of just enjoying each other's company and having fun together or having great conversations, there's this dynamic where the friendship seems to be more about them. But I just want to clarify something; it can be in a very innocent way, not like a narcissist and not selfish. It's just that they have a lot of struggles or challenges, and they find it really helpful to talk to you about them. And so you just kind of end up...and once the pattern has been established, you just kind of fall into it naturally, like you ask them, "How are you doing?" and then an hour later, that's what you've been talking about, for most of the conversation.

MISHA: And so you want to know what to do about that?

SPENCER: Yeah, and I think the challenge there that I have faced — and this has happened quite a few times in my life — is that I don't want the person to feel guilty talking about their problems and I don't want them to look back at all these times where I've tried to help them and feel bad about that, or feel like they've been selfish. I don't want to punish them. But it does feel like not the ideal dynamic. And it does feel like it actually limits my closeness to them because our relationship feels imbalanced and not based on having a really good time together and building really strong positive bonds. It feels more like a kind of helper relationship.

MISHA: A couple things. One thing that I want to name just in terms of the overall problem, is when you say you're always providing help to them, that it feels sort of one way and doesn't feel so good, it's worth noticing that even in there, there's a couple of leaps of interpretation. But the big one that I want to name is that one of like, it doesn't follow that that doesn't feel good. Some people can be quite happy in that role. You're not and that's okay; it's okay that you're not. But it sort of feels useful to understand that it doesn't follow logically, or even psychologically. There are some people for whom that would be totally fine. But for you, it's not; right away, that's helpful to know because that makes the shift from...because in the first story, there's a story that's like, "Oh, there's something wrong in our friendship; there's something wrong and what's wrong in our friendship is that I only help you and that's something wrong." What you're doing is you're imposing a judgment on it. You want to lift that judgment out of it. You want to say, what happens in our friendship is that I only help you and I don't like that. All of a sudden, it's no longer a story about right and wrong; it's a story about you and your feelings. That's important. The problem is how you respond to it, right?

SPENCER: Yeah, I think that's a good point, and there could be other people that are happy in that scenario. I'll also say that I'm happy to have our friendship be imbalanced to a degree; I'm happy to spend more time talking about their problems or challenges than mine. That's totally fine with me, actually. It's just, at some level, to me, it starts feeling too imbalanced, basically.

MISHA: So the big question is, do you want to talk about this? And that question again — it's that same question basically — of how much do you want to invest in this relationship? There's some people in my life who, when we have problems with our friendship, I specifically choose not to raise those problems with them because I'm comfortable with where those people are in my life, and I don't want to be closer with them. The problems that I have with them lead me to want to be farther from them, in fact. I feel like, if I raised these issues with them, it would bring them closer to me. And with those particular people, I don't want that intimacy, and I don't want that closeness with them. There are people in my life like that, for sure. With most people, I want to move toward intimacy, and you have to make that choice with this person. Is it worth that time?

SPENCER: Yeah, I think that's an excellent point. And I think I've had people in this role in my life that I would want to be closer to, and others that I wouldn't. But let's take an example where you do want to be closer.

MISHA: Then I think one of the miracles with transparency is...imagine you're that person, and then what Spencer says to you is something like (if I were teaching, I'd have you figure this out or whatever, but I'm just gonna sort of script it for you), which is something like...basically, you can say what you told me like you say, "Hey, listen, I want to talk to you about our friendship. I really want us to have a good time together, and I want to enjoy each other. And I feel like, in a lot of ways, I help feels a little one way, I help you more than you help me. And I really don't want you to feel guilty about that. I don't want you to feel guilty about things that have happened in the past. And I also don't want you to feel like you can't come to me in the future about other stuff. And also I'm okay if things are a little bit imbalanced. But right now, things are so imbalanced that, for me, it feels not ideal. And I wonder if we can talk about that and see if we can find something we can do about it together." You're supposed to say, "I'm curious how all this lands for you," because they might say, "I'm totally shocked to hear that," or they might say, "I totally feel that way." "I'm curious how this all lands for you and I'm curious if we can do something about it together."

SPENCER: Yeah. So I think there are a couple of things that make me resistant to that approach. One of them is that I feel like that can come off as transactional like, "Oh, you know, I help you so you should help me. I'm okay if it's not exactly even but..." The way I operate, there aren't that many friends that I actually have help me with problems just because I have enough friends that I don't need to do that with most of my friends. So I'm fine with us never spending time talking about my problems. That's actually okay with me. I just want to have more time where we're building closeness (if that makes sense), and having fun together and that kind of thing.

MISHA: So I think when I hear you talking about your resistance, I think that the resistance there is actually not an interpersonal resistance. It's an intrapersonal...there's something you haven't figured out. The things that I said, you're like, "Oh, well, Misha, that's not exactly what I want." So then the question is, figure out exactly what it is you want, and then say that. So maybe it's some variation of that insight and also just, "I'm not saying we have to spend more time on my problems, I would just be happy to spend more time hanging out and doing stuff other than talking about our problems. Would it be okay if, once in a while, we went and did something fun or whatever?" How does that feel? How does that land for you?

SPENCER: I think the other thing that makes me hesitant about that kind of approach is that I can say I don't want you to stop bringing up your problems with me. I can say I don't want you to feel guilty about this or regret having done it in the past. But me saying that doesn't mean it's not going to happen, you know.

MISHA: But you know what definitely means it's not gonna happen? You not saying it.

SPENCER: Right, so I avoid them feeling guilty by not bringing it up, right? Exactly. [laugh]

MISHA: So again, you have to run the odds. I can invite you to run the odds. We can literally do it, you know, like what's your utility value scenario is the scenario where you don't raise it with some pretty high degree of certainty that the situation won't get better (probably), but you avoid the cost of raising it. Then you look at the other one and you think, "Well, what's the cost of me raising this? What are the risks? What are the costs?" And then you think, "Well, what are the upsides?" There's a few, right? Because one set of upsides is the set of upsides about what might make the problem better. Another set of upsides is, you've already said that you want to be a person who speaks openly about things, and you feel bad when you're not that, so that's another upside; it's the downside of not raising it. So you put that into the calculus, too. I can't answer these questions for you. These are value questions, but you have to sort of plug those in. The thing that I will say though, is I think that almost all of us as humans, what we tend to do is we tend to (it's what I was saying before), we overvalue the near-term pains and gains and undervalue even very short-term ones. So what we very often do is we tell ourselves stories (and as you also know we do) — as humans, we have inclinations — and we tell ourselves stories afterwards to justify them. So you sort of say, "Well, I feel this resistance,"and I'm like, "Yeah, that's normal," Any difficult conversation, you're gonna feel resistance, but then what your brain does is like, "Well, let's tell ourselves a story to justify this resistance," and the story is, "Oh, if I have this conversation with them, it's really going to blow up, and it's going to destroy our friendship, and it probably wouldn't even make things any better." And also, "The pattern that we're in isn't really that bad." So I think most of us tend to (when we make that calculation), our calculation is very, very, very, very biased toward not doing the difficult near-term thing. And so when you do that math, you might want to take that into account. And it's up to you. I'm certainly not saying in this case, you should have the conversation; I have no idea. I don't know the friendship. I don't know the person. I don't know anything. But I know that those are the variables you want to plug into the conversation. I also know that people are inclined to err on the side of not doing the hard thing.

SPENCER: Yeah, I feel like part of it might be risk-aversion. And maybe that's a lot of times what's being activated in these kinds of transparency situations; you're like, "Well, the thing right now is not that bad. If I'm transparent, I don't know what's going to happen. It could actually go way worse. And do I want to risk that?" And maybe one of the things is, for work and stuff like that, maybe we can't always choose who we're going to be interacting with. We have limited ability to control that. But with friendships, usually people do have a lot more ability to control who they spend time with and maybe the long-term strategy of being transparent means that you will get more blow-ups in your relationships when someone reacts poorly to the transparency but, on net, you'll have much better relationships. And the ones that blow up, okay, you won't be friends with people, but you'll be friends with other people. So maybe that is a really good long-term strategy. But then in any one particular case, you're like," I don't know. Things aren't that bad. Do I want to risk this going badly if I'm too honest about how I'm feeling?"

MISHA: But that's true of...let's just take for a minute that we're only going to consider the universe of the bets around the stuff that have positive expected outcomes, that have good expected outcomes. Your argument is an argument against making those bets as well. In any given case, if I make a bet with a positive expected outcome — if someone gives me 60/40 hits on a coin toss — I could lose so maybe I shouldn't take that 60/40 bet on a coin toss.

SPENCER: Right, and I like your idea of relating it to a coin toss, because we know if you have an expected value positive gamble, as long as the gambles are relatively small relative to your total wealth (or the amount of money you can invest), and you can make many of them, then you will win over the long-term by making all the positive expected value ones; that's just a good investment. However, if you can't make very many of them, or your bet size is too large relative to your total wealth, then that's not necessarily true because you could actually just blow up or run out of money or go bankrupt. And so that's in the money realm but maybe there's a similar interpersonal thing like, if you have a whole bunch of friends and losing one friend is not devastating and you can make new friends, then maybe taking all the expected value bets you can, seems like it makes a lot of sense. If you have two friends in the world and losing one would be devastating and you feel like it's really difficult for you to make new friends, then maybe it's too much of your whole portfolio to bet. What do you think about that? I don't know.

MISHA: That totally makes sense. And the thing that I want to say is that there's a tacit assumption that I'm hearing in what you're saying, which is that raising the issue introduces a risk of offending the friendship (which I think it does), but I think the tacit assumption that you're talking about is that, not raising the issue doesn't risk ending the friendship. But what I want to suggest is that both of them risk ending it. Many of the things that we do to preserve relationships end up in — not even the long-term, in the medium term — being quite destructive to the relationship. So like this friendship, for instance, with this the imaginary version of that friendship, I can see a version of it where the person keeps not raising the issue, keeps not raising the issue; every time they don't raise the issue, they come to resent the other friend more and more and more. And eventually, they sort of stop returning their calls, because they're like, "Oh, that person is just a pain in the ass." There's a risk of losing the friendship in raising it, and there's a risk of losing the friendship from not raising it. And both those need to be plugged in, too.

SPENCER: Yeah, that's a great point. And this also goes back to how minor an issue it is. If it's slightly annoying but you're still overall really happy in the relationship, and it feels like a significant risk to bring it up, that's different than you actually feeling not that close to the person and you don't have that great of a relationship because of this issue, right?

MISHA: Yeah. And again, there's people with whom I honestly don't raise things because I'm like, "Yeah, I don't want to be closer to that person." That's a call that I make. It's an interesting question, but I think it's really, really hard for us to be rational about them for the very reason that you were saying earlier, it's like, "I just feel resistant." The second we feel resistant, we're like, "Let me tell a story." My brain is like, "Let me start telling a story to justify this resistance so I don't have to do this thing I'm resistant to." And I guess the claim that I want to make, too, is that, in all the cases where you should have the conversation, you will feel resistant. The fact that you feel resistant is not information that can guide your decision, because the most important conversations you're going to have, it's very normal to feel resistant about them most of the time. So that resistance is not just not information; it's basically misinformation. It's your nervous system telling you," Hey, don't go do that thing," that you should be doing in those cases. One thing I want to say in terms of this conversation we had, I'm actually curious how it feels for you. One of the things that I'm really trying to do is not be controlling of things. And I feel like, in the conversation that we just had, I feel like I'm trying to make you do something that you don't want to do. And I think part of that is in the interest of speeding along this conversation. I feel like if I was doing this in a classroom or in a coaching context, I would not be pushing so hard. But I'm wondering if it feels to you like I'm trying to tell you, "Hey, Spencer, you have to go have these conversations that you don't feel like having or you don't think are good ideas."

SPENCER: Well, first of all, let me say I appreciate your meta transparency in our conversation about transparency, so that's excellent. But no, I don't feel that way at all. I actually liked the way you laid it out as, "Well, you have to do the calculation," in some sense. Even if you're not going to literally do math, you're intuitively doing the calculation of like, is it worth it? What is the cost? What are the benefits? That doesn't feel to me controlling at all; it feels like you're just giving a framework for how to think about a decision.

MISHA: That's interesting. I know you just made a joke about the meta transparency but, for me, that actually really was a small instance for me where, in our conversation, I actually was feeling uncomfortable. I was feeling uncomfortable because I felt like I was pushing you. If you were to stop me right now and be like, "How does Spencer feel?" I'd be like, "Oh, I'm pretty sure Spencer feels like you're pushing." So the thing that I did of like, "Oh, let me be transparent about how I'm feeling and be curious about how you're feeling," got new information. So it's just like a tiny model for your listeners, and a real-world example of doing that. And it'd be very easy for me to just not talk about that, to be like, "Oh, I let it go," but I was like — especially since this is what we're doing here — "No, let's take a minute and talk about those feelings."

SPENCER: No, I'm glad you asked that because I didn't feel like you were being controlling at all.

MISHA: That's so interesting to me because, to me, I wouldn't even have thought that. I was like, "Oh my God, Misha, you're pushing so hard. Let up," so that's really interesting and I'm glad.

SPENCER: Yeah. And I think they're just a nice example of how often we make assumptions about how other people are perceiving a situation and then we don't check those assumptions and...

MISHA: Exactly, exactly. Check the assumptions, man. Checking assumptions is huge.


SPENCER: Okay, before we wrap up, I want to switch to a totally different topic that I think you have interesting thoughts about, and it's not something people talk about very much, which is divorce. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your experience and then some of your thoughts on that?

MISHA: I don't know why I wanted to talk about this. It's just I think, when we were talking about being on your show, I was thinking like, "Oh, one of the things I love about your show is it's so nice people talking about the things they're really professionally expert on," which is what we've been doing for the last hour. And then sometimes it's just sort of 'ramble-y' stuff about people, things people are taught or thinking about, and I was like, "I kind of want to do that other thing." And for me, a thing I've been thinking about a lot is divorce. And the reason I've been thinking about it is I'm going through that now, I'm going through that experience now. And it's been really interesting to me, and it feels like I will see — these aren't thoughts I put on paper or anything, so I'm curious to see — but I feel like there's just lots going on in there that people don't talk about in that experience.

SPENCER: So I'm interested to know what surprised you about divorce or in what ways did it kind of violate your expectations?

MISHA: Man, everything. I think the biggest surprise about it is how much of how emotionally complicated it is and how much of it is good. I think for me, for my whole life, I would sort of see like, "Oh, when people get divorced, that's just a sad thing." And then eventually, they heal from that — like the way you might from an injury or something like that — and that's sort of what the good side is; the good side is that you heal. But as you go through it, or as I go through it, one thing was surprising was that, the second you cross that line, you are in this enormous club of other people who have been through that. And there's this enormous society of people who have had this experience. And there's people you haven't talked to in 20 years who can talk about this, share things, with people that you don't know very well. And you're talking about this very intimate, shared experience. One thing that's surprising is how it puts you into this different world of people. I just know that I didn't know that and and just how quickly I found myself talking to whole social world changed because basically, all I was talking to for the first month or two was just everybody I knew who had ever been divorced, which is a very weird set of people, like friends from high school, someone down the street. All of a sudden, that cluster of people becomes this group of people. That's one thing that's surprising.

SPENCER: And what did you bond over?

MISHA: Kind of everything. Part of it, too, is that one of the things that I think's really interesting about divorce is that I can't think of anything else in life that's so common as that. An enormous number of people get divorced — go through something that's so painful, and so humbling, and so public — this thing has happened in your life where something didn't turn out the way you wanted. Because no one plans to get divorced, literally 0% of people plan to get divorced. Anybody who gets divorced, you're like, "Oh, things didn't go the way you wanted."

SPENCER: Even with a job, people get fired but, very often, people aren't really aware the person got fired; whereas divorce, like everyone's still asking you how's your partner doing. You know, it's like...

MISHA: By definition, marriage is public, divorce is a matter of public record. You can look it up; you can actually go to the government office. It's literally a matter of public record. Yeah, how's so-and-so? You can't be secretly divorced; it doesn't make sense. The nature of marriage is that it's a public declaration of something; the same for divorce. So seeing as it's so public, it's tremendously painful. When you compare it to getting fired from a job, the thing that I think is that you've also failed in what's arguably the most important thing in a person's life. I mean, losing one job is not great but I think we all think that one of the most important things in life is to have a loving partner who you're close to. And so to have that fail, there's almost no one for whom that's small. It's a really big thing.

SPENCER: Right, I feel like the wedding also just makes it that much bigger, because you've brought everyone you know together to watch you and you've said words about being committed forever, and so on.

MISHA: Absolutely. You've done that; that's right. So you've sort of said, "Here's what we're saying. This is never going to end," and then, 4 years later, or 12 years later, or 20 years later, it does. So everyone knows that wasn't your intention; everyone remembers that great big party you had.

SPENCER: But you said it was a more positive experience than you expected, so can you elaborate on that?

MISHA: Oh, my God, so much more, just insanely more. I mean, in some ways that are sort of obvious, and in some ways that are less obvious, or might sound sort of saccharine but really aren't. So the most obvious part is that — some stand-up comedian makes this joke — when people are divorced, you shouldn't offer your condolences because no happy marriage ever ended in divorce. They're out of a bad marriage or a marriage that was difficult in some way. So there's a huge amount of relief and freedom and possibility that comes from that. Pretty much every marriage that ends in divorce has at least some difficulty in it; I'd even say every marriage that doesn't end in divorce has some difficulty in it. So there's something about just leaving a marriage and not being in it anymore, that feels like a weight off your shoulders. There's freedom and there's possibility and you don't have to deal with this thing anymore that you had to deal with. And I think, for most people I've talked to in this enormous club of divorced people, that that's a really shared experience. People are like, "Oh, yeah, there's this enormous relief. The world feels open." Like the way in which sort of just in adulthood — I don't know if it's like this for many people — in adulthood, the world feels kind of heavier, and there's less possibility. All of a sudden, that just gets reversed. It's lighter and there's responsibility you don't have anymore, and there's more possibility. That's one way in which it's positive.

SPENCER: Right. Part of what makes it scary is also what brings these positive sides of it, right?

MISHA: What you're saying now is the part that I'm worried is going to sound too saccharine or something like that, or Pollyanna-ish. But in my experience at least, going through this thing that was so difficult, ends up being — for a lot of people, and certainly for me — an opportunity for enormous personal growth. That if you approach it right — and it seems to me that most people I've talked to do, which is surprising — then what you get out of it isn't like, "Oh, I have this injury. And now, if I'm lucky, I can sort of get back to 90% of where I was before." It's that you have this experience of being like, "Okay, I tried really hard to make this thing work that mattered more than anything, and it didn't work." It was devastating, and then things were okay — because generally things eventually are okay — and I think there's something in that experience that's very valuable. And also, I think the thing I was talking about before — about the publicness of it — there's also something about being required to incorporate that level of vulnerability into your public self. There's so much talk recently about vulnerability and how important it is to be vulnerable. If you want a lesson in being vulnerable, divorce is a very good lesson in being vulnerable because you can't get around it. Everybody knows that this is happening to you, everybody in the world. You might pretend you're not too upset about it, but no one's gonna believe you. And you can't pretend you're someone who's not getting divorced. So it really forces you to confront that in ways that are interesting. And in terms of that club, that society that what it feels like is, there's almost this way in which, when you talk to people who are divorced, there's this (I'm trying to think of how to put it). It feels like they have that club what people feel (and I suspect it's a self-serving belief), that the people that are in that, have a kind of a weight, like a heft to them, that's special. You know, it's like, "Yeah, we've all been through this really hard thing, and it sort of makes you substantial" or something. I don't want to overstate that; I don't believe people who aren't divorced can't be full substantially [laugh]. But there's a bit of a feeling of that sort within that club of people, which is interesting.

SPENCER: What I'm getting from what you're saying is that everyone should try divorce at some point in their life.

MISHA: [laugh] It's a hilarious joke and the part that makes that joke so funny is that it's specifically that you can't try it.

SPENCER: So today, if you look at various traditional cultures, divorce is still quite stigmatized. And I'm wondering, living in a sort of more liberal culture, do you feel like being divorced is stigmatized or do you feel like that's sort of a thing of the past?

MISHA: Both, I think. Certainly, when it was coming up...and in a funny way, it sort of connects with what we talked about earlier, that thing about avoiding the short-term pain for the long-term benefit. I think what a lot of people do, is people try so, so, so hard to make their marriage work because they think the pain of the breakup is going to be so great...and the pain of the breakup, just to be clear, is great, it's enormous. What I was saying earlier, like there's all these positive sides, I don't want to overstate that; it's also devastating, just completely more devastating for me than I think anything that has happened in my life. And part of it has to do with what you're saying about it a way, it's acceptable to everyone, "Oh, yeah, of course, it's common, it's totally common." But I mean, I think another thing that is really common among people in this club (and certainly was true for me), is feelings of enormous shame and humiliation and embarrassment. Especially when you're going through it, you don't think like, "Oh, this is just a normal thing that happens to people." If you're like most people, you're like, "Oh, my God, I'm a failure and a fraud, too. Because I was just with that person at a dinner party a month ago, and we were laughing, and we looked like a great couple. And everybody's gonna know I was lying." For me, an enormous thing was, I was like, "Who's gonna want to take a communications class from a guy who can't keep his marriage together?" My entire professional identity, my entire identity is about being able to resolve differences and communicate with people. And now my marriage is ending? Who's gonna listen to me?

SPENCER: I think about that with people who are relationship coaches and you're like, "Oh, man, the pressure they must put on themselves in their own relationships."

MISHA: Yeah, you know, a friend of mine recently reached out to me; someone I hadn't talked to in a few years. And he was like, "I'm having trouble in my marriage." He was a friend of mine; he also took my communication class. And he emailed me and he was like, "I'm having some trouble in my marriage. And I wondered if I could talk to you about it." I wrote back and I said, "Well, I don't know if you know — we haven't really been in touch — but before I give you advice, you should know that my marriage ended recently. And depending on how you see these things, you might see's gonna be less expertise or more expertise, depending on..." and he was like. "Yeah, I kind of think it gives you more." I agree; I don't know. I mean, in terms of what you're saying, there's a way in which you might want a marriage counselor who's been divorced because they know something that a marriage counselor who hasn't been divorced, doesn't know.

SPENCER: Yeah, totally. And my suspicion is that very few people would hold that against you in your work. I think where it really becomes a problem is when people are holding up their relationship as sort of the paradigm of a good relationship; then, they're in iffy waters.

MISHA: Yeah, yeah, for sure, for sure. And it's just about...but when you're inside of it, it's hard not to feel that way. So there's not a taboo against the institution. Particularly when you get divorced, everyone feels... people feel sorry for you; I don't know, it's interesting the degree to which there is and isn't a taboo. I think it's complicated and it's also very different for different people. I think, just within our society, we have very, very different standards; some people are like, "You stay together, and you make it work no matter what, and that's what it is to be married." And some people are like, "If things aren't working out, you should leave." And within the same social classes, educational groups, and political beliefs and stuff, I think there's great variance.

SPENCER: I feel like divorce is one of those moments in life that's sort of similar to leaving high school or leaving college, where you suddenly have this incredibly huge range of possibilities before you. Like should you move to another city? You could end up falling in love with someone else, and just their life totally takes another direction. Or you can end up being single for a long time when you always thought you would have a relationship. And that's scary but also exciting and kind of amazing. So how do you navigate the sort of incredible range of options that suddenly are before you?

MISHA: It's a beautiful description; I love that idea. And the thing I want to elaborate on that is, unlike say graduating from college...graduating from college, you sort of see it coming; if you're a middle class person, you see it coming from the first day of kindergarten; you're like, "Eventually I'm gonna graduate from college." Divorce, you don't see coming, so it's a time of that much change, but it comes as a surprise. And for many of us, it comes in midlife or later. So all of a sudden, part of what happens — this is certainly my experience and again, a lot of people I talk — is that you're 45, you're 50, you're 55, and you thought that stage of your life was over. You thought you weren't going to have another time of enormous possibility. That's what it is normally to grow older as you — I think it's the Gertrude Stein line — you exchange a great possibility for small reality, like you keep trading possibility against reality, and you're like, "Oh, this is what my life is. This is what it's going to be; I know what it's going to be." And all of a sudden, it's like, "Oh, guess what, you suddenly have the possibility again. You didn't expect it." And so I think one thing a lot of people feel is young, because that's what we associate with being young. And the last time we felt that, we were young, and in our culture and in most cultures, that's sort of what it means to be young. So all of a sudden, you're in this place of possibility and it's amazing. And you're in a place of possibility for, like logistical reasons, because as you say, maybe you can move somewhere else — I mean, I can't because we have a six-year-old kid — but many people can. But you're also in a place of, you can go live somewhere else, you can do different things with your time. And I think more subtly, too; I think for many people, you can be someone else. There's a way in which being in a marriage kind of defines who you are. You're like, "Part of who I am is, I'm this person's partner." And suddenly that gets taken away. And all of a sudden, just your whole question of identity kind of gets thrown up, you're like, "Oh, I can become really different. I can have a different group of friends," all that stuff.

SPENCER: Your identity is anchored by the expectations of your partner, right? They think they married you as person X. If you were to suddenly become person Y, that actually is pretty dramatic.

MISHA: Yeah, that's right, it's anchored, and it's constrained. I mean, ideally, marriage is a place where people can grow and flow and change and flourish and all that stuff, and flourishing involves change. But at a certain level, what you say is exactly right. At a certain level, we also want our partners to be the person we fell in love with, the person we married, and we don't want them to become too different from that. But you might want to be quite different at 50 than you were when you were 25. And your partner might not want that. And suddenly, if you leave your marriage, all of a sudden, you can be that, you can do that. And what often happens, you might do 10 years of that in a year or whatever. So it's pretty intense, it's a pretty intense time for people.

SPENCER: Yeah, and I think a lot of people want to grow in their relationship, which I think is great. But often it works best if the two people are growing together in some sense. Whereas, if they're growing in totally different directions, that's not always great. I know one couple where one of them got really into a kind of certain self-improvement methodology that the other one was not into at all. And then that means you're spending more and more time on it, and they're having sort of different kinds of thoughts around it, etc, etc. That actually can really create a rift in a relationship.

MISHA: Yeah. And then a real question is, what do you do? Do you then stay together and give up...the choices are tricky. It's a hard institution; the choices are tricky. Like one is like, "Well, we stay together, and I give up on the personal growth projects that I want to do. Or we stay together, and I do a personal growth project that makes my partner unhappy. Or we end it." None of those options seems great, and none of them is. They all have a lot of loss in them and you're kind of choosing which of those losses you're going to...again, I guess as a negotiation, as communication, you strive to be like, "Well, maybe there's some way to make everybody happy," but maybe sometimes there's not.

SPENCER: Misha, before we wrap up, do you want to just tell people a little bit about where they can find more of your work?

MISHA: Yeah, the best place to find me is on my website, If you type my name into Google, there's no one else with a name that sounds like mine. The best way to hear from me is to get onto my email list. I do classes that I offer online. There's classes you can sign up for. There's a lot of free events that I do, too, and my mailing list is mostly just announcements of the events that I'm doing. So if you want to hear about them, you can get on there. I also have a book called "The Chairs are Where the People Go"; check out the book. If you're in Toronto, you can come see Trampoline Hall, the lecture series I run. Those are probably...but the best way to find me is to get on my email list.

SPENCER: And I've been to some of Misha's events and really enjoyed them so it's worth checking out. Cool. Thanks so much, Misha; it's really good to chat with you.

MISHA: Talk to you soon.


JOSH: Have you ever been depressed? Do you know what depression feels like?

SPENCER: I've definitely been depressed. I was depressed in high school during certain parts, and I was also depressed during certain parts of college. And then after college, I basically didn't really experience significant depression again. I mean, obviously, everyone can feel depressed for a day or something like that. But I never had real depression again that lasted months at a time. To me, depression feels like a sense of hopelessness about value in the world, like you think the future has no value or that you think you have no value, or you think all value is lost or something like that. And yeah, I'm just really grateful that I haven't had that experience really since college. However, I will say that I am the sort of personality that tends to be much more prone to anxiety than depression.




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