The Conversation: How Men and Women Can Build Loving, Trusting Relationships

The Conversation: How Men and Women Can Build Loving, Trusting Relationships

by Hill Harper


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In his first book for adults, the New York Times bestselling author sparks honest dialogues between men and women, in the tradition of Steve Harvey's Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.

Only 34 percent of African-American children today are raised in two- parent households, a sharp contrast to 1966, when 85 percent of black children were raised by two parents. In provocative but heartfelt words, Hill Harper takes on these urgent challenges, bringing a variety of issues out of the shadows. In The Conversation, Harper speaks to women and men with clear-eyed perspective, covering topics such as:

•The roots of the breakdown in the black family

•The myth that there are no mature, single, black male professionals

•What women can do to alleviate the "heaviness" they sometimes attach to dating

•What men can do to break the cycle of being a player

•The difference between sex and intimacy

•Bridging the communication gap

•Self-worth and net worth, and why you should never settle for an unworthy partner

Capturing the conversations Harper and his friends frequently have, this book is destined to be one of Harper's most healing contributions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781592405787
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/07/2010
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 108,161
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Currently starring in CSI: NY, Hill Harper has appeared in numerous prime- time television shows and feature films, including Beloved and He Got Game. He graduated magna cum laude from Brown University with a B.A. and cum laude from Harvard Law School. He also holds a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government. He was recently named one of People magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive.

Read an Excerpt


The Language of Men

I’m glad I understand that while language is a gift,listening is a responsibility.

Nikki Giovanni,

world-renowned poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator,and a mother since 1969

A lot of the women I’ve talked to ask me what’s the bestway to effectively communicate with a man. How can awoman know what a man is really thinking if she can’t get himto talk?

It’s almost a cliché to say that men and women communicatedifferently, but it does seem to be true. We’re simply different.“It’s like my boyfriend speaks a completely different languagethan I do,” my friend Gail once said.

“That’s because he’s talking in the language of men,” myother friend, Mary, replied. The three of us were having lunch.“If you didn’t grow up with it,” Mary continued, “it may as wellbe gibberish.” She explained that she hadn’t grown up with anymen in her house, and so she’d never really learned to understandthe language of men—the sports talk, the sparse replies, the suddenand deep silences. She acknowledged that she had, on manyoccasions, interpreted her ex-boyfriend’s silences as emotionalcruelty. “I honestly thought he was just being mean, giving methe silent treatment. I’d ask him how he felt and he’d just give mea blank stare and shrug. It drove me crazy.”

Both women then turned and stared at me as if I couldmagically reveal the tools to properly decode this language thatmen speak—if and when they speak at all. Unfortunately, all Icould share were my observations.

Linguistics scholar Deborah Tannen considers male-femaleconversation a form of cross-cultural communication. The innatedifferences in how men and women think, act, listen, and thereforecommunicate are so profound that it is as if we are productsof completely different cultures. These communication differenceshave been seen as early as the age of three.

I started this book by explaining how I believe that Blackmen and Black women don’t really even talk to each other anymore.I grew up watching my grandparents sit and talk. Theytalked about everything—from the weather, to the news, to theneighbors, to the grandchildren, to their plans, and then back tothe weather again. Watching those older couples at the Blakes’home reminded me of the flow and ease of my grandparents’conversations. I loved how the men joked with one another andwith the women. I loved how the women were an integral part ofthe exchange, either adding something affirmative to their husbands’statements or putting forth an alternative view, not justtalking among themselves.

I wondered why it seemed so special to see men and womengathered together and talking. Then I remembered a panel thatI’d been a speaker on the previous year. It was an all-male relationshippanel at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. Iwas intrigued (and, to be honest, scared) to be a part of it becauseI wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I mean, traditionally, menare not considered big talkers—especially not when it comes torelationships.

The thesis of the panel seemed to be that through a combinationof biology, brain chemistry, and socialization, men are“doers,” while women are “feelers.” When women talk, they feelcomfortable expressing their emotions. From the outside, it seemsto be a required part of their discussions. When men talk, however,it’s usually about something specific—sports, business, homerepairs, movies, television shows, or making money. We concernourselves with the mechanics, not the emotions or the minutiaeof these things. We focus mainly on the nuts and bolts.

That, obviously, is a generalization. The truth is that if youspend enough time in a barber shop, at the pool hall, on the basketballcourt, on the golf course, or at any bachelor party, sooneror later, golden nuggets of men’s true thoughts, questions, andconcerns about women and relationships will eventually cometo the surface.

Even then, the revelation is seldom direct. It is often shroudedin humor or made to sound like apassing comment, not somethingto ponder, dissect, and commenton. If the other men do comment,those comments will invariablyalso be shrouded in humor or peppered with playful insults and invectives—kind of like what happened when Dontold us that he was going to propose to Robin.When it comes to effectively communicating with men,how a woman says something is nearly as important as what shesays. Delivery is everything. Here are three particular things Iknow men universally dislike:


Men definitely want a woman by their side who has theirbest interests at heart. However, there is a fine line betweenhaving someone’s best interests at heart and aggressively forcingan agenda on someone. If a man has made it abundantly clear, inhis actions if not with his words, that the topic you’ve decided iscrucial enough to revisit countless times means nothing to him,give up. He is not ready to deal with it. He might not say that inso many words, but key in to his nonverbal clues. If he seems toshut down completely when you bring up a subject, then maybeyou should back away a bit.

If it’s something that you can’t put off, try a different tactic.Draw him out by beginning the conversation with a question. Forexample, “How are you feeling about the recession? Is it havingany effect on you? I’d love to hear how you’re dealing with it.” Nobodylikes to feel as though they are being spoken at, rather thanbeing spoken to, and a question makes it clear that you really wantto hear his thoughts. Even if you respond with your own thoughtsand you end up with a difference of opinion, at least you’ve bothheard and listened to each other. Some women I’ve known dealwith the fact that the men in their lives don’t talk much by takingover the conversation. The only room the men are given to speak is at the end of the litany, and that doesn’t seem at all like a spacereserved for thoughtful opinion or an alternative view.

Scenario A

Woman: Babe, how do I look in this? Does it makeme look like I’ve gained twenty pounds?

Man (hesitantly): No, hon. You look fine. You’re as beautifulas you were the day I met you.

Woman: Is that supposed to be some sort of joke?I was thirty-five pounds heavier when I metyou. I’ve been going to the gym every day,working my ass off to look good for you,and you don’t even notice.

(Man drops his head and shakes it, suddenly losing all desire to goout to the dinner they’d been getting dressed to attend.)

Scenario B

Woman: Babe, how do I look in this? Does it makeme look like I’ve gained twenty pounds?

Man (hesitantly): Don’t get mad at me. You asked for thetruth, so I’ll tell you. It’s not the most fl atteringdress you own. Why don’t you wearthe red dress you wore last—

Woman (upset): I remember a time when you always usedto tell me that I was beautiful, when youreally appreciated me.

(Man drops his head and shakes it, suddenly losing all desire to goout to the dinner they’d been getting dressed to attend.)

No one wins in this situation. The woman wanted to hearthat she is still the object of her man’s affections. He thoughtshe just wanted an answer to her question, and when he realizesthat she didn’t, the man feels like he was trapped. The morethis sort of thing happens, the more frightened the man becomesabout remarking on his woman’s appearance at all, which meansthat the woman starts to feel the only way she can get a complimentis to fish for one, and the whole cycle just feeds on itself.

The solution to this problem is to be more direct about yourfeelings. If you’re not feeling especially attractive or sexy, thenexpress that to your partner. He might know just the right—andsincere—words to offer to make you know that you are loved.Also, when he does volunteer a compliment you appreciate, goahead and tell him so, and let him know he’s welcome to saythings like that anytime he likes. With a little encouragement,most guys will figure out that if something works they shouldkeep at it. We are, after all, very trainable, when we’re given positivereinforcements and rewards. Just like a puppy.


Compliments aren’t the only things women ask for indirectly.Unfortunately, men aren’t always that good at picking up onthose hints. If you want a guy to do something, be direct. Don’t be coy about it. Just say what you want him to do. Obviously itshouldn’t be delivered like an order or command in a game ofSimon says, but I’m not the only man I know who responds wellto the word help, as in, “Can you help me out next Monday? I’vegotta put my car in the shop and I need someone to give me aride to take care of a few things.”

Everybody likes to hear please and thank you; nobody likes tofeel taken for granted. Even if the two of you are married orengaged or have been datingfor years and years, you can stillask directly and ask nicely—and show your gratitude whenit’s been done. (Guys, that goesfor us, too.)

I think sometimes women make too much of this so-calledlanguage of men. I believe that a man who wants to be an activepartner in communication will be. If talking to your man feelslike pulling teeth, maybe you should give your relationship asecond look. See whether you’ve really developed a friendship. Iknow that men and women communicate in different ways, butwe all share an understanding of what it means to be considerateof our partners.

Talking to someone you care about shouldn’t seem like hardwork. If it does, then maybe he is trying, through his silence, totell you something. Yeah, I’ll admit it; men can fall back on beingpassive-aggressive sometimes, too.

Withdrawal can occur when a man is overwhelmed bymoney, work, stress, or other things that he is trying to work outbefore communicating with you. So, it’s not always a sign that aman is unhappy in the relationship when he turns inward. Whensomething is bothering a woman, she usually doesn’t hesitate to call a girlfriend to discuss her insecurities, issues, or problems.

But that’s not how the male brain works. Some guys just needto process on their own first. It’s got to be an extremely seriousproblem for me to call one of my boys and say, “Man, I needyour help. . . . I need to talk about something.”

Denise, a married friend, doesn’t agree, because her husbandis a great communicator. He will pull her aside and inform herthat he is distracted or feeling distant, explaining that it has nothingto do with her but with other things in his life that he istrying to process. She usually gives him a few days, but if he’s stillemotionally absent she’ll jokingly attempt to pull him out of this“funk.” Because he understands his wife and himself, he lets herknow as soon as he recognizes this shift. Occasionally she’ll bethe first to confront him on his pulling away. The point is, theyare able to have mature conversations about what’s going on. Shebelieves this is one of the key reasons she is still in love with herhusband after all these years.

Of course, withdrawal can also signal that a man wants out ofthe relationship. As far as the woman knows, she and her man are stillin a relationship, but in actuality he is long gone. The man resorts tosilence, hoping that the woman will get fed up and make the decisionto move on. That way he won’t be blamed or held responsiblefor disappointing her, for shattering her hopes and dreams. It’s difficult for a man to tell a woman he cares about that he doesn’t loveher anymore or that he does love her but not enough to remain ina relationship. At times, cowardly men just remain silent, and as Isaid before, I was one of those men.

Unfortunately, people respond to uncomfortable situationsin a way of their choosing, not ours. Just as we intuitively knowwhen someone is into us, we also intuitively know when someoneis not into us. If you’re willing to discuss the situation in order to stay together, but your partner is not interested in eventalking about it, that alone should tell you where he (or she)stands. No amount of rationalization or excuse making is goingto change what you already know deep down is true.

I’m not trying to place the burden of truth on the women’sshoulders. This book is about relationships, starting the conversationthat all men and women need to have and maintain in orderto survive the odds and overcome the obstacles. If you’re withsomeone who refuses to talk, the conversation is over. Period. It’sas simple as that.

The distance that was present when I finally reached out toNichole was created because I hadn’t honored our initial connection.During that first call, it was obvious that she was guarded, notas open and forthcoming as she’d been the evening we’d met. Andthat’s understandable. It was awkward, our conversation full of oddpauses and nervous chuckles. I ended the conversation by tellingher, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

It took a whole lot of strength, though, for me to call her asecond time. I wanted the connection to come easily again, as ithad when we met. But I knew that I’d have to work for it. I’d haveto earn her trust, let her know that I was serious about gettingto know her. I’d so admired the vulnerability Nichole displayedwhen she’d asked, “Will you call?”

I realized I had to allow myself to be vulnerable, too. Nicholehad to be able to detect in me the same sincere vulnerabilitythat I’d detected in her. Had I not been ready to grow, I wouldhave resorted to rationalizations. I would have convinced myselfthat I’d done nothing wrong—After all, I would have told myself,I’d promised her that I’d call, and I did call; I never said when.

In fact, I almost started down that road. But when I did, I’dcatch myself and ask out loud, as I had that night, “Who do you think you’re fooling?” So I called Nichole that second time and Istarted the conversation by doing something I should have doneduring the first phone call; I apologized for letting so much timepass between the night we met and my call.

“I enjoy talking to you,” I said, “and I look forward to gettingto know you better.” It wasn’t a line; it was the truth—and that’swhat made it so difficult to say. I felt exposed. I ended each ofthose first few conversations by telling her when I’d call her again.And each time, I kept my word—because if people don’t respectyour time, it’s an indication that they don’t respect you. I wantedto lay a solid foundation for a possible relationship with Nichole.Eventually that easy, natural connection Nichole and I had returned,and our phone calls fell into their own natural rhythm.

While we’re on the topic of communication, I want to bringup technology. In this new, cool world of high-tech, low-touchcommunication, we have the ability to send messages to anyone,at any hour, using any one of a variety of media. Whether it’sTwitter or Facebook or e-mail or voice mail, we have no shortageof ways to talk. But are all these new advancements helpingor hurting our communication?

There was a time when the only way to interact with theobject of your affection was by being in the same room with himor her. When lovers were out of visiting range, they had to writeletters. Now technology has changed the game completely.When I have to quickly let a friend know that I am runninglate, I wonder how we ever got along before cell phones. Evenif I know the person I’m trying to reach can’t answer his or herphone, I can send a text.

The same technology that helps us to communicate can alsohurt the quality of that communication, especially in romanticrelationships. Many men don’t like to have confrontations with the women they’re dating. Is it any wonder, then, that so manyof my female friends tell me that it is becoming more and morecommon for men to use text messaging to back out of a date withthem, or even to break up with them? With text messages youcan get your point across without any lengthy or uncomfortableexplanations. It’s also easier to manipulate the truth. Many of mymale friends write things in text messages that they would neverhave the courage to say if they were looking the woman in theeye. And what’s worse, many of my female friends allow men toget away with this type of “conversation.”

We can also use the technology as a diversion. For instance,I am not proud to admit that I have sent the text “What are youup to?” to someone I was dating when I knew I didn’t want totalk to her for the rest of the day but I wanted her to think I waschecking on her. Not good.

Even if couples use technology to manage time and findways to be more effective and efficient, it is still important to beaware of the ways in which we communicate with each other. Unlesswe’re careful, relationshipshave the tendency to resemblebusiness negotiations: We’redealing with our individualschedules, our kids’ schedules,family dramas, financial decisions,social obligations, work and/or school commitments, professionaldeadlines. Those details can be all-consuming, and before weknow it, all that other stuff has taken over the relationship.

Modern technology can expedite working out all of thosedetails, but it can also make us feel as though we’ve had our fillof communicating with our significant other. By the time youtwo are actually face-to-face, in the same space, you’re all talked out, even though you haven’t really said anything. Before youknow it, a relationship can be absent of any true and consistentpersonal connection.

You might think that sounds extreme, but it’s very possible. I’deven say it’s common. These high-tech methods of communicationcan sometimes cause a lot of confusion in relationships. Thereis no eye contact; there is no body language; there are no facialexpressions. The nuances that come from tone and voice, and thevisual cues we use to understand the significance of whatever isbeing said in person, are completely lost.

If you’re face-to-face when a misunderstanding begins, youhave the ability to say “Stop! That’s not what I meant,” and tocorrect whatever has been misunderstood. In person, we have areal-time awareness of when things are going right and whenthings are going wrong. The problem with “flat” mediums liketexting, e-mailing, and instant messaging is that sarcasm soundsmean and jokes may sound dismissive when you don’t have theintonation that makes them make sense. Statements meant ashints can sound like nagging or have no force at all. There arejust too many ways for it to all go very, very wrong, very, veryquickly.

I’m not saying that if a person e-mails or texts I love you tohis or her partner, the person doesn’t mean it. Plenty of couplesfind inventive and positive ways to use technology to enhancetheir personal communication and, thus, their relationship. Butrelationships are made in person. Communication is strengthenedby looking into a partner’s eyes, by holding hands whileconversing, and by having the courage to say what’s going on inour hearts, minds, and souls.

Just as we need to step up with our actions, we need tospeak up with our emotions. We can’t hide behind the ease of technology, the excuse of gender tendencies, or the history ofour own bad habits. If we want to be with someone, we needto learn how to communicate—how to have our say, how to letsomeone else have his or her say, and, most important, how tofind common ground.


Excerpted from "The Conversation"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Hill Harper.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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"Hill Harper trades solving crimes on-screen for a new mission: fixing relationship drama."

"Hill's work presents a light, insightful, and accessible user's manual for African American men and women to better understand that which keeps us apart (and hopefully what can bring us closer together)."

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