Anna Sale, of all people, knows how many people need to talk about hard things

Anna Sale, author and host of hit podcast Death, Sex & Money. Picture: Supplied

Anna Sale, author and host of hit podcast Death, Sex & Money. Picture: Supplied

  • Let's Talk About Hard Things, by Anna Sale. Scribe, $35.

We're in the midst of a pandemic, and there's never been a better time to have some difficult conversations.

In fact, according to Anna Sale, we could all do with a few more hard conversations in our lives. But when she launched her hit podcast, Death, Sex & Money back in 2014, she had no idea how many people would be willing to share their fears, secrets, anxieties and hang-ups with a stranger.

"A show about the things we think about a lot, and need to talk about more," runs the tagline.

In hindsight, of course, it's unfathomable that such a concept wouldn't strike a chord. Produced by WNYC in the US, the show, with weekly episodes hosted by Sale, covers these three main topics, plus everything in between - grief, health, families, kids, studies, home ownership, difficult relationships, moving house, working tough jobs, taking out loans.

It's all the stuff we don't seem to spend enough time speaking openly about. And yet dozens of well-known people have appeared as guests on the show, as have a great many strangers, and thousands more who have phoned in and left their own stories via voice messages.

"I think the things that we talk about on the show is stuff that's easier to talk about ... with someone who you don't know," Sale says over Skype from her home in Berkeley, California.

"These are the kinds of things that people bring up in therapy or talking to a bartender - it's easier to record a voice memo and send it to a podcast host than to have that hard conversation. So yeah, it really is such an honour that people entrust us with their stories."

But one of the biggest surprises for her as the host has been how often she has acted intuitively to having people confide in her, and how many people have asked her how she does it. In reaching for answers, she has also realised she needs to have her own hard conversations - both for her own sake, and for the sake of the people who surround her.

And so, the idea for a book was born.

"As soon as the show sort of found an audience, people would ask me, how do you get people to open up about this kind of stuff? What are your secrets? How do you interview people about this tender, personal stuff?" she says.

"And I was kind of shocked to discover that so much of what I do in an interview has first been intuitive. It's not been something that I could name or describe, or give people pointers about how to do. So that became one of the writing challenges - wait, what am I doing? What does happen when something magical happens between two people where you're talking about something you never thought the two of you would share together?"

She says the book was as much a way to coax herself into resolving difficult issues as it was for the reader.

"It's one thing to talk about interviewing strangers, but another thing to say, here's a way, here's how this could be applied to the really tough conversations in your life with people in your real life that you're in relationships with. That's what sort of led me to the memoir parts of the book, to say, when did you really struggle, Anna? Let's investigate those moments, and see what you learned."

But there's still plenty to learn from listening to other people talk about their lives. I tell her how many times I've been stopped in my tracks by some of the stories on Death, Sex & Money. The young DJ in Los Angeles who got sole custody of her sister's six kids when she was just 25. The woman who discovers her husband has been having an affair as he lies in a coma. The people living precarious, cobbled-together lives, hand-to-mouth in New York City. Siblings who don't speak to each other. Lies and secrets and unimaginable tragedies. So many lives, and so many different ways to live them.

Sales opens the book with the story of her own divorce, and how lost she felt before realising that she wasn't the only person in the world to experience a failed marriage.

But one of her biggest personal revelations through the podcast has been the idea that the choices we make all have pros, cons and trade-offs.

"I think before I was having these conversations all the time, I had this idea that every life decision I made had really high stakes, because I didn't want to make the wrong decision," she says.

"And maybe that's because the age I was, early 30s coming out of what had been a tumultuous 20s. I really see life now, every big choice we make, whether it's what we decide to do for work, or where we decide to live, or how much time we spend with our family, all of these choices are choices with trade-offs.

"I now have so much of a spirit of curiosity more than judgment, and I think what that does is it opens up, ultimately, space for more self-compassion.

"I think that just being led into people's lives in a really intimate way, so often there are moments of pain, and moments of suffering, but it's made me feel less afraid. Because when you hear people who have been through really challenging things, it makes you realise what we can move through."

Families are a particularly potent theme throughout, and Sale devotes a whole chapter to conversations with family members.

"Family is this place where you have this shared history together, and it's also where the definition of your relationship is that you started out one way with one relationship together, and then you separated and individuated and differentiated," she says.

"Family therapists have written about this for a long time, but I wanted to explore this through the stories of family including my own, because I just think when you hear how other people experience family, it makes you feel a little less like you're doing it wrong."

But how is it that with more ways than ever to communicate, we still find it even harder to talk about the hard stuff?

Sales thinks all this technology is part of the problem.

Yes, she says, it's amazing for us to be speaking, face-to-face, so to speak, across the ocean, and incredible that something like a podcast could have brought so many people together for a weekly dose of voyeurism-cum-therapy each week.

But it's also encouraging many of us to deflect wherever possible.

"I also think there are other sides of technology that make it easier for us to dodge direct relational conversation, things like texting or emails or deciding to broach something difficult not in conversation, but in that kind of communication where you can focus on what you need to say and let go of how it's going to be received," she says.

"There are certain circumstances where that's necessary, where email is better than having an in-person conversation, especially if it's with someone who you often find it difficult to feel heard by.

"I think what happens in conversation is, when you're forced to pay attention to how what you're saying is being received, you are noticing how you are receiving what is being said back to you...

"You're paying attention both to what you need, and what this person needs from you in the relationship.

"And that's what love is. That's what it requires."

This story It's always time for some tough talk first appeared on The Canberra Times.