Anna Sale: Hard Topics, Softer Conversations

Subscribe to Lemonada Premium for Bonus Content

In this conversation, Kate and Anna discuss:

  • How conversations might engender the intimacy we need to get by
  • Fostering the right interpersonal and listening skills it takes to approach a difficult topic (especially when you’re feeling nervous)
  • Best practices for responding to someone’s hard news
  • How learning to listen might bridge differences of all kinds

What do we lose when we don’t talk about hard things? And what might we gain if we do?

Everything Happens is brought to you by Cologuard®. Are you 45 or older? Start screening for colon cancer with Cologuard, an effective and noninvasive screening option for adults 45 and older at average risk for colon cancer. Rx only. Learn more at

Watch clips from this conversation, read the full transcript, and access discussion questions by clicking here.

Follow Kate on InstagramFacebook, or X (formerly known as Twitter)—@katecbowler.



Kate Bowler, Anna Sale

Kate Bowler  00:00

Hello, my friends, well, it’s the holiday season and you might be traveling or wishing you were home or maybe missing somebody or baking or bored. But regardless, it is a hard time to be a human in the world right now. There is so much that divides us. There’s so much that’s keeping us apart. And there can be times where that just makes it hard to see the people in front of us as beloved in any way. So I thought it might be a nice time to have a read listen to a conversation that I had that really kind of helped me. I don’t know not lower my expectations change my expectations for the people around me. And this conversation is with the wonderful Anna Sale. Anna Sale has this podcast on NPR called death, sex and money, which should give you a sense of the fact that she’s able to talk about anything with anyone. And in this conversation, she gives us a masterclass on how to have hard conversations, how to listen, even when we disagree. And basically just how to be humans with one another. I really hope you like it. And while we’re at it, just want to say I am so grateful for you guys. This is a wonderful community of thoughtful, compassionate people who really do try to understand one another and practice empathy. So all that to say is, hey, bless you, as you do that hard work around your tables and in your homes this season. And I hope this one is a little boost.


Kate Bowler  03:35

There are some topics that are strictly off limits the dinner table, politics, religion, which Canadian football team is the best and why it is obviously the Saskatchewan Roughriders one of two teams in a small Football League named the Roughriders. Oh wait, that’s just my dinner table. So why is it that some of our hardest truths are off the table for discussion. Like that you’re scared your kid is getting behind in school and don’t know how to help. Or that your drinking might be getting out of control, or that your mom’s memory seems to be slipping. Or you’re worried about your relationship that it might be falling apart when the kids leave. Or that you might be losing the business or sicker than you let on. Our culture seems convinced that going off script is unbecoming. Instead, we are rewarded for being buttoned up perfect, or at least appearing to be and never ever no matter what admitting weakness. But don’t we need each other, especially when facing the most difficult moments? What do we lose when we don’t talk about the hard things? And what might we gain if we do? I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Today I’m speaking with someone who leans into every hard conversation no matter how difficult the topic Anna Sale is a journalist, author and interviewer on her award winning podcast, Dath, Sex and Money. And she wrote a gorgeous book I love it’s called, Let’s Talk About Hard Things. And my soulmate I’ve only just met. I’m so glad we’re doing this.


Anna Sale  05:18

I’m so glad to be doing this with you. I really like I have been such a fan and admirer of the way that you like so beautifully, like, somehow invite people in, in a fun way to the idea that there are hard things that you’re not going to have any solutions for.


Kate Bowler  05:39

Welcome to the durability of life. Do you still want to be friends? That’s a weird, it’s a weird tone.


Anna Sale  05:46

I can’t help you.


Kate Bowler  05:50

Exactly, the doormat to write that is the promise. Because I, I immediately feel in us such an intense kinship around the love of the deep end. And I I wonder what the primary? Like, I like how how it feels like it leads do you think it for you? It leads with curiosity first.


Anna Sale  06:17

Yeah, I mean, I really think, you know, I’ve, I’ve thought about this a lot, because people ask me where it comes from. And it’s funny because I don’t think of it as like having an origin I think of it as like, so just part of who I am like I was one of those insufferable teenagers in junior high, who was like a small talk, I just want to talk about the real stuff, you know, like, let’s just dig in. So I was an insufferable teenager, and then I became an insufferable reporter, you know, so when you’re a reporter, you know, it is like, your assignment, when you’re a reporter, your your your profession, is to make sure that you are understanding what you’re seeing and what someone is trying to communicate with you. And then to tell the reader or the listener, whether you buy what this person is telling you so, so it leads what you have to lead with, I’m really curious, I want to understand more and I want to understand, clearly so that requires both a kind of extending and saying like, no, no, tell me more, tell me more, tell me more. And also not flinching from that question. That’s like, but alright, are you sure? Because I think maybe there’s another reason you’re running for office that doesn’t have to do with all the, you know, whatever, like, high minded reasons you’re giving me and so then that has extended into how I interview people about the most personal things.


Kate Bowler  07:48

Yeah, I guess I’ve always thought though, that my journalist friends. So you know, I, I write historical books, and I often do interviews, but mine are kind of long form. And the questions are a bit, I guess I just picture them as a bit soft. Like, which is why I’m really terrible at interviewing politicians. I’m like, yes, the sound like your motivation. Let’s wrap this line of inquiry up, tell me more about your kids. But the journalists, I know they have a toughness to them. I like these word unflinching, but I feel like they’re better at the, like the chipping away questions than I think many of us are trained to do, for me, at least as a historian, but certainly as friends. I wonder if journalists have like a couple, I’m sure they have many extra skills that they’ve learned in this storied profession but like, is there a special thing that you were trained to do as a journalist that is maybe different from a lot of people’s soft? or regular friendship skills?


Anna Sale  08:49

Yeah, I mean, I think like, think of it like, you know, the first press events that you cover, when you’re coming up, at least for me, was like a crowded press conference where all of your colleagues, your competitors are all lined up. The person who has information to tell you something is standing in front of you, they tell you the information. And then your job is to shout. Like and like shout a question that’s like, as direct, as in short, and like to the point as you can, that was the muscle I really developed early with, with being a reporter was like, I have to use my elbows to get the information. I’ve like sort of come back around through during personal interviews and personal storytelling, to really trying to infuse my journalism with the idea that every interview I do is a relationship. It’s not only extractive you know, I think a lot of media is like telling me what I need to know and then I’m gonna move to the next story. When you’re doing in one episode or one interview, like we take a lot have time on our show to make sure that the process is really clear to the people who were having on like, what will happen to this tape? You know, when will I hear when the episode is coming out? You know, and also like, if it’s an emotional interview, just taking those few minutes when you’re wrapping up to say, like, what are you doing for the rest of the day? Are you going to be with somebody else, you know, just like showing that care, which is not a skill that you’re sort of taught to sharpen as a reporter, because that somehow is seem to be getting too cozy or something. But I think of like, melding those two styles is, is my ideal way of doing the kind of journalism that I do.


Kate Bowler  10:43

Elbows and heart, I like a heart plus elbow combination.


Anna Sale  10:50

I’m also that way as a wife.


Kate Bowler  10:52

So what was an hour motivation here for not doing these dishes? We can confine as a point of commonality because I do think I’m part of your trademark, like, you’re one of the things that’s so distinctive, when you to me, at least when you you enter into a conversation, is that there’s an intensity, but a softness that reminded me sometimes of like the intimacy people can have with really close friends, where they’re able to lovingly call. I mean, there’s only a few people we feel comfortable openly calling bullshit on each other stories. But it is wonderful to be able to skip a little bit of the like the preamble and the self justification, and ask maybe the the harder question underneath the initial question. You’re definitely an elbows and heart kind of person, which makes you so fun to listen to. People tell you their stories, and they really get into the layers of really complicated subjects. I wondered about the first time that you felt like, you had a life that needed explaining, because I can remember mine. The first time I realized I was off script was when I felt like I had to explain why I got sick, like, oh, no, it’s it’s colon cancer, it wasn’t something I ate like, I was already pre empting a response, as if there was already a conversation happening between me and whoever was listening. And I wondered if divorce was like that for you.


Anna Sale  12:25

Yeah, that for me was when it happened when I first had that my first moment in life where it was like, Oh, I’ve got to, like, repackage this. And it’s in a way that I don’t feel proud of. So what do I do with that? Not a way that I ever saw coming. And I think, I think for me, that was the that was what was so difficult about making the decision to end our first marriage with my ex, because, for me, that was just like, I was not a person who left a marriage in my mind. I was not a person who got divorced. And because that, to me had so much meaning around, you know, well how I value family family is important to me. And commitments are important to me, and I’m I like deep relationships and marriages, like so aligned with that and so, for me, the period that was the most difficult was not after I became a divorce person or was becoming a divorced person, because we decided to get divorced. It was the months leading up to that where I could feel that I was becoming a person that I didn’t want to be because I was ashamed. And so I was like trying to hold hold it together. You know, and for anyone who’s been in a relationship where you’re not ready to admit that it’s not holding together and the way it wants was no, just like try to squeeze tighter and tighter and make pronouncements like Well, of course, we’ll never get divorced […] that, when you sort of look at for me it was that I had been with my ex husband through my 20s w were best friends, we had sort of grown up together and decided to follow our dreams together. And then what we wanted just started to sound different. That was the conflict, it didn’t feel like we were building the same thing anymore. And that was really painful because it wasn’t a thing that we could control. Like I tried. And then once I allowed that this marriage wasn’t going to last forever. And we agreed together that it wasn’t going to last together and we took the steps that it takes to make that happen. I felt like I was shot out of a cannon. So the period for me after the divorce after the papers were filed, it was like oh, I can like let go of this heavy shame. And at 30 was like I felt really scary because I felt like all my scaffolding had collapsed. And I felt like there was no gravity because what I thought life was, so many of the details were not grounded, you know, the stakes had been pulled up. So that felt scary, but also like, you know, oh, maybe yes, I will go jump out of a plane with you because I might do that now in this life, you know this person might?


Anna Sale  12:27

Yeah, do you want this really touching moment to with your dad, I thought that gave like, like a tender kind of permission and maybe an understanding. In the midst of your embarrassment. Your dad seemed to understand something about you, when you about him.


Anna Sale  15:42

Oh, I I love that story like, I’ve thought back on it so many times because, you know, in our relate in our relationships with our family, often we remember when they said the wrong thing.


Kate Bowler  15:53

You know?


Anna Sale  15:55

It doesn’t know no familiar, Anna. And this was a moment where my dad just said the total right thing, which was, you know, I was calling my parents right after sort of establishing that I was going to get divorced. And I was like, crying. I was alone in my apartment. It was like that call to your parents where you finally say, like, I need some care. You know, I talked to my mom first and she said, you know what, it’s late and she’s like, let me get your dad and I can hear him like rolling over in bed and like, he gets on the phone and he had had a first marriage before I was born before he married my mom. And he just said, I know exactly how you feel. And he just described you like, you probably are exhausted and you can’t sleep like just that feeling of like, Oh and it was just like, exactly the thing that made me feel like I could curl up in the fetal position and need care, you know?


Kate Bowler  19:40

Yeah, especially when someone who could embarrass you like builds the bridge. And then you’re both, they’re both people in that moment, I love softy dads.


Kate Bowler  20:24

The premise of your wildly popular podcast Death, Sex and Money is that you draw into the light, those uncomfortable topics that polite people feel would render them in polite. I don’t mean for this to sound like an overly large question, but like, what have you discovered about people secrets and fears and hopes when we do drag them into the light? What do you think happens? When there’s like that uncovering?


Anna Sale  20:52

One thing I thought a lot about as I was like, writing the book, because when you’re doing the work of the interviewer, it’s all sort of.


Kate Bowler  20:59



Anna Sale  21:00

Yeah. And it’s, it’s just, it’s a conversation and you’re exploring together and, and then it’s like, you can hear in their voice, something is happening. So it was only in writing the book to go like, well, what does happen? Like, what what is that feeling that I’m hearing when you hear someone surrender something or let go of something or we’re feel heard? You know, I’m, I’m not a mental health professional, I’m not a therapist, I’m not someone who who can offer, oh, you’re struggling with this, here’s what might help. Like, I’m not offering anything other than listening. And I think what I’m hearing is that feeling that I felt when I decided I could get divorced, it’s that feeling of like, like, I’m gonna admit that this is part of me, or I’m going to admit that there’s parts of me that have felt uncertain about this, that I feel conflicted about or, and it’s, it’s just letting things be messy, letting ambivalence just be and not feeling like you have to have everything buttoned up. I think that that is, that’s tackling stigma, that’s tackling isolation. These conversations don’t fix whatever is the hard kernel of something that’s causing someone pain, but it means that they don’t have to hold it only by themselves.


Kate Bowler  22:21

Because some of the people I talked to, you know, they are priests. So they are or pastors or they are offering absolution in some way and others are, yeah, therapists and mental health professionals and they’re offering, engage listening and often advice, your approach, it reminded me of a rich friend Graham Griffith, he would say, maybe that we are structuring genuine inquiry. Like there’s like you’re setting up the possibility for discovery, and insight, and maybe even surprise, with all of your elbow questions, but like a, like the big heart just to let it land?


Anna Sale  23:00

Yeah, I like what happens in an interview, when you just explain at the top like, I mean, I have to do this with with our show. It’s called Death, Sex and Money so for someone who’s not aware of this program, I’m like, don’t be alarmed.


Kate Bowler  23:18

I am so sorry to report to you now that your podcast called.


Anna Sale  23:24

Yes, I’m delivering that news and then I’m saying, here’s why it’s called that our show looks at what all of us go through and can sometimes the things in life where we can feel the most alone. So I might ask you about things that are personal. I will ask you about things that are personal, but it’s in that spirit of sharing, and someone listening might be helped by hearing you share. And then I will say something like, If I asked you about something you don’t want to talk about publicly on the podcast, that’s fine, but that’s what that’s the sort of spirit. And what I think that does is it moves into what you were just saying that spirit of like, inquiry together, like we’re, we’re co creating something instead of this dynamic, which I think a lot of people bring to encounters with journalists is like, what are you trying to, like, get me to say that you’re gonna use in a way that, you know, I didn’t intend or, you know, or am I going to be interrogated here? And it’s like, no, no, no, we’re gonna have this conversation. And I will often start a question like, this might not be exactly right. Or I might have the wrong read here. But when that happened, did you feel this way? You know, and then they’ll say, yeah, we’re no not at all and then you’re sort of just building this thing together.


Kate Bowler  24:36

I imagine that friends often feel that way when they’re like approaching the sort of searing hot center of truth is they’re like worried that like they, like we crave intimacy, but it does feel very close to get a card to get closer and closer to the difficult center of things. I wonder whether it It’s easier or harder to tell the people closest to us about those difficult core truths. Do you find that your outside harness can like open up something maybe others haven’t been able to articulate before?


Anna Sale  25:14

Yes, absolutely. I think it’s much easier to talk to a podcast host about your interior life than it is to talk to your partner, your sister or your parent, you know, because the stakes are different. You know, but I, I also think it’s its closeness and then it’s also like, what are the patterns that you have in that particular intimate relationship, you know, like, you might have a friendship, where it’s all about sort of being positive, and cheerleaders and feeling like you’re in each other’s corner. And that can feel incredible. And it also can be tricky, when you are seeing things differently, or there’s something that has happened that you feel weird about, you don’t know how to bring up. And then there are really close relationships where it’s kind of like, it’s all out on the table. I talked to someone at the during part of part of my reporting, and I was describing my family, my family’s mostly from the American South, you know, we’re very polite and nice and sometimes that gets expressed with through kind of passive aggressive, indirect communication. And somebody said to me, Oh, my family were massive aggressive, okay that’s true, that’s not good or bad. It’s different you know.


Kate Bowler  26:41

I always crave the kind of intimacy that a question asker like you engenders, I love it, when somebody is able to maybe say the awkward. Like, whenever I have a scan, I’m always unbelievably uncomfortable if it’s good news or bad news, if it’s bad news, it’s, it’s terrible and it’s just awful to talk about if it’s good news, I immediately may be embarrassed that I was as nervous about it in the first place, or worried that people will immediately rush to thinking that it will, you know that the next scan after that won’t be worse than the last stop worrying about me and then I’ll be left alone so either way, I’m like a mess to talk to. I want though, the person who, knowing that I’ve got like heavy scripts on both sides, I’m so grateful. Either way, is able to just like press in, even with their presence to make enough space to say the harder more complicated truth. I find your kind of long form. Intensity to be like such a such a gift, and also maybe rare, rarer than I thought to do better than I would have expected I don’t want to be like look there Anna, there are two kinds of people people want to be in the deep end, people want to be in the shallow just want to return to like childhood Anna, who I picture now is like, what’s the Adam family daughter, which is a serious, serious bangs. She’s like, I need we need to talk about death, sex and money. Like just got some guys like willing to level the game. Do you think that some people just have this very high capacity for the deep end and other people and are bored by the alternatives, right? Or, and there’s other people who just like, are are just better at the weather and long form? less intense conversations? If so, what’s the breakdown?


Anna Sale  28:47

Yeah, I mean, I find, like, certainly, I think there are people who like to keep it light. You know, they’re, they’re good time, guys, you know, good time, gals and that’s fine. Like, they’re fun to be around, and then there’s people who like me who like, you know, I’m a person when I do get to go to dinner parties I miss them a lot. When I do get to go to dinner parties I love to make a new friend and I will learn a lot about that one new friend.


Kate Bowler  29:15

So you will, I know you will, Yes.


Anna Sale  29:18

You’re like you walk away and you’re like, did you know is third cousin had leprosy? I did not.


Kate Bowler  29:25



Anna Sale  29:26

I know, and I that feeds me and like, I feel like I have learned as I’ve gotten older, that maybe that person might want to talk to some other people at the dinner party too, sort of try to recognize that it’s, you know, a relationship and they might want to mingle. But I also think that like finishing a book about talking about hard things in the midst of a pandemic in isolation from all of my work colleagues, and with two little kids. It was hard, I found I do have a limit of talk thing about hard things. It’s been actually this interesting learning process of like, how do I get? Where else can I get energy, if like the going deep and hard starts to just feel like I’ve done that too much, it’s been really delightful to like, get into making cookies with my kids or, you know, remembering that you can go on a walk and notice the flowers and not have to make it a phone call catch up with somebody that you haven’t talked to, for 45 minutes, who’s also a parent of young kids who’s also struggling. Those are good but also, I can pace myself. So I do think it’s like, recognizing that, that can also have its own sort of challenges, like, depending on what’s going on in your life, like, I imagine, when you’re leading up to a scan, it might be a little different to be recording a podcast episode, if you’re holding, worry about, if this happens, this, and if this happens, that and that, and then trying to talk to somebody else about their own, you know, the thing that you really care about, but you’re also carrying something, same time.


Kate Bowler  31:15

I like that you’re trying to talk me out of my belief in the inherent superiority. The endless depth of conversation, because I do love those people and this, you know, this podcast community is like, full of them because so many of us are either like the people in the thick of hard things, or we’re like the, you know, the caregivers and the wonderful, like people with really emotionally expensive loves, in some way. And it sounds like the permission you’re giving to that part of the population is like, it is okay, to ease up. Is it okay to have frivolous television show? It is okay to not catch up with every person. Else, I’ll think I’ll think about it and I’m not convinced, but I’ll think about it. For those of us who are not deep tip people, not the deep end, people, they’re over in the other nicer side of the pool, where they can sit on the edge? Do you have any advice for people who might want to start practicing having harder conversations in their life, there’s maybe some, some, some lighter skills that they can develop, they can start to feel a little more comfortable.


Anna Sale  32:32

Yeah, I mean, I, I think, and I’ve had to practice this myself like, it starts with being aware with when you catch yourself wanting to say something comforting, like, it’s going to be okay. Or I’m sure we can figure out a way through this, or immediately go to the like, you know, somebody’s talking to me about being frustrated about some work thing or some money thing in their life, I am one of those people who immediately will go to will send me your resume, I hope up you know, like, and that that’s a useful and loving impulse is like, how do I make you feel better? But what,  that does is you’re short circuiting what they’re trying to express to you, they’re trying to express a feeling. And the reason that I immediately go to like, what is the thing that I can offer that will stop the bleeding here and help them what’s the, what’s the thing we can do? That’s an impulse that I have, because it makes me uncomfortable that my friend, or the person I love is sad. And so just instead of immediately go into the comforting thing, to just take a breath and say, Oh, I’m so sorry, that this sounds so hard. And then maybe they, they might need your solutions. But you’ve, you’ve allowed them to have a little space, you know, so that’s like the listening piece, which is actually really hard for the it’s a skill and a muscle you have to build because most of us aren’t taught to be great listeners. And then I think if you’re if you’re someone who it’s hard to start a conversation about something that’s been difficult for you, I have been really helped by a friend of mine who she she just introduced me to the idea of like both and like I, you know you so often when we’re giving a report to somebody about how we’re doing we want to be like, everything at work is great, these great things are happening and these great things are happening and I feel great. Or I’m having a really hard time because since this this, this this, you know and it can you can feel like you’re sort of like here’s my progress report, thumbs up or thumbs down. And I have this wonderful friend who also is raising little kids and like, has a big life and she’s just like, oh, both and both, both glorious and also really hard. Fine, like just allowing that can be true. And then you can you can do sort of like, Oh, I’m not like giving some huge verdict on how I feel about how my life is going, that’s really heavy. I’m saying like, this is something I at once, like, feel okay about how this is going, but I’m noticing this, you’re you’re sharing, what you are doing is you’re letting this person you’re talking to into what you’re going through, instead of narrating what you’re going through.


Kate Bowler  35:25

That’s nice.


Anna Sale  35:27

And that’s what I think like true intimacy is it’s like, come along with me as I figure this out.


Kate Bowler  35:33

Less full book report. Yeah, that I think people would probably feel a lot more comfortable starting with there’s a little investment a little of that just to like wait, waited, as opposed to like, welcome to the winter my discontent? Yeah no, that was an Ethan Hawk reference, that’s I felt really, really good about.


Kate Bowler  36:13

It seems to people are feel so freighted by their differences right now just like climbing the exhausted by their differences and like political and religious and your responses to the pandemic, all these things immediately come to mind and you gave this lovely example in your book about George and his stepdaughter about maybe a moment of of possibility for change that you found really touching? I wouldn’t I’d love to hear about it.


Anna Sale  39:34

Yeah, I love them I was reporting this book mostly during the Trump administration. But I think the political environment and the political sort of feeling of like how do we talk to people who are different than us has just gotten harder. And Pam is the stepdaughter of George. George, is in his 80s he’s a retired tool and die maker in Michigan and she is a life coach and the Bay Area. And you can sort of like picture with their politics might be just based on those demographic details. But they also had a really difficult history like when Pam’s mother, Mary George, and they moved into George’s house, they didn’t get along and it was really tough. And Pam, wanted out of the house had no warm feelings for George didn’t they just really didn’t have a close relationship in her adulthood. And then, Pam’s mother George’s wife developed dementia, and got to the point where she could no longer live at home. So Pam had that experience of like, oh, wait, this this person we both love and both want to give care to? It’s now not not in the home anymore. Now, when I come to visit, do I stay at George’s house? When my mom’s not there? You know, so that alone was shifting the relationship?  So so they talked about that, she did George said, of course, you’re going to stay when you come see your mom, early on what during her one of her first visits to George’s home when her mom wasn’t there, there was a Trump rally nearby. George’s was a Trump supporter at the time, Pam definitely was not and they were just like Serena felt like surrounded by their political differences and they’re, they’re not made up, like they have different values that get expressed differently politically. But what George said to her is he turned to her and said, Pam, I just want you to know, our relationship is more important to me than politics. And she said, well, thank you, George, you know, and it was just this establishing principle of we are in this. Let’s acknowledge that there’s politics swirling around us, but like, we’re going to try to protect this thing. And so they would do things like, Pam, notice, George didn’t announce this but Pam noticed that he wouldn’t watch to Fox News when she was in the house. And they would watch Family Feud instead, they watched a ton of family.


Kate Bowler  42:04

I’d amazing metaphor, and I love it.


Anna Sale  42:06

Amazing, right? Like, so it became a joke, they would joke about Family Feud. And then cam could even joke when she was leaving the house, she’s like, you can turn on some Fox News, you know, so so they could acknowledge their differences in a loving way. And then they actually created space for them eventually, to get to the place of George could be like, I don’t understand these sanctuary cities like tell me why why is San Francisco doing this? And they could talk about it without a sort of sense of like, let’s debate this and fight each other to the ground and instead be like, huh, and then she could say the same thing to him, how could you and they could talk actually and be curious about one another. But again, they they established that the relationship was most important. And then that relationship was there when Pam’s mother died, so they could be with each other. In their grief, you know, in their grief was different, you know, George lost his companion of decades, and was really sad. And Pam, felt, you know, a sort of reliefs  was felt the release of her mother not being suffering and suffering anymore. And also was really overwhelmed by the feeling of healing, that being able to be with George and her mother, because of her illness had brought into her life so, they could be with each other as they had these not the same emotions around grief, but they could be with each other through it.


Kate Bowler  43:36

That’s so beautiful. It also sounds like there’s like, three steps to what we think of as the steps like if, as an academic, I always want to be like, but asking the right questions will be the first step. Like that’s not what you’re saying. It’s just like, establishing that there is something beautiful or valuable worth protecting sounds like it was one of the first steps just saying this is, this is important to me.


Anna Sale  44:02

Yeah, and I mean, I think that that is a really important step. It’s like whether you’re saying, I have something I want to talk about, and you want to create that space to have a slower, more intentional conversation instead of like, bringing something up when you’re, you know, unloading the groceries or something and it’s just tossed off.


Kate Bowler  44:22

It’s like ambush inquiry inquiry.


Anna Sale  44:25

Yeah, to be intentional, it sets you both up both the person who’s like surprised by the need for the conversation and for you, if you’re initiating the conversation for a little bit more success. And then, you know, you could also do it the way George did, which is to be like, I’m feeling it, feeling a dynamic here, and I just want to establish, while you’re here, our relationship, I just want you to know our relationship is more important than politics. So it’s, it’s kind of like seeing, you know, what are the things three steps sort of above ground level to just say I’m so glad you’re visiting. And I want to I want to know what’s going on with you. It’s like giving a mission statement to the heart conversation. Instead of being like, Mom, are you on medicine that you haven’t told me about? You know, which is.


Kate Bowler  45:16

Totally that you told me about, which is now sounding like an accusation?


Anna Sale  45:20

Well, instead of that, it’s saying, like, it’s saying, here’s why I’m asking this, I’ve noticed this and this, like, are you? How are you doing? Have you been you know, you are you seeing the same doctor? And they’re just like, tell me and the reason I’m asking is because I’m worried about you, you know, if it just kind of breeding that space for I’m here to listen, you know, and it’s okay. I don’t know if all parents are like this but I know my parents are like this, they have this feeling of I don’t want to burden you. So I find that I often want to say like, it’s most important that I know what’s going on with you because I love you, you know, and you’re not, I don’t want to be protected. Yeah, you know, repeat that a lot.


Kate Bowler  46:06

You also do something so nice with your voice, though and I wish I could bottle. But it feels very, it feels warm, but kind of neutral the way or the way you’re letting it land. I don’t know how to like make you talk about your own voice because no one can talk about their own voices just like really aware that when you say it, like Oh, it doesn’t sound pointy.


Anna Sale  46:30

I think that’s what you’re hearing. It’s not conscious for me. But I think what you’re hearing is, when you say something that’s not like about a digital, it’s like infused with pity or something like that, it’s that idea again, of like, I’m making space for you, you get to tell me what the situation is.


Kate Bowler  46:51

And you’re not pre gambling a lot because I when I get nervous, or if I’m approaching I feel this all the time in interviews is, if I’m approaching a hard question, I begin to explain it more. So worried that they’re gonna feel sad answering it. So then all of a sudden, since the dawn of time, man has sought something like, woa, I gotta, I gotta get to the question. I do think the fact that you keep your questions nice and short and a little a little lighter on the end, feels it feels good to hear it that way.


Anna Sale  47:25

Hmm, yeah, what I do, if I have that nervousness, I now will say, I’ll say something like, now, again, this, this might be too personal. But I’m wondering, X. So I’m both saying, here’s a little signal that this is an also, I want your positive consent. You know, I want you I want you like you don’t have to answer this. But and then I have like, sort of set it up where I can say, does that make you angry? You know, that instead of like, that must have made you so angry or whatever? Like, I don’t know, I’m trying to get them to sort of like, say more like that’s my question, say more.


Kate Bowler  48:10

Podcasts are notoriously visual medium. So I what I wish people could see do is that when you say that you like flagged like you just like waved your hands and all all up in the air. I think that’s like such a lovely way to think about like, inching up to the hardest part is like just a little wave, like, I hope to start talking about this doesn’t make you know, I’m doing it. I would do something like this, I would do it like don’t feel like you have to answer if it’s too personal. But I was I noticed that blank, sounds like you’ve got a bunch of these good. Prefaces to like a hard thing that would be good for for all of us to practice when we want to get up close.


Anna Sale  48:54

Yeah, and to apply it to a personal life conversation, it would be something like that, it’s just indicating I’m thinking about what your emotional experiences here too. I’m not just plowing ahead so it’s like, when you’re having an argument with your spouse, you say something like, I hear you getting frustrated with me here. But what I’m trying to like say is the you know, like, it’s it’s trying to say like I’m listening. I’m not just like, trying to fight when things get heated or sped up, or, you know, we get flooded. So much of it is for me, it’s I noticed that happens when I don’t feel like I’m being heard that’s when conversations go off the rails with me I’ll get defensive, I’ll get like short, I’ll want to shut down and stop talking, you know, but if someone’s continually saying, I’m seeing, there might be some emotions here. And I might hit you know, but what about this, you know, like, I’ll just be like, Okay, I’ll try to stay in it with you I’m trying here.


Kate Bowler  49:55

Yeah, and that’s the heart of it Anna, makes me we won’t call you Anna banana, you were like, you’re like cheerleading, the process of just saying, I won’t always know exactly what to say, because there’s not a great script here but I will stay in this with you, and I, it’s all over your work and in your book and in your podcast and in who you are. And I feel really lucky that you did this with me today, thank you so much.


Anna Sale  50:22

Oh, thank you for having me. It’s a real honor. Can I ask you one question?


Kate Bowler  50:27



Anna Sale  50:28

Before we go, you said, I have these two feelings about scans. And I have these sets of feelings if it’s going to be negative, and these sets of if it’s not great, if it’s if it’s good news, I have these sets and I, I want you said like, I like those conversations where it’s like, the soft middle. And I’m just wondering if somebody has said a thing that feels nice when you’re in that place.


Kate Bowler  50:51

Someone said something perfect, in this last scan they said it was before it happened when I was nervous about it. They said, either way, I can’t wait to hear because we can do this together. And like it had a nice little note of anticipation like either way, this is this is all I want to hear about. That felt like it didn’t I didn’t have to pre have that conversation. We could just have it in real time.


Anna Sale  51:22

It’s really nice, was that person a journalist? They’re like, send me the breaking news.


Kate Bowler  51:29

Oh, my gosh, and all my favorite people are journalists. You guys are brave in a way that I just love. It’s so scary, so scary to be around, but I like it.


Kate Bowler  51:54

This is such a hard one. These kinds of connections are never easy. How do we begin to love or even connect with someone who is so different? How do we bridge these gaps? The topic, the politics, the sheer awkwardness, only highlighting the cracks in the ground under our feet. So can we bless these unnatural moments when we need so much more than talking points when we need a special kind of grace? So here’s a blessing then, for hard conversations, for awkward moments, for a moment when you need to feel especially good at this very unlearned task. Here we go. Bless it are we who want to be part of the wild and beautiful experiment to find a common humanity? Who desire to come willingly into the gap that separates human from human? To love that family member or friend or colleague who feels like a stranger right now? Especially the one you really don’t understand, or secretly want to set straight? Bless it, are we willing to stay in the gap. In the contradiction of what we can’t understand, to actively work on disproving our own intuitions about one another. In order to begin to see what they see. Bless it are we swimming upstream against the current of our own frailty, our fears and emotions, and willing to be wrong for a second to reconsider and to hold our integrity with kindness. Desiring to see the lay of the land and play the course, instead of the one we wished it could be. And to discover that humility is what makes love possible. Make us brave, make us brief, make us full of incredibly implausible love to make these hard moments soft.


Kate Bowler  54:12

Here’s the part where I get to thank everyone who makes this work at the everything happens initiative possible. Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, Duke University, Duke Divinity School and faith and leadership an online learning resource. Thank you for your generous support. And my team. Jessica Ritchie, Harriet Putman. When Higginbotham, Jesse Broome, Keith Weston, JJ Dickinson, Karen and Jerry bowler. Jeb and Sammy. Your gifts make this work shine. I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens.

Spoil Your Inbox

Pods, news, special deals… oh my.