Healthy Conflict: Books on Communicating

I buy books for the non-fiction section, specifically in the 100s (in Dewey Decimal numbers, this means philosophy, psychology, spirituality and self-help). Sometimes this means that I see books or buy books in my section that send me down a rabbit hole of discovery; most recently I accidentally ran across a 2008 self-help book called Feeling Good Together by David D. Burns. Burns popularized Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which can make a big difference in the treatment of depression and anxiety, and in this book he gives his advice as a therapist on how to build better relationships with our family and friends. He focuses mostly on the principles of good communication, and how to talk to each other to build more trust, goodwill, and understanding.

I really liked how evidence-based it was, citing lots of examples of actual patients he’d worked with and how their problems had developed and been addressed in therapy. I also appreciated his realistic outlook. He was never afraid to point out times he’d also said the wrong thing, which made it easier to believe his recommendations for good communication. And as recommendations go, they’re kind of hard to swallow: first, you can only focus on changing yourself and the way you think and respond to people. There’s nothing you can do to change the other person you’re clashing with, and trying to change them will only make them dig in their heels and fight back harder. If you change yourself, your perspective and your approach to them, however, they’ll feel more able to meet you halfway as you express humility, respect, and open-mindedness. The most important thing you can do, he says, is to acknowledge how they’re feeling and find some truth in what they’re saying, while sharing, respectfully, how you’re feeling. It’s surprisingly hard to do! Luckily he includes lots of exercises, tables, and journal prompts to help you practice. He also devoted a lot of time at the beginning to discussing whether improving the relationship is really what you want or need, which also shows his realistic understanding of people.

It was a fascinating read, with some helpful concepts, and it made me look for more books on how to resolve conflicts and build better relationships. Here are a few published more recently that touch on similar themes, which I think are also worth checking out:

High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out by Amanda Ripley

Compassionate Conversations: How to Speak and Listen from the Heart by Diane Musho Hamilton

Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How We Heal by Benjamin E. Sasse

Empowered Boundaries by Cristien Storm

De-escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less by Douglas Noll

Buddhism for Couples: A Calm Approach to Relationships by Sarah Napthal

We Have to Talk : Healing Dialogues Between Women and Men

We have to talkHave you ever thought it would be fun to be a fly on the wall during an interesting conversation? Reading the book We Have to Talk : Healing Dialogues Between Women and Men by Janet Surrey and Samuel Shem is like being a fly on the wall during couples therapy. I find it fascinating how our cultural differences are shaped by gender. Understanding between women and men is often lacking (sometimes comedically, sometimes painfully so). The authors of this book hope to change that.

Surrey and Shem are psychologists who are also married to one another. They have been conducting workshops for married men and women for over 30 years.  Their method, put simply, went like this: first, they invited couples to gather together for a weekend workshop. Fifteen people showed up to the first one: 9 women and 6 men. This included four couples and seven individuals whose partners chose to stay home. First, they gathered as a group to talk. Then, Samuel took the men to a different room while Janet stayed with the women. This is when things started to get real. The group participants shared the honest truth about their relationships among their same-sex peers, where they didn’t have to worry about hurting their partners’ feelings. Finally, they re-convened in the larger group.

What happened next was life-changing. The workshops led the psychologists and the participants to some valuable discoveries about themselves and each other.

They came to the conclusion that even though men and women generally want the same outcome from the relationship (connection), they tend to go about achieving it in vastly different ways. Not only that, but the way in which women prefer to connect (talking to their partners) has the exact opposite of the intended effect.

Women: have you ever been talking to a man and get the sense that he isn’t really listening? Men: have you ever found yourself at the mercy of a seemingly never-ending conversation, getting more and more anxious and trying to figure out some way to get out of it? The authors call this “male relational dread.” According to the authors, men often feel threatened and want out of a conversation with their partners about the relationship as quickly as possible. This often has the effect of leaving the woman feeling abandoned, then angry. Her male partner feels ashamed that his actions have upset his partner. When he tries to reconnect, his active attempts to do so (often in the form of physical touch) are received with- you guessed it- the opposite of the intended effect. The woman feels like she is being taken advantage of and wants out of the situation as quickly as possible.

How are couples to find a way to connect when their attempts to do so are by vastly different methods? Surrey and Shem attempt to answer that question. The key seems to be giving the relationship it’s own identity. It is almost like giving it an anthropomorphic quality. That is to say, whether or not the couple has children, it is helpful to think of the well-being of a third entity – the “we” – in the relationship.  When problems arise, approach it by asking the question “What does the “We” need right now?” rather than from a first-person perspective (“Here is what I need…”) The authors refer to this as “mutuality” and they have found it can make all the difference.

To learn more, check out We Have to Talk : Healing Dialogues Between Women and Men by Janet Surrey and Samuel Shem.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber & Mazlish

how to talkIf you have ever felt like the words you speak are falling on deaf ears, you may want to check out How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

The book is addressed to parents, mostly, but I have found the suggestions presented are useful in many other contexts, too. Teachers will no doubt find them useful, as well as anyone who wants to work on their communication skills or has ever had to deal with difficult people.

The authors learned many of their principles of effective communication from their teacher, Dr. Haim Ginnott, of Columbia University. They went on to hone their approach over many years through their experiences as parents and teachers.

The following principles are taken from Dr. Ginnott’s approach:

  • Never deny or ignore a [person’s] feelings.
  • Only behavior is treated as unacceptable, not the [person].
  • Depersonalize negative interactions by mentioning only the problem. “I see a [broken lightbulb].”
  • Attach rules to things, e.g., “[People] are not for hitting.”
  • Dependence breeds hostility. Let [people] do for themselves what they can.
  • Limit criticism to a specific event—don’t say “never”, “always”, as in: “You never listen,” “You always manage to break things”, etc.
  • Refrain from using words that you would not want [anyone] to repeat.
  • Ignore irrelevant behavior.

The book presents these ideas using amusing vignettes of common scenarios and how best to handle them. If you like this book, you may also be interested in the following by the same authors:

Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too  

Liberated Parents, Liberated Children

Between Brothers & Sisters: A Celebration of Life’s Most Enduring Relationship

How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk