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