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

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

When it comes to finding a new book to read, I’ve finally figured out what my favorite genre is. I love thrillers. Give me a story with a well-developed plot line, fully fleshed out characters, and make sure the story is gripping. Psychological thrillers with a hint of crazy and a lot of suspense are my go-to novels. I recently stumbled across another B.A. Paris novel called Behind Closed Doors and since I liked another of her novels a lot, I decided to try this one.

Behind Closed Doors messed with my head, but in a good way. This book is a perfect illustration of the fact that what we present to the world is not our true selves. Jack and Grace are the perfect couple. He has the wealth and the good looks to back it up, while she exudes charm and elegance at all the dinner parties they throw. You just can’t help but like them and maybe even wish your own relationship was like theirs. Their life is so well put together and perfect.

There’s only one small hiccup: Grace and Jack are never apart. He does go to work, but Grace is never seen anywhere without Jack. While some may say it’s because they are still in their newlywed period and are madly in love, others may find it odd. Grace doesn’t work, in fact she gave up her job shortly after they were married, but she never meets up with anyone for lunch or coffee. She has a plethora of excuses. The parties they throw are so extravagant and decadent, but Grace’s figure never changes. In fact, she is incredibly tiny. Grace doesn’t own a cell phone and all emails are sent to Jack’s email. She leaves the house with an empty purse, their house is gated and immensely private, and there are bars on one of the windows. What is really happening between Jack and Grace?

All those factors are overlooked because he is so kind and doting, while she is such a fabulous cook and fantastic gardener. Jack has even agreed to let Millie, Grace’s special-needs sister, move into their house when she turns 18. He’s designing her perfect and most-wished-for bedroom and wants the house to be just right when she moves in. He keeps mistakenly saying her bedroom is red though, when her favorite color is yellow. Why? What is going on? There are just so many slightly off comments and strange facts that point to some area of conflict within their marriage, but their perfect façade trumps all.

Without saying too much and giving away a major portion of the plot, I found this book to be terrifyingly psychological. Paris succeeded in getting in my head and had me wondering what was happening in Jack and Grace’s marriage and why each respective character behaves the way that they do. I was unsettled throughout this book because the story that Paris weaves is so believable. I found myself questioning the relationships of the people around me. I was immediately gripped by this novel and finished it in two days. Definitely recommended.


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