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Examples of How Not to Get Into an Argument

Self-motivation examples

In a recent article, I talked about how not to get into an argument. This article picks up on that topic with examples of arguments being headed off by use of non-violent communication.

THEM: Why do you always try to run everything? [This sounds like anger or irritation, and we might guess that the person needs to feel a greater sense of control, or else some recognition.]
YOU: Are you angry because you don’t feel you’re getting a say in what we do tonight?
THEM: Of course I’m angry–duh! I just don’t want to go to that same stupid restaurant. It’s so loud there, I can never hear anything you guys are saying. [Success! This could have turned into an argument about whether or not you do or should always try to run everything; instead it’s turned into a discussion of the relative merits and problems of different restaurants.]

THEM: I can’t believe you made me another stupid sweater!
YOU: You sound angry that I made you a sweater.
THEM: I’m not angry: I’m embarrassed! [Good try with the “angry” thing: even though it was a wrong guess, you now have the information you need.]
YOU: So you don’t feel comfortable wearing the sweaters I make you out.
THEM: I’m sorry, but they’re just not my style. They make me look like an eight-year-old.
YOU: I can understand why you don’t want to look like an eight-year-old.
[At this point, since you have feelings too, and since the other person’s needs have been addressed at least a little, you might be successful in getting the other person to understand how you feel by telling them exactly what your emotions are and what you need–and being careful not to disguise accusations as emotions or demands as needs.]
YOU: I feel really sad now. I put a lot of work into that sweater. I wanted you to know how much you were on my mind.
THEM: Well, crap, I’m sorry. But I really don’t want to look stupid! [Here the other person is showing a little bit of worry that you might not have heard after all. You can reassure the other person that you have.]
YOU: I would have chosen another pattern if I had known then what I know now.
THEM: It’s really sweet of you to put all that time into it, though. [Feeling comfortable that you’ve heard and understood and accept what has been said, the other person now has an easier time looking out for your needs.] If you still want to make me one next year, maybe we could just talk about the style first.

Obviously there’s a lot more that could happen in either of those examples, but I hope they serve to illustrate how these things can work. I must say that I’ve been using this approach for more than a decade now, and I feel it is one of the absolute most useful things I have ever learned in my life. I have used it to work out child custody arrangements, to get back on track with coworkers who are freaking out, to help my son feel understood and supported, to get better service and a bit of real human interaction in stores and restaurants, and in any number of other situations. Here’s hoping that sharing these ideas with you, or at least pointing you to Dr. Rosenberg’s much more thorough treatment of the subject, will offer you some of the advantages I’ve reaped from it myself.

Photo by Search Engine People Blog

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How to Not to Get Into an Argument

Handling negative emotions

If you ask people what their favorite thing about the winter holidays is, one of the most popular responses is “family.” But if you google (for instance) “worst thing about Christmas,” one of the most common complaints–right up there with overcommercialization and the stress of having too much to do–is also “family.” Holidays sometimes throw us into difficult, uncomfortable, or undesired situations, and they sometimes provide a perfect setting for everyone to regress and get in arguments.

But arguments and other clashes with family and non-family alike are mostly avoidable Taking a few pages from Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s time-tested and surprisingly practical system called Non-Violent Communication (as described in his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life), here’s a nutshell version of a way to stop arguments before they start.

Only one grown-up needed
You might very reasonably have the concern that no communication method will help if the other person is acting like a nincompoop. If so, you may be relieved to know that non-violent communication can help solve problems regardless of how emotionally mature the other person is acting. Anger, fear, irrational accusations, complaining, and depression are all perfectly OK for the other person to present, as long as you can swing being the grown-up in the conversation.

Listening with compassion
Heading off arguments begins by listening a different way. It’s easy and natural to listen to what people say to us–especially when they’re talking about us–and to think of their words as being about ourselves. If someone says “Why do you always try to run everything?” or “Didn’t you even stop to think how he would feel about that?” or “I can’t believe you made me another stupid sweater!”, the obvious thing to do would be to think of what those things mean to us and respond with something like “If you ever got off your butt and helped, I wouldn’t have to run everything!” or “Don’t my feelings count too?” or “I slave over this gift of love for thirty hours, and this is how you repay me?” If you respond this way, unfortunately, you are then in an argument.

My mother used to always say “It takes two to fight.” Skipping right over my smarmy childhood comebacks, I’d like to point out the usefulness of this statement: one person can shout, threaten, insult, or complain, but if the other person responds compassionately, then there is still no argument. In an argument, two or more parties go back and forth, each saying things that add fuel to the fire. If either person takes another approach, the argument eventually gutters out.

Here’s how to listen compassionately: accept whatever the other person says–even if it’s unkind, unfair, or untrue–as an offer of information.

What you’re trying to find out–the information you’re trying to glean–is these two things:
1) What emotion is the other person feeling? (Be careful what you consider an “emotion”: this list can be useful to sort true emotions out from false).
2) What essential thing does the other person need? This doesn’t mean what they want or are asking for, necessarily, but rather what deep-seated need is being brought up.

When you think you may have figured out the answers to those those two questions in conversations, try to say them back to the people you’re talking to so that they understand they’ve been heard. If you need more information in a particular conversation, ask questions to get that information.

Don’t worry about guessing wrong about someone’s emotional state or needs: generally speaking, if you offer a kindly-meant attempt at understanding how someone feels, they will automatically correct you if you’re information’s wrong, giving you exactly what you need to defuse the argument.

Sometimes people will keep spouting negative comments or repeat the same point over and over in a conversation even when you make it clear you understand where they’re coming from and care about their needs. This generally means nothing more than that they have a backlog of anxious feelings about the topic at hand, and/or they don’t feel confident that they’ve been heard. Patiently continuing the process we’ve talked about should in most cases eventually allow these situations to wind down.

I’ll continue this topic in my next article with some examples.

Photo by Peter Gene

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How Trust Is Like a Bank Account

Habits

It’s true that relationships with other people are not at the center of habit formation: habits form within our individual brains. Yet our relationships with others still influence how our habits form in a huge number of ways: other people can

  • support or undermine our efforts
  • provide a positive or negative example
  • distract us
  • buddy up with us, making habit formation easier
  • be part of the habit we’re trying to change (for instance, if the habit in question is about how we treat others)
  • provide vital information or training, as with a mentor
  • affect our mood through interactions
  • affect our overall happiness based on how healthy our social connections are
  • and so on.

With that in mind, it appears likely that any significant improvements to our relationships with others will tend to aid us in forming habits we want, breaking habits we don’t want, and reaching goals.

To that end, I’d like to pass on a metaphor from Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. While Covey’s book isn’t particularly research-based, he provides what seems to me a useful take on how we approach our lives. Covey’s metaphor is this: trust, an essential basis for constructive relationships, is like a bank account. Says Covey,

An Emotional Bank Account is  a metaphor that describes the amount of trust that’s been built up in a relationship. It’s the feeling of safeness you have with another human being.

If I make deposits into an Emotional Bank Account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping my commitments to you, I build up a reserve. Your trust toward me becomes higher, and I can call upon that trust many times if I need to. I can even make mistakes and that trust level, that emotional reserve, will compensate for it.

Part of the utility of this idea, for me, is in offering a simple approach to getting inside someone else’s point of view in a relationship. If someone else is behaving toward me in a way I don’t like, for instance, there’s a good chance that there’s a trust problem between us. What has my interaction been with this person? Have I given them reasons to trust me and be glad I exist?

Of course relationships are a two-way street, and we can’t always rely on other people to take note of the deposits we’re making, but since we can’t control other people’s thoughts or actions (one reason why worrying about how things “should” be can be so emotionally destructive for us), one of the most empowering things to do in relationships is to try to gauge our current emotional bank balance. Is there a good fund of trust stored up in that account? Or are a few healthy deposits needed to prevent overdrafts?

Photo by Andy on Flickr

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What Do Divorce and Malpractice Suits Have in Common?

The human mind

What do divorces and malpractice suits have in common?

My current reading is Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book about the power and perils of responding from the gut. Early in the book he examines some clever research into divorce and some other clever research into malpractice suits, which together help illustrate one surprising principle.

The divorce research is something I’ve heard about and been fascinated by before. John Gottman, a research psychologist at the University of Washington, has developed methods for analyzing a brief conversation between a married couple on any subject that has been a recent difficulty for them. Gottman’s researchers, incredibly, can predict with 95% accuracy whether or not the couple will still be together in 15 years–without knowing their history, common interests, finances, love life, how long they’ve been together, family relationships, or anything else.

The malpractice research is just as fascinating. You might imagine that the doctors who get sued most for malpractice would be the ones who make the most mistakes, yet this turns out not to be the case at all. The biggest predictor of malpractice suits is a bad relationship with the patient. That is, doctors get sued much less for screwing up than they do for being disliked!

The common element between these two kinds of relationships–between spouses on the one hand and doctors and patients on the other–is respect, or lack of it.

How to predict divorce
Gottman’s researchers are trained in SPAFF (specific affect) coding, which involves recording a person’s attitude or emotions on a second-by-second basis. Using cues like word choice, tone of voice, expression, and body language, they record how a subject seems to be responding moment by moment throughout a conversation. The biggest indicators of divorce are what Gottman calls “the Four Horsemen”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. And it’s contempt (and its close relative disgust) that is the most powerful and reliable signal of a doomed marriage.

To put it another way, as long as both partners feel as though they’re getting a reasonable amount of respect–that their spouses are not looking down on them but rather holding them in some esteem–the marriage will tend very strongly to do well. As fond as I am of the Beatles, it appears that all you need is not so much love as it is respect. (With that said, I highly recommend love as well.)

How not to get sued
Getting back to doctors, it turns out that people tend to sue doctors when they feel those doctors look down on them, have little regard for them, or treat them poorly. Acting superior, ignoring the patient, trying to rush through with the minimum amount of contact, or dismissing patients’ concerns are all dangerous behavior in this respect. Statistically, if you are a doctor and you have made a terrible error but have treated the patient kindly and respectfully, you’re much less likely to be sued than a colleague who has made only a minor error but who has alienated the patient.

I won’t go into how Gladwell shows respect applying to car salesmen and their customers, but by now you can probably guess how that works.

Using respect for personal benefit
All of this gives me one simple, clear principle to apply in my own life: the single most important thing I can do to improve my relationship with other people–whether they’re friends, coworkers, customers, family, service providers, police officers, strangers I run into on the street, or anyone else–is to try to find things about them I respect and let that respect show. Whether I want to be married to the person in question or just want to help ensure they don’t sue me (or both), the lesson seems to be the same. Relationships being as complicated as they are, simple principles for making them better are a heck of a boon.

Photo by wajakemek | rashdanothman

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Communicating Emotions: Useful Words

Resources

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life offers an invaluable method for helping to resolve conflicts constructively, whether you’re directly involved or not, and even if you’re the only person there who knows anything about it.

Among the resources offered on the Nonviolent Communication Web site at http://www.cnvc.org/learn/resources is a list of words used to describe emotions. These are valuable in any kind of communication about feelings partly because of how tricky it sometimes is to convey exactly how we feel to another person and partly to help us differentiate between emotions and judgments (see the article preceding this, “The Difference Between an Emotion and a Judgment“). Here is that list, also available at http://www.cnvc.org/Training/feelings-inventory .

Feelings when your needs are satisfied

AFFECTIONATE
compassionate
friendly
loving
open hearted
sympathetic
tender
warm

ENGAGED
absorbed
alert
curious
engrossed
enchanted
entranced
fascinated
interested
intrigued
involved
spellbound
stimulated

HOPEFUL
expectant
encouraged
optimistic

CONFIDENT
empowered
open
proud
safe
secure

EXCITED
amazed
animated
ardent
aroused
astonished
dazzled
eager
energetic
enthusiastic
giddy
invigorated
lively
passionate
surprised
vibrant

GRATEFUL
appreciative
moved
thankful
touched

INSPIRED
amazed
awed
wonder

JOYFUL
amused
delighted
glad
happy
jubilant
pleased
tickled

EXHILARATED
blissful
ecstatic
elated
enthralled
exuberant
radiant
rapturous
thrilled

PEACEFUL
calm
clear headed
comfortable
centered
content
equanimous
fulfilled
mellow
quiet
relaxed
relieved
satisfied
serene
still
tranquil
trusting

REFRESHED
enlivened
rejuvenated
renewed
rested
restored
revived

Feelings when your needs are not satisfied

AFRAID
apprehensive
dread
foreboding
frightened
mistrustful
panicked
petrified
scared
suspicious
terrified
wary
worried

ANNOYED
aggravated
dismayed
disgruntled
displeased
exasperated
frustrated
impatient
irritated
irked

ANGRY
enraged
furious
incensed
indignant
irate
livid
outraged
resentful

AVERSION
animosity
appalled
contempt
disgusted
dislike
hate
horrified
hostile
repulsed

CONFUSED
ambivalent
baffled
bewildered
dazed
hesitant
lost
mystified
perplexed
puzzled
torn

DISCONNECTED
alienated
aloof
apathetic
bored
cold
detached
distant
distracted
indifferent
numb
removed
uninterested
withdrawn

DISQUIET
agitated
alarmed
discombobulated
disconcerted
disturbed
perturbed
rattled
restless
shocked
startled
surprised
troubled
turbulent
turmoil
uncomfortable
uneasy
unnerved
unsettled
upset

EMBARRASSED
ashamed
chagrined
flustered
guilty
mortified
self-conscious

FATIGUE
beat
burnt out
depleted
exhausted
lethargic
listless
sleepy
tired
weary
worn out

PAIN
agony
anguished
bereaved
devastated
grief
heartbroken
hurt
lonely
miserable
regretful
remorseful

SAD
depressed
dejected
despair
despondent
disappointed
discouraged
disheartened
forlorn
gloomy
heavy hearted
hopeless
melancholy
unhappy
wretched

(c) 2005 by Center for Nonviolent Communication
Website: www.cnvc.org Email: cnvc@cnvc.org
Phone: +1.505.244.4041

Note: If you read my previous article, you may have noticed that the list and I disagree on the word “hurt,” but regardless it seems to me that thinking about words that carefully can be a great help, whichever side of that question you would choose.

Photo by Saad Kadhi of a sculpture by Bruce Krebs

Feelings when your needs are satisfied

AFFECTIONATE
compassionate
friendly
loving
open hearted
sympathetic
tender
warm

ENGAGED
absorbed
alert
curious
engrossed
enchanted
entranced
fascinated
interested
intrigued
involved
spellbound
stimulated

HOPEFUL
expectant
encouraged
optimistic

CONFIDENT
empowered
open
proud
safe
secure

EXCITED
amazed
animated
ardent
aroused
astonished
dazzled
eager
energetic
enthusiastic
giddy
invigorated
lively
passionate
surprised
vibrant

GRATEFUL
appreciative
moved
thankful
touched

INSPIRED
amazed
awed
wonder

JOYFUL
amused
delighted
glad
happy
jubilant
pleased
tickled

EXHILARATED
blissful
ecstatic
elated
enthralled
exuberant
radiant
rapturous
thrilled

PEACEFUL
calm
clear headed
comfortable
centered
content
equanimous
fulfilled
mellow
quiet
relaxed
relieved
satisfied
serene
still
tranquil
trusting

REFRESHED
enlivened
rejuvenated
renewed
rested
restored
revived

Feelings when your needs are not satisfied

AFRAID
apprehensive
dread
foreboding
frightened
mistrustful
panicked
petrified
scared
suspicious
terrified
wary
worried

ANNOYED
aggravated
dismayed
disgruntled
displeased
exasperated
frustrated
impatient
irritated
irked

ANGRY
enraged
furious
incensed
indignant
irate
livid
outraged
resentful

AVERSION
animosity
appalled
contempt
disgusted
dislike
hate
horrified
hostile
repulsed

CONFUSED
ambivalent
baffled
bewildered
dazed
hesitant
lost
mystified
perplexed
puzzled
torn

DISCONNECTED
alienated
aloof
apathetic
bored
cold
detached
distant
distracted
indifferent
numb
removed
uninterested
withdrawn

DISQUIET
agitated
alarmed
discombobulated
disconcerted
disturbed
perturbed
rattled
restless
shocked
startled
surprised
troubled
turbulent
turmoil
uncomfortable
uneasy
unnerved
unsettled
upset

EMBARRASSED
ashamed
chagrined
flustered
guilty
mortified
self-conscious

FATIGUE
beat
burnt out
depleted
exhausted
lethargic
listless
sleepy
tired
weary
worn out

PAIN
agony
anguished
bereaved
devastated
grief
heartbroken
hurt
lonely
miserable
regretful
remorseful

SAD
depressed
dejected
despair
despondent
disappointed
discouraged
disheartened
forlorn
gloomy
heavy hearted
hopeless
melancholy
unhappy
wretched

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The Difference Between an Emotion and a Judgment

Strategies and goals

One of the hardest things to do in an emotionally heated conversation or argument is to communicate well about ourselves without encouraging the person or people we’re talking with to feel defensive. A particularly dangerous trap is trying to express an emotion and instead coming out with a judgment.

False emotional language
For example, there’s the common phrase “I feel that …” Because the word “feel” is involved, it’s easy to believe that a sentence starting this way is about an emotion–which is not the case.

For instance, if “I feel that this is unfair” is were to convey an emotion, what is that emotion supposed to be? Unfairfeelingness? Maybe there’s a word for that in German, but it’s not an emotion regardless of language. If I’m not happy with how something was done and believe it to be unfair, then I might be feeling vulnerable, resentful, disappointed, shocked, disturbed, indignant … actually, I might have any number of emotions about the situation (my next article will provide a list of emotional vocabulary, in case you’re interested). But “I feel that this is unfair” (whether or not we include the word “that”) is really a less clear way of saying “I think that this is unfair” or “It’s my judgment that this is unfair.” Not only does it portray something (unfairfeelingness) that’s not an emotion as though it is one, but it also fails to communicate the actual emotion, which could be any of the ones I listed, something else altogether, or a combination of emotions.

Here are some other examples of emotional-sounding language that isn’t actually describing the speaker’s emotions:

  • “I feel used”
  • “I’m hurt that he said that” (“hurt” means “damaged” or “wounded”: we have emotional reactions to being hurt, but saying that we’ve been hurt, emotionally speaking, is an accusation rather than a description of our own condition)
  • “What you did was upsetting” (which is closer to expressing an emotion, but can mean that what was done is likely to make people upset rather than that the speaker is necessarily upset)
  • “That’s disgraceful”

Different places for judgments and emotions
I’m not saying there’s no place in the world for judgments. If you’re in charge of something or someone, judging is an important process of clarifying whether or not things are going as you want them to go. You may judge that it was a bad idea for your child to have watched TV instead of doing homework, or that you would have been better off not going to the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. A policeman may judge that someone has violated a traffic law (although that person still gets their day in court), and a boss may judge that a worker isn’t performing well.

You may even want to judge someone else’s behavior for your own benefit to decide how to act toward them or whether or not to imitate them. Or you might express a judgment about someone else’s behavior to someone else or to the person in question in hopes of making an impression. Of course, this sometimes backfires, especially when speaking to the person being judged.

In most of our interactions with most people, we at best can only hope to influence the situation. We’re not usually in charge of our friends, acquaintances, people we see on the street, people we see in traffic, our siblings, and so on, and acting as though we are in charge tends to create problems rather than solve them. In these situations, if we want to truly communicate in hopes that the other person will understand and take our feelings into account, it becomes important to express how we actually feel rather than just what we think or judge.

Photo by Joe Gratz

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Mental Schemas #12: Subjugation

Handling negative emotions

This is the twelfth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

A person with a subjugation schema feels an overpowering obligation to submit to another person’s will, to be told what to do and be judged by someone else. Often such a person will believe in their heart that they need to do what another person says in order to be loved, valuable, etc., and/or will be afraid that they will be judged harshly or punished if they don’t fall in line.

Or a person may have the schema and act out because of it, accusing others of trying to be controlling when this isn’t the intention, or rebelling against other’s wishes regardless of the individual’s own feelings.

As a result, having the subjugation schema means burying or ignoring one’s own needs, desires, inclinations, judgments, and beliefs–whether this is happening due to giving in to others or to being preoccupied with rebelling against others, as in both cases the person with the subjugation schema is reacting to others’ needs, desires, and actions instead of their own.

A person with this schema may also assume other people are trying to take control or may tend to put them in positions of control even if they don’t want to be. Another common pattern with this schema is first complying with what someone else wants, then resenting “having to” do that thing. A person with this schema may have an overwhelming feeling of being trapped.

A typical way for a subjugation schema is to develop is through an overly controlling parent.

Overcoming a subjugation schema
As with other schemas, idea repair can be a key tool in overcoming a subjugation schema. Statements like “I have to do ____” or “I should do ___” are usually variations of “should statements,” which make it seem like something is necessary when it’s really only one of the available options. Thoughts about what will happen if a person doesn’t comply with what another wants are often fraught with magnification and fortune telling instead of being a true assessment of the likely results. Other kinds of broken ideas can also apply to this schema.

Communication is another a key skill for dealing with these issues. If a person wants to become more assertive without being destructive, it’s important to understand how to express one’s own thoughts and emotions without running over those of others. Two excellent books for learning how to resolve conflicts through communication are Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High and Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

Mindfulness is an important and powerful tool in overcoming subjugation schemas. In order to act on one’s own thoughts and emotions, it’s important to be in touch with those thoughts and emotions. This is also something that’s needed as a basis for idea repair.

Over time, the goal in overcoming a subjugation schema is to learn to recognize, value, and respond to one’s own thoughts, emotions, and needs, so any progress is becoming more aware of one’s own feelings, getting perspective, being constructive assertive, or communicating better will help.

Photo by Grufnik

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When Is It Time to Make a Change?

Handling negative emotions

In my recent article “Dealing With Problems That Can’t Be Fixed,” I promised to follow up with a discussion of things that can be changed. If a situation is bad, there are circumstances in which we can’t do anything about it–for example, for most of us the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill was such a situation (although even in instances like this we’re not completely powerless, as I’ll discuss in my upcoming article on ways we can affect the world). When we have little or no opportunity to change a situation, then in a way the situation is no longer our problem; instead, our challenge is to address our own feelings about the situation, as discussed in last week’s article.

But what about situations where we do have some control, influence, or future prospects? If you hate your job, does that mean it’s time to quit your job, or time to change your attitude toward your work? (See “6 Ways to Be Happy at a Job You Don’t Like“). If you’re having a lousy marriage, does that mean you should divorce, or that you should work on finding ways to be happier together? If you’re failing your first year of college, should you stay even though you think your chances of succeeding are slim or quit?

Questions that point the way
Although there’s no one simple answer to questions like these, often it comes down to one of three options:

  1. Stay and work on it
  2. Stay and reconcile yourself, or
  3. Leave.

These choices don’t apply to every single situation, but they do to most. Which one we choose depends on questions like the ones that follow. Asking questions like these helps us focus on key issues about our situation.

By the way, it’s best to answer these questions out loud–whether to yourself or while talking with a friend–or in writing, since this will lead to more specific, focused responses than quiet thought would do.

  • Do you have direct control over or responsibility for the problem? Note that this includes situations that feel out of control but that you are the sole actor in, such as eating habits or organization.
  • If you don’t have control, do you have some direct influence? Is there someone you can talk to, a request you can make, or an action you can take to encourage things to go in the right direction?
  • If you don’t have direct influence, do you have indirect influence? For example: if you want to be promoted, are there things you can do to stand out better at your job? If you want to be picked for a team or performing group, can you expand your practice schedule?
  • How much does this problem really matter? This isn’t always the same question as “how much do you care about this problem?” because it’s possible for us to get really worked up about things that may not necessarily be very important. (See “How emotions work“)
  • How much impact will your efforts be likely to make? If you’re worried about a situation in your neighborhood, you’re likely to be able to have more direct impact than if the problem is national or international, for instance. This doesn’t mean that you should only direct your efforts towards small or local things, only that it’s worth considering how big your contribution can be.
  • If one or more other people are involved, are their aspirations the same as yours? If they’re not, are you necessarily in conflict, or is it possible there might be an approach that could work for everyone, or at least for more people than the existing options would help? I’m not talking about compromise here, although I don’t deny that has some value in its place, but instead about getting away from the idea that when two people don’t agree, they necessarily have to duke it out. An excellent resource for learning how to work with someone who’s opposed to you is psychologist Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Another great book for navigating difficult negotiations is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. If you’re really interested in learning how to make constructive solutions in the midst of conflicts, either or both of these books can be invaluable.
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Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time

States of mind

In other posts on this site, I’ve talked about ways to stop having a bad day, for instance through music, idea repair, and emotional antidotes. In their recent book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, Tom Rath and Jim Harter of the Gallup Group (the organization whose research on strength psychology I talk about in my recent post “Should We Maximize Our Strengths or Minimize Our Weaknesses?“) offer a way to greatly increase our chances of having a good day: increasing social time.

According to Gallup’s research, socializing matters. Six hours a day of social time, according to Rath and Harter, greatly increases our chances of having a good day–that is, feeling happy and thriving. “When we get at least six hours of daily social time, it increases our wellbeing and minimizes stress and worry … each hour of social time quickly decreases the odds of having a bad day. Even three hours of social time reduces the chances of having a bad day to 10%.” (Emphasis is theirs.) Social time seems to have a powerful effect on stress levels, even for introverted people.

Six hours seems like a lot, but apparently what helps us in terms of social time is to simply interact with other people in some direct way. Among kinds of social time available to reduce stress, Rath and Harter include talking on the phone and exchanging e-mail. Time spent communicating with other people at work seems to count just as much as time at home or elsewhere.

This may not necessarily be good news for those of us whose work tends to be solitary. For instance, full-time writers or computer programmers may find it difficult to find six hours a work day in which to communicate and be social, since only a small amount of the time in either of those jobs (especially non-book research for writers and meetings for programmers) can be social. Most of the work in those and many other jobs gets done alone, and communicating with other people while doing it makes it next to impossible to be productive.

This suggests that it’s especially important for people whose work is solitary to go out of their way to find social time if they want to be happy and reduce stress. Living with someone you like rather than living alone seems an especially important step. Other possibilities include dinners with friends, exercising in a social setting, having lunch with others instead of alone, and increasing communication with family and friends.

Photo by MorBCN

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How to Tell If Someone’s Interested in You, and Other Powers of Body Language

The human mind

A couple showing body language

I’ve gotten a chance to talk to middle schoolers a lot lately, and inevitably this subject comes up: someone wants to ask someone out, but isn’t sure if that person likes them.

“Why not just ask?” I say.

“Because I’ll be in school with this person for years,” I’m told. Or: “Because it’s a good friend of mine and I don’t want to make it weird if they don’t like me.” These are really good points, I’ve had to admit. Who wants to make things awkward with someone they know they’ll be seeing on a daily basis for the next five years? It’s the same problem an adult faces with a co-worker, for instance. What you really want in a situation like this is the ability to read minds.

Fortunately, that’s entirely possible.

How to read minds
Most people seem to realize that you can sometimes tell things about people by their body language–that someone with arms crossed over their stomach is feeling defensive, or that someone who turns away while talking to you isn’t interested. What’s amazing is how much more you can learn about people around you, how many signals you can pick up, if you begin to learn body language in detail.

Body language isn’t made up of absolute, definite signals. For instance, when someone says something and then touches their nose, that usually means what they’ve said is not true, or that they have reservations or misgivings–but not always. Sometimes it might just be that the a stray piece of dust made their nose itch. We can’t take any single gesture or expression as an absolute indication of anything–which is why Allen and Barbara Pease in The Definitive Book of Body Language talk about looking at sets and series of gestures instead of just trying to interpret one gesture alone.

With that said, some gestures are surprisingly reliable. If you learn to read body language clearly enough, when you walk down the street it’s as though little information bubbles are popping up over everyone you meet: she’s really interested in him, and he knows it but doesn’t feel the same waythat guy doesn’t want to talk to anyone … those two people are having a really honest conversation, but neither of them is worried.

Better than asking?
In fact, sometimes body language reveal more than direct answers to direct questions. That’s the premise of the TV series Lie to Me, which doesn’t exaggerate the effect too badly and uses very good information to inform the body language they use in the episodes.

To get back to my middle school friends, the suggestion I gave was this: walk up to the person you like as though you’re going to ask an important question, then say hi. If you’ve done a good job of looking like you’re going to ask something important, the other person will probably have a reaction: crossed arms over the chest usually means feeling threatened, possibly from not wanting to be asked an awkward question; turning away usually means that the person isn’t interested, or wants to get away; a smile that you can see even around the eyes means real happiness; leaning forward or turning toward you tends to mean they’re interested in what you’re going to say; a lopsided expression usually means sarcasm; and so on. The great thing about this approach is that you don’t have to actually ask the question. If you just give the impression that you have an important question for them (which you do!), they’ll usually give you some sense of how they feel about that possibility.

Quick pointers versus careful study
Of course, you can tell a lot more about what people are thinking if you study body language rather than just going with a few pointers, but either way, far more of our thoughts and opinions are out there for anyone to read than most of us realize.

If you’re interested in learning about gestures, expressions, and body language, I highly recommend the Peases’ book. I also have to say that I think a lot of Lie to Me from the four or five episodes I’ve seen so far, even though in the show experts often explain things that they already know to each other to clue us audience members in; I hate to see writers do that, although I can understand why they resort to it here. It’s like saying “As you know, professor …”

And if you’re wondering what all this has to do with self-motivation, there’s this question: how often do we hold back from doing something just because we don’t know what someone else thinks about it?

Photo by Ian Sane

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