By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
LA JOLLA, California–So much anger in Washington, such acrimony and hatred out of control! What is happening to normally rational people to push them over the edge and make them act out? We read about fanatics and zealots in Africa and in the Middle East, who are extreme in their views, bent on killing, whose passions for a cause or a territory or a religion send them into a frenzy of irrational behaviors.
As a child, I remember feeling murderous against Hitler, but I have not had the wish to kill since then. Perhaps, if my home were threatened, or my family, I would defend them to the best of my ability, but I would always opt first for a peaceful meeting to discuss differences. I believe in civility—a word which, like the civil behavior it describes, has fallen into disuse.
The lack of civility in America today, is one of the factors of the breakdown of family life, unethical practices in business, and dishonesty in politics.
Civility is civilization at its best. It is control over one’s negative impulses, delay over the desire for instant gratification. It is the antithesis of “letting it all hang out,” it is the quest for calm, for rationality as opposed to shouting incendiary remarks.
Civility is the opposite of unbridled passions, the opposite of rhetoric or lies. It is more than mere politeness, it is the knowledge that personal well-being and the pursuit of personal goals cannot be separated from the well-being and goals of others, whether members of our family, our friends, our organizations, or our country.
Civility requires listening to others with an open mind and responding with an open heart. It requires knowing ourselves: our tendency to manipulate others, to serve our own interests first. Civility is learned at home by example. Children observe their parents in interaction with themselves and others and they imitate.
We are not born civil. We are born to grab from others, to hit the child whose toy we want, to have tantrums when we are denied a wish. Parents are the first teachers of civility, then schools continue when they do “time out” for unruly behavior in the classroom or the playground and never allow bullying.
Civility should continue in the place of work where people are respected whether the relationships are among peers or up and down the hierarchy.
Next time you feel anger and wish to strike out either physically, verbally, or emotionally, ask yourself whether you can predict the outcome of the lashing out as something positive. In other words, will that other person see the light, be convinced, and change the behavior to suit you? Perhaps all you want to achieve is to make the other person feel bad, guilty, hurt, punished. Will vengefulness make you feel better in the long run, or will a postponement of your reaction to a calmer time when discussion can ensue be a wiser choice?
Civility is a sign of true maturity, so let us resolve to remain civil no matter what the circumstances, to be aware of what triggers us to spin out of control and help others do the same by projecting calm, attentiveness, and thoughtfulness, understanding others’ points of view even when disagreeing with them. Allowing them to think differently from us is the road to world peace.
A Different Lens
by Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
One of my hands
is being held
who agrees with me
and I smile
and feel comfortable
My other hand
is being held
who disagrees with me
and I sigh
and feel challenged
because I have an opportunity
to see the world
through a different lens
I am given the chance
Preceding column and poem appeared previously in La Jolla Village Voice
By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
LA JOLLA , California –The newspapers are full of traumatic events—from wars to fires to floods to earthquakes, civil unrest seems to be everywhere, all contribute to understandable paranoia. I started thinking about the kinds of fears we all experience and have categorized them under three different types.
First, there is what I call the personal fears: the everyday kind of anxieties that many of us experience, usually as a foreboding that does not pan out. For instance, every time my husband was late coming home, I immediately visualized him in a car crash or having a heart attack, usually alone on a deserted road. Or if he was at a meeting in a hotel or an office building, I visualized him lying ill on a lobby floor. When I know that my children are flying, then there is the plane crash anxiety. Now that all of our grandsons are old enough to drive, I worry about their driving with friends (I read that the more kids there are in a car, the more likely an accident will occur). The personal fears can also be mild anxieties about a talk to be given at a conference or concern about the forthcoming dinner party where the mix of guests won’t work and the food won’t be good and the weather won’t cooperate.
Obviously being anxious about events that probably won’t happen is unpleasant and bad for our immune systems; feelings of anxiety impact our health. So instead of planning for a worst-case scenario, we should try to let go of the negative thoughts and think only about positive outcomes. If this is difficult, occupy your mind with tasks that need concentration. Being physically active also helps.
Then there are the universal fears—the kinds we’re all afraid of: getting sick, dying in pain, having Alzheimer’s (every time I misplace something I think, “This is it, dementia has set in!”), having a spouse die or dying before a spouse and leaving him or her bereft, or burying a child. Universal fears are shared by most people and are part and parcel of being human. In some parts of the world, fear of hunger is predominant, in others it may be fear of droughts or floods or of locusts, fear of war or civil unrest. In other words, there are realistic fears which may come to pass and about which we have little control except to prepare for disaster whenever possible. I go to the doctor for checkups and have a bag of emergency supplies in case of an earthquake.
The third type are the global fears:. These are fears of buildings bombed, water reservoirs being poisoned, houses of worship being burned, germ warfare, economic collapse, war, and now even fear of pirates. Fear of the dizzying challenges we face as a species in the next few generations.
I worry about our grandchildren’s children—with coastal flooding seemingly inevitable due to global warming, by mid-century, where will those millions of newly homeless go but more inland—inland into already overcrowded places where they will not be welcomed—will there be strife or will there be a solution before it actually happens? What about our coming water shortages? What will happen if the aquifers are eventually drained? Here in San Diego, we are planning for desalination plants—a good thing!
These are the global fears, those that threaten our planet and about which we can prepare with wind farms, solar panels, artificial lawns, alternative fuels, new vaccines, recycling, going green, and generally making our voices heard for better planning for the inevitable problems that may occur not in our lifetime, but in the lifetimes of our descendents: leaving a legacy of a viable earth.
And so whether our fears are personal: just some of us—universal: that’s most of us—or global: that should be all of us, we need to acknowledge the reality of those fears and deal with them by being there for each other and there for all of us—all of us inhabitants of the same home.
Josefowitz is an author and freelance writer based in La Jolla, California. This article appeared previously in La Jolla Village Voice.
By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
LA JOLLA, California– It starts in the morning: Voice 1: “Get up!” Voice 2: “I’m still sleepy.” Voice 1 impatiently: “You’ll be late for work!” Voice 2, pleading: “Five more minutes.”
It goes on at breakfast: Voice 1: “Whole-wheat toast and fruit!” Voice 2: “There’s a doughnut left in the fridge.” Voice 1: “It’s all fat and sugar!” Voice 2: “Just this once.”
And so the voices continue throughout the day with every decision we have to make—from “Shall I walk up the three flights to my office or take the elevator?” to “Shall I criticize my colleague’s report or let it go?”
We all have many voices that send us very different messages—there is a worrier voice that always says “Be nice, don’t make trouble,” another that tells you to have fun and forget about the consequences, and an often loud one that is always ready to criticize: “You shouldn’t have, you’re stupid, don’t believe that compliment, you haven’t tried hard enough, it is not good enough, you’ll never make it.” etc.
It is important for all of us to identify the different voices in our heads so that we can decide which ones to listen to and when, and which ones are too critical or too inflammatory or too protective. Among all the static, there is a self, an inner core, the ego that is the decision maker, who decides what voices will be listened to and which will be told to shut up. When facing a decision, ask yourself which voice of yours seems to be loudest, and then pay attention to the other one too.
The voices sometimes do not get heard in time—like when we lose our temper and then regret it, the rational voice too soft to stop us, overshadowed by the stronger voice of emotion. Generally, the emotional voices are louder than the voices of reason. Emotions flood us, we react impulsively, unable to lower the volume of the hurt, the anger, the frustration. Remember the advice of counting to ten before responding? It is to give time for the emotional voice to quiet down and allow the rational one to be heard.
It is the emotional voice that gets us into trouble, yet it is a voice that needs to be taken into account. It gives us clues as to what is going on inside of ourselves. People who have shut down their emotional voice cannot connect to these voices in others and thus may be missing important information as to the emotional climate around them. People who have dimmed their voice of reason are prone to the seesaws of their feelings, buffeted by the both ill winds and soft breezes of emotional ups and downs.
If you watch and listen to people, you will be able to figure out which voices control them and you will be able to better predict their behaviors. Knowing this will also help you find the best ways to communicate with them and to appeal to their predominant ways of thinking.
And if you can figure out what your voices are trying to achieve, you’ll never again say, “I don’t understand why I did (said) that.” You’ll be able to blame that mischievous voice of yours.
Josefowitz is an author and freelance writer based in La Jolla. This article appered previously in La Jolla Village Voice
By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
LA JOLLA, California — Yes, it’s possible to make yourself happy even when you’re not feeling it. Some things you should know:
• Contrary to popular opinion, satisfaction with life increases with advancing age.
• On average, men and women experience emotions similarly, even though women have more fluctuations between positive and negative moods.
• Married people are happier than unmarried people, but people in unhappy marriages have lower levels of happiness than unmarried or divorced people.
• Most people who face a serious tragedy, such as an illness or loss, return within a year to their former level of contentment.
• Conversely, people who win the lottery or have a successful experience revert to their former level of satisfaction. Studies show that we are genetically programmed to live within a fairly narrow range of possible happiness. An inherited positive attitude will help a person in dire circumstances to deal with these events in a more positive way.
This said, we are not stuck in that range for life, just as many other genetic tendencies are influenced by our environment, so is our potential for feeling and expressing negative or positive emotions. In other words, the same news may impact me positively, you negatively, and someone else indifferently. However, if my life is made up of mostly good events and a supportive environment, even if I’m programmed to look at the down side of life, I will be able to overcome this to a certain extent.
Even though there is much that is not within our control, there are significant variables we can influence. That is, we can learn to control our thoughts and feelings; we have control over how we feel over the past, the present, and the future.
1. The past: Do you dwell on past grievances? Can you forgive the transgressors who caused the pain? Can you move on from past injustices?
Visualize the negative events while taking deep breaths and try to understand the perpetrator’s point of view. Create a story he or she might tell. Decide to forgive and move on. Sometimes writing a letter forgiving the person can help, even if you don’t intend to mail it.
2. The future: Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you always dwell on the worst-case scenario? The difference is that pessimists believe bad events are permanent while optimists think they are temporary. Also, pessimists overreact to adversity; expecting the worst makes them experience events as worse than they are. Optimists tend to see the world in positive outcomes and are able to get over negative events quicker. They are also more tolerant of their own foibles as well as those of others.
3. The present: Do you enjoy the moment, grateful for the sunshine, the good friends, the good meal, the good book you’re reading? Take a few minutes each evening to write three things from your day you are grateful for. Mine for today are my granddaughter called, I read a good book, and I walked on the treadmill for twenty minutes. Do you live fully today, not worrying about past misdeeds nor being anxious about an unforeseeable future? Of course we learn from past mistakes and prepare for the future, but it’s important to appreciate the moment.
Meditation calms the brain and physical exercise reduces stress. Adequate sleep and good nutrition are important factors in our feelings of well-being. If you feel cranky and out-of-sorts eat a piece of chocolate to boost your serotonin; peanuts, bananas, and turkey contain tryptophan, which has a calming effect. And, finally, laugh more—be with jolly people, keep funny things around, send jokes so that you will also receive them.
“Put on a happy face” is not an old wives’ tales. Research has shown that by changing your facial muscles you set off different physiological changes that will in turn affect your mood. Even when you don’t feel cheerful but you smile, the blood flow to the brain increases production of the neurotransmitters which make you feel happier.
So, if you can’t laugh, then smile, and if you don’t feel like smiling, fake it. Your brain won’t know the difference, and it will send you a message that something pleasant is going on. You might just believe it and feel better.
Josefowitz is a freelance writer based in La Jolla. Her column appeared previously in La Jolla Village Voice.
By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
LA JOLLA, California – One of our more difficult endeavors is to find a balance between being so challenged that we lose sleep over it and being so bored with a familiar routine that we are depressed.
What makes people satisfied with their lives is the opportunity to grow, gain mastery, and have some control over their lives. In other words, both challenge and autonomy are the two most needed ingredients for job satisfaction. A little child’s first sentence is often, “Me do it” and the aging residents in nursing homes who can make even trivial decisions live longer than those whose lives are totally regulated and prescribed.
People who cannot find challenge in the workplace look for it elsewhere in their hobbies. For those who are challenged beyond their abilities, failure is the only outcome; for those who are not challenged enough, boredom is the result. Pushing oneself to one’s limit cannot be sustained forever without stress and eventual illness. So when we go to the limit, it must be balanced with some respite. The optimum would be to work within a range of comfortable performance with intermittent pushes to higher levels of new mastery which, although difficult, remain achievable.
There are problems with both success and failure. With continued success, many people keep setting their goals higher and higher, so that they end up living their lives totally engrossed in their work, immersed in achievement to the detriment of family, friends, and health. These are the people whose names appear at the top of their corporations; they say it takes that kind of commitment to make it to the top.
In coping with failure, there are two options. One is to lower our expectations in terms of quantity (less of) or quality (not as good as). The other is to give ourselves more time to achieve our goals. Instead of this week, it can be next week, or if not this year, then let’s try again a couple of years from now. How all this translates into the world of work is important.
A supervisor or manager can keep checking with employees as to whether they are finding enough challenge in their jobs, whether they are learning new skills, and whether they also have enough success and enough time to perform routinely, giving them a rest from constant pressure.
Our language speaks of the need to stop a while and not always keep pushing: “Stopping to smell the roses.” “Enjoying the fruits of our labor.” “Resting on our laurels.”
Successful CEOs are those who can work with their staffs, providing enough excitement to motivate them without so much unrelenting pressure that they will burn out. In fact, “burn out” has become a common ailment, meaning too much challenge, either in the amount of work that needs to be done before a deadline or the too-high standards the work needs to meet.
Individuals too can learn to pace their activities in terms of their goals. There are several types of goals. Life goals such as “Someday, I’ll write a book,” yearly goals such as “By this time next year I will have achieved X,” and daily goals such as “I’ll have the bills paid by 5 p.m.” Each of them must have a realistic component and a time frame. Some are challenging, others are routine but must be done. Finding a balance for ourselves and for those who depend upon us means frequent reappraisals of those goals. Socrates said it best: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” This is also true for life outside of work. “Where are we going and is it still where we want to be headed” needs periodic re-examination.
When our three daughters, who all work fulltime, had school-age children at home, they were constantly exhausted and wished for less pressure. Our friends’ daughters who are stay-at-home mothers look for something meaningful to do outside of the family. Many of our friends who are self-employed, such as psychologists and consultants, bounce back and forth constantly between having too much work and worrying when there is not enough. It’s either too many clients or too few. Making a decision ahead of time as to how one wishes to lead one’s life sounds simple, yet, events take over, and we bend to circumstances often outside our control. So vision and flexibility are the key ingredients for a balanced life.
Socrates also said: “Know thyself.” He must have meant thy ambitions and limitations.
Josefowitz is a freelance writer and author based in La Jolla. This article previously appeared in La Jolla Village Voice
By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
LA JOLLA, California–“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” So starts the Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. That was 1859.
This is 2010, and it is the worst of times. We’re talking foreclosures and unemployment reaching double digits in California. We’re talking corrupt politicians and oil spills.
Besides the hard economic realities, there are psychological issues to be considered. There was a time many people lived to work as opposed to working to live. Those are the people who kept working beyond the retirement years even though there was enough wealth accumulated for several life times. Because so much of human identity is tied to the job, the role, the position, they are at a loss of what to do with their time. Loss of position frequently also means loss of colleagueship, loss of perks, loss of status. Controlling resources and people is heady, while time on one’s hands sitting at home, can lead to depression, especially for those who have been out of the house all of their adult lives.
And there are also the people who need to work in order to support their families—they work to live. This is not a matter of choice but of livelihood. Being fulfilled by your job is not a priority, making enough money is.
For some men, masculinity is tied to success; and for many, success means bringing home the bacon. The situation becomes even more difficult for some men if they cannot get work, and their wives become the main wage-earners. On the one hand, it is lifesaving to still have one earner in the family. On the other, it can be felt as demeaning or just bewildering for some men to become stay-at-home dads even if that is the best solution for the family.
And now, all of a sudden, the economy is dictating who will work and who is let go, who is looking for a job and who has given up.
So what is the solution? For the person who still was living to work and who was laid off but has the means to retire, finding volunteer opportunities in order to get involved with projects is the solution. It can be an opportunity to re-invent yourself, to change direction. For the person who had to work to make ends meet and who lost their job, there are several possibilities. One is retraining for another occupation—researching the job market , where people are still being hired. It could mean a longer commute or even moving to a different location. Chances are that you will make less money and will have to seriously cut expenses.
The devastation felt due to intense financial stress cannot be overestimated. Watching what was thought of as a secure future disappear has led to increased depression and even suicides. To make matters even worse, Bill Gallo, a research scientist at Yale University, has shown that older laid-off workers are twice as likely as those who still work to suffer strokes and heart attacks. Many don’t yet qualify for Medicare and cannot afford health insurance.
It’s indeed difficult to maintain a positive attitude while sitting in an unemployment office with no available work and going from a managerial position to a blue-collar job may not seem doable, but it is often the only opportunity that will be available with the new government push for infrastructure: rebuilding our roads, bridges, and schools.
Although the tendency is to withdraw from accustomed social interactions, it is important to maintain one’s friendships and to partake in activities that don’t cost—such as walking, or meeting friends at a park—or to find entertainment at a discount.
It is the people who don’t give up that find a way out. As hard as it is to keep a positive attitude in these dire circumstances, we must remember that we are a nation of immigrants and our ancestors crossed stormy seas and faced bleak futures in unknown and often hostile environments to learn new ways, work at jobs with no experience, and make it. If they could, so can we—after all, we have their genes.
This column appeared previously in La Jolla Village Voice
By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
LA JOLLA, California– This will be a bit complicated, but I think it’s an important insight, and it helped me. I recently received an award as “the most outstanding resident” from SCPH (Southern California Presbyterian Homes) at their annual meeting. Several SCPH communities sent in names of residents, and I was thrilled to be selected by White Sands. But that’s not the whole story. It was bittersweet, because when I came home there was no one to celebrate with me, no one to tell who would be happy for me. I really missed my husband, who would have been thrilled. I e-mailed my children, and they responded with perfunctory “That’s great, mom.”
So I worried that I’m a narcissist, always needing validation. I called a psychologist friend of mine who said something that really hit home. She said it is human to need validation, because every time we are noticed for some accomplishment we get a surge of dopamine, the feel-good hormone. Dopamine is a chemical compound found in the brain that transmits nerve impulses. It is part of the reward system of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment. It rewards good experiences, thus regulating emotion. Having had continuous surges of dopamine for the thirty-five years I was married to Herman, my brain misses that hormone.
I wonder whether one can be addicted to dopamine. If so, then I am in withdrawal, and withdrawal accentuates feelings of depression, looking for a fix that is not forthcoming and not understanding and underestimating the hormonal impact on our brains and our bodies. Conversely, when bad things happen, we get a hit of cortisol, the stress hormone, and it too impacts our brains and bodies.
The lesson to be learned here is the importance of noticing, of congratulating, of showing appreciation to our family, friends, and colleagues for their achievements, and of letting them do the same for us by sharing our triumphs and accepting their praise.
A few columns ago, I wrote that all children wear an invisible sign that says “admire me.” I did not realize that what it really said was “please give me a bit of dopamine,” and that we still wear that sign as adults.
When I used to give talks on male and female differences, I used to say that men think they’re OK unless criticized, but women think they’re not OK unless praised. Do women then need more dopamine to feel good than men do? Or are men in denial of their needs for dopamine? Or perhaps many women just have a harder time accepting the subtle acknowledgements given by those around us and therefore don’t hear the praise unless it is spoken clearly.
Many of us have had pets that died, and we mourned as if it were a person. Non-pet owners did not commiserate and did not understand the extent of the grief. I now think that what pets give us are surges of dopamine every time they greet us, happily bark or purr, every time we pet our furry friends. So when they die, we miss not only their presence, their constant companionship, but also the dopamine that they provided.
What is interesting to me is also the fact that we can get a surge of dopamine not only when we receive an accolade, a gift, a hug, but also when we give it. In other words, whenever I tell someone how well they look or how clever their remark was, I not only give dopamine, I also receive it.
So what this insight does for me. It makes me realize that I can look for ways of getting more dopamine, and it is not by sitting home alone and moping, but by actively reentering like with its pitfalls and rewards. I can get a surge of dopamine when I write, see a good play or movie, listen to music, read a book, talk to a friend, go for a walk.
What gives you pleasure, i.e., dopamine? Look for it, make it happen. Now I understand why volunteering increases our immune system—it gives us a fix of the reward hormone, why living in a community is healthy—it gives us the possibility of getting some of this feel-good hormone through constant interaction.
We can all try to look for ways to get some dopamine into our lives. By writing this, I just did.
Josefowitz is a freelance writer based in La Jolla. This article appeared previously in La Jolla Village Voice.
By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
LA JOLLA, California–There are gestures belonging to another time that we don’t use anymore. There were ways of functioning on a daily basis that would seem foreign today. We relied on objects now obsolete. We all have our lists of nostalgia.
I remember those wire baskets for the washed lettuce. We stood on back porches and swung them in large arm circles to get the water out centrifugally. To flush a toilet we had to pull on a chain, and I remember the day I grew tall enough to reach it by myself.
All men wore hats and tipped them to salute a woman in the street or kissed an extended hand. Ladies wore gloves, and girls curtsied.
There were no readymade clothes in Paris in the twenties, or anyway, none that my mother would buy, so there was always a seamstress living in a garret who would sew clothes we would pick from photos of runways, and I had to endure what seemed like endless fittings. Hats too, were made to order. And as for shoes, I remember the minutes we stood under the x-ray machines in every shoe store and watched our toes wiggle, no one suspecting that we were getting an unhealthy dose of radiation. Homework was mostly hours practicing good penmanship and every night our shoes were placed outside our bedroom doors to be found shined by morning.
We got a bath once a week, but bidets were used daily. Hair was washed once a month, rinsed with carefully accumulated rainwater and chamomile tea—to give hair a shine—with endless minutes of brushing, a ritual followed by sitting with wet hair on the balcony to dry in the sun.
Our sewing machine had a treadle worked by foot, and I liked to sit under it as a child and move the treadle up and down while my mother sewed. Our maid did the laundry using a corrugated washboard, then put the wet clothes through a ringer and ended up drying them on a line strung from wall to wall in the kitchen or outdoors when we were in our summer home. She also used to hang the rugs on the balcony and beat the dust out of them. Apparently the carpet sweeper did not do a proper job. We also used to air our clothes after they came out of mothballs. Springtime meant bright cotton slipcovers to go over the satin and brocade chairs and sofas. And whenever we went away for the summer months, mother draped the furniture in sheets.
We went either to the beach in Brittany or to the mountains in Switzerland. Husbands came on weekends and also took the month of August off when the whole of Paris shut down. We always went away with family and friends, so there were babysitters available when the rest of the family went on excursions too arduous for the children.
Cars and taxis had running boards for easier entry. I could use one now especially when getting into SUVs. Buses had a cord near the ceiling that we pulled whenever we wanted to get off. The cord activated a bell that rang by the driver. This was very efficient; the bus kept going until someone was ready to leave. Cobblestone streets were everywhere, and I remember when the first asphalt road was built to circle the city. How amazed we all were at the smooth ride.
We had an ice man that brought a large block of ice (to place in the correctly named “ice box”) that lasted all week, dripping slowly into a pan that was changed daily. We also had a coal man who threw coal down a chute under the building. His face was black with coal dust. We left empty glass milk bottles outside the kitchen door, and every morning there were eggs, butter, and milk with its heavy layer of yellow cream at the top.
Sundays, we took our dominical walk, Mother and Father ahead (the governess had her day off) and the children running behind with hoops, roller skates, and scooters. We always stopped for tea, a croissant with a bit of chocolate inside for my brother and me. We were also treated to one-penny black licorice rolled in a pinwheel with a little red sugar candy in the middle.
I don’t miss any particular thing, but I miss some of the forgotten gestures–the genteelness of the time. I miss the little girl with the long red braids tied with a large bow, the innocent age, the time between the two world wars.
I was six years old when Mother gave birth to my brother in 1933. I remember her saying that it was not a good idea to bring a child into the world at that time, as there were already ominous rumblings in Germany. Six years later, we were refugees in America, trying out new gestures, new behaviors, getting into new routines that our grandchildren will also remember with nostalgia.
Josefowitz is a La Jolla based freelance writer. This article previously appeared in La Jolla Village Voice.
By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
LA JOLLA, California– Potentially difficult conversations are the conversations we put off because we assume they will be unpleasant at best or escalate into acrimony at worst. And yet it must be done.
It can be anything from needing to tell an elderly parent he or she should stop driving (my mother got very upset and defensive with me when I said I worried about her safety) to telling a child you disagree with his or her school or career decisions, choice of friends, or even mate. It can be a concern about the way your children are raising their children (the usual advice is to say nothing) or about a spouse spending money unwisely. It can be telling a friend about a self-destructive behavior or giving employees negative feedback on their performances. In other words, you’re really not looking forward to that conversation. You’re uneasy about the ensuing dialogue. Too often, rather than bringing us closer by opening doors, talking can shut doors and drive us further apart.
How can we not only keep doors open but also have a dialogue that leads to a resolution comfortable for both parties? One of the biggest problems we have is to come to the conversation well prepared. I often have rehearsed what I was planning to say and how I was to say it and even imagined the other’s responses. This in itself is not a bad idea; the issue here is that we must be willing to forego our preparation and instead of being ready to talk, be ready to listen. Instead of just waiting for our turn to talk, we need to be able to drop our assumptions, change directions, step back, and hear the other without an immediate reaction or prepared opinion.
We need to learn not only to talk together, but also to think together, becoming equal partners in the dialogue. This is not always easy, especially if there is a power differential. It can be status (boss to employee), age (parent to child), it can be due to expertise, to wealth, even to better skills at communicating. You must be willing to:
- Listen without resistance.
- Respect the other’s different viewpoint by putting yourself in their place.
- Forego expressing your own opinion before listening to theirs.
- Speak to problem-solve and not to dominate or win an argument.
If your agenda is to talk the other person into a specific action, such as getting your parent to stop driving, the following steps may help:
- What has happened or is happening? E.g., your parent’s eyesight is failing.
- What feelings are involved? Their loss of independence and your fear of an accident.
- Change shoes. What would they do in your place? What would you do in theirs? Change roles and role-play a dialogue. The worst thing you can do is criticize or become defensive.
- Paraphrase: In other words, state how you believe they think and feel.
- Accept that not every difficult conversation can end with an acceptable compromise for both parties. There may be inevitable hurt feelings, but these can be mitigated by knowing one is understood, even if disagreed with.
- Finally, if you can’t prevent a conflict, and you’re unable to resolve it, then try to contain it by either letting go until another more propitious time or asking for a third party to mediate if this is acceptable to both. In the case of your parents’ driving poorly, get a doctor’s opinion and have them do a driver’s test.
Might there be any predictable or unintended consequences? In this case, it might be having to find alternative transportation, which is predictable, or that your parents would not wish to spend the money and would instead stay at home more, which would be unintended.
Putting off a difficult conversation does not solve anything except making you anxious about needing to do it as some future point. The only time it may be helpful to wait is when a problem has a chance of resolving itself in due time.
You won’t look forward to a difficult conversation if your plan is only to be heard, but you can look forward to finding out how the other person thinks, feels, and prefers to act. Then and only then will you be able to paraphrase their position, insuring that you have understood correctly and thus begin a true dialogue. Always being ready to either change your mind, compromise, or stick by what you believe is in the best interest of both parties.
Josefowitz is an author and freelance columnist who resides in La Jolla, California. This article appeared originally in La Jolla Village Voice.
by Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
I do it, all my friends do it, everyone I know does it. “We all say “yes,” “OK,” “I’ll do it,” when we don’t want to. It can be a favor for a friend, additional work for an employer, a helping hand to a co-worker, an errand for a relative, a committee we don’t want to sit on, a fundraiser we don’t want to attend. Why do we say “yes” when we really mean “no”? Do women do it more often than men? I believe they do.
After I have said yes, agreed, committed myself, I often regret it. By then, it’s too late. If it is hard to say no, it is ten times harder to say, “I’ve changed my mind.” So why do we do it?
Often it does not seem such a burden at the time. Many of us underestimate the time it takes to fulfill the added responsibility or else the deadline is weeks or even months away. I frequently accept to write a lengthy article or to give a talk “due next year.” But then that inexorable date arrives, and I’m frantically trying to fit it in with everything else I have to do.
Another reason is that it feels better at the moment to say yes to someone than to say no. None of us likes to be rejecting, and this is perhaps where the gender difference comes in. Women generally are more attuned to the needs of others, more consciously dependent on relationships.
Turning our back on a request feels like a rejection of the person, instead of just a denial of one request. It is not very different from the statement that women tend to personalize more than men. In other words, if a woman’s behavior is criticized, she feels like the criticism is an attack on her whole person, not just a reference to one of her actions. If refusing one favor is seen as akin to rejecting the person, it becomes understandable why women would have a harder time doing so.
Another reason is that women either are genetically programmed to be more nurturing or have been brought up to be more giving. That being the case, it is not surprising that when asked to extend themselves, they tend to do it. We have been taught to think of others and thus are quick to respond when we hear a plea for help.
There is also the issue of assertion. It often feels like being assertive in responding to one’s own needs instead of someone else’s is selfish. “I’m going to take care of myself first” smacks of the “me” generation.
The voices disagree between my needs and wishes versus your needs and wishes. Of course, when it’s our children, their needs come first until adolescence—then it’s up for grabs as to who wants and gets the car or how much money they’re allowed to spend. Discipline and teaching values comes into play and the “why” of decision making becomes more complicated.
relationship. We also tend to help out people we feel sorry for, those who can’t fend for themselves. The issue then is how real are our feelings of responsibility. Are we taking on too much—is it a burden that can be shared or are we not paying attention enough?
Now, I am not saying we never should respond to others. I like that nurturing side of women. I like it in me. It becomes an issue and a burden, however, when it is not what we really want to do, when we pay too high a price for it. What is important here is to know whether there is enough available time and energy or whether there is not.
I wrote the following poem about this dilemma.
I am always someone’s daughter
I am also someone’s teacher
I am available
can reliably be counted on
I wish I too had ME to lean on.
Josefowitz is a freelance writer, whose column also appears in the La Jolla Village Voice.