Summary of How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Can Talk

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Can Talk is a parenting / communication book written by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. While this book is specifically intended for parents to have better relationships with their children, the vast majority of the advice contained within applies universally to all interactions, and I have written this summary specifically to abstract away from parent-child relationships. I consider the first chapter alone better at helping people internalize the principles behind nonviolent communication than Rosenberg’s entire book. HTTSKWL is currently by far my most highly recommended communications book, and because it is appealing to parents and children it is a remarkably easy read.

Note that unlike most books, this one contains a very high ratio of exercises and prompts and anecdotes relative to its advice. The authors recommend going through the book slowly, and doing all the exercises. This summary will only contain their explicit instructions – I highly recommend buying a copy of the book and completing it. The many specific example conversations will give a much better understanding of the principles I lay out here than I can convey in a summary.

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Boundaries

For ages, I’ve been hearing about how important “boundaries” were, and I’ve never been quite sure what people even meant by the word. A while back I went to parenting discussion about boundaries, and I think I finally figured out what the word means! (To me, that is. I’m not sure everyone agrees on how boundaries work.)

The word “boundaries” always bugged me because it was vague, and seemed to include some assumptions that I wasn’t sure I agreed with. One such assumption was the idea that good boundaries were bright lines. (Now I think it depends.) “Boundaries” also sounded like the sort of thing I was supposed be very careful to respect, more so than mere “preferences”, and I was confused about exactly why.

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Balancing Needs in Relationships

I don’t have time to write something long this week, but I did want to pose a question that’s been on my mind.

When someone you care about wants something and you have mixed feelings about whether to give it to them, what are your heuristics for deciding what to do?

Do you have an internal voice or feeling that you trust to guide your decisions? Do you try to calculate how much it matters to each person, and if so is that process explicit or implicit? Do you like the way you think about these questions?

It’s possible that the question I’m posing already assumes an unhelpful frame, and I think it’s true that there’s often low-hanging fruit in the category of win-win solutions. But I’d love to hear people’s answers anyway.

Any and all thoughts on the subject are welcome.

Relationship Tests and How to Respond

I want to try to point at and describe a particular phenomenon I’ve often seen in relationships: testing. While I’m more familiar with the ways women test men, and I would never claim the testing is on average totally symmetrical, certainly men test women as well. This post will be about the ways that most women seem to test most men.

By my standards, I’d say that a “communication” strategy qualifies as a test if the tester is exerting any optimization power in the direction of confusing her partner. Asking for one thing with words and a separate thing with body language and context is a very broad description of how testing often works.

Taking the request at face value and granting it may be a quite unsatisfactory response.

A classic test that the PUA community likes to talk about is one where a girl will ask a guy to hold her purse, but in fact respect him a bit less if he complies. An example that sees very central to me is that a woman will hit on, by accident, an emotion of hers that seems to throw her boyfriend off-balance, and then keep serving it up to him, basically looking to get a different, less reactive response.

Perhaps testing is the wrong word. These tests are usually at best semi-conscious. But I’m sticking with the word because it feels descriptive, it lands with me, and it’s landed with other woman that I’ve talked to. Empathy and introspection will reveal that no resolution that precludes the guy learning a new skill feels satisfying.

I spent some time this past week trying to pin down a particular dance move one guy I was talking to was missing. I tried unsuccessfully for a while to describe non-reactive compassion, but I’ll take a stab at it here too.

When we humans are suffering, typically there’s some tangle of meta-emotions. Single emotions are negative affect, but they rarely last long on their own. But add some shame into the mix and they become much harder to sort out. If I were overstating my claim a bit, I’d say that all extended triggers involve shame of some sort.

Luckily, this diagnosis suggests a solution. As a listener, if we can manage to communicate that we are as close as possible to fully aware of what’s going on with the other person AND we’re okay with it, it goes a long way. Curiosity, openness, reflecting back emotions and needs verbally and, more importantly, nonverbally, will show the awareness.

A calm, somewhat compassionate, perhaps even affectionately amused face will communicate that we’re okay with it. And building the muscle of being okay with ever more and weirder twisted human social/emotional strategies is one of the easiest ways to better the lives of those around us.

Note: If the suggestion that you’re testing your partner lands at all with you, I highly recommend acceptance and conscious strategy. For me at least, testing seems to be a pretty fundamental drive, for better or for worse. I can tell an ev-psych story that makes me okay with it an a naturalistic way, and once I’ve stopped feeling shame about it (see above), I can usually make sure the channel the drive in useful ways. Tests he can pass are fine. If he repeatedly doesn’t pass, I need to either make it easier and gradually ramp up the intensity to build the skill, or coach him somehow. Coaching in the moment or at different time are both workable.

If You Have A Strong Feeling, It’s Yours

I’ve had a plan to blog about something related to personal growth every Monday. I’ve managed this the last two weeks, and I’m doing it again today.

I read an IFS book about relationships a couple of years ago that had an articulate explanation of why strong feelings are always about us, never the other person. Will and I just hosted an NVC webinar, where we talked about the importance of taking responsibility for all of your feelings. The basic idea is that even though there are external triggers that prompt us to feel emotions at certain times, something always happens in our head between our sensory perception of what happened and our reaction to it.

And we have control over that something that happens. We can change our narrative, and therefore change our feelings about a situation.

While this principle basically always holds true, today I’d like to focus on the specific case of really strong feelings. One heuristic I use is that if a reaction seems disproportionate, it’s because the person isn’t actually reacting to the situation at hand.

If I get a little annoyed at my roommate for eating my cheese, ask her not to do it again, and forget about the whole thing, I think it’s basically fair to say that I was annoyed about the cheese. If my roommate eats my cheese and I’m in tears (yes, I’ve done this…), there’s something else going on. I’m pattern matching my current circumstance to an unresolved incident, probably from my childhood.

If someone says or does something that makes me feel absolutely terrible, I always try to remember that whatever the trigger was can’t possibly be what I’m really upset about. It doesn’t make sense to say that I’m in a really bad mood “because my friend was late” or “because Will joked that ‘you only think of yourself’ when I didn’t unplug his power cord for him”.

It doesn’t make sense to frame it that way, because I’ll never actually be able to resolve my emotional state by focusing on the trigger. Setting up my life to avoid situations that pattern match to the past probably won’t work, and (in my opinion) would be counterproductive even if it did. Because the trigger brought my attention to some emotional pain that was already there.

My model of how this works is that actually feeling better means owning the feeling and opening up emotionally. In doing so, my mind will naturally go back to the original incident where I created a distorted narrative instead of processing the emotion. Once I can see the mental movements I’m going through, it’s not usually hard to change the pattern.

So, if you find yourself complaining, either to yourself or out loud, about how bad someone made you feel, or about how much someone is making your life difficult, try getting curious about what’s going on underneath the surface.

And if you can manage it, try feeling grateful to the other person for drawing your attention to something that already a problem.

(If the thing the other person did to you is actually huge, like killing someone you care about, then this heuristic doesn’t apply. That’s a different story.)

Reflective Relationship Webinar Notes

Last month, Will and I hosted a webinar on how we stay close and happy in relationships. Two of our friends posted awesome notes. Here they are!

Michael Smith’s summary

Jasen Murray’s notes