Book Review-Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss

What do you do when your work becomes your personal life?  Perhaps you spend your time helping others with substance abuse, and a family member starts abusing; or you work with grief counseling, and suddenly, you’re faced with the death of a parent, a spouse, or a child.  It’s the place that Sherry Walling, a licensed mental health professional, found herself in.  In Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss, she shares the stories about losing her father and her brother.

Orientation Check

If you want to make sure that the person you’re talking to is oriented to the world – or connected with reality – you can ask them four key questions looking for practical rather than existential answers:

  • Do you know who you are?
  • Do you know where you are?
  • Do you know when you are?
  • Do you know why you are here?

If they can’t answer these questions, then there are big issues.  When you feel your grip on reality slipping – or at least you’re concerned that it is slipping – you can reconnect to a set of basic truths and ground yourself in the world by knowing these orienting questions.  The existential answers to these questions can be orienting as well.

In dealing with loss and the grieving process, one of the issues is that a loss can challenge three of your four existential orientation answers.  If you are a father and lose a son, are you still a father?  Often, we wrap our identities in with other people.  This is mostly good but can be overdone.  If our identity is wrapped into a person we lose, don’t we lose a part of ourselves?  Are you in the middle of your life, or is this the end for you as well?  If you’re not here as a part of this other person’s life, then why are you here?

The Club No One Wants to Be a Part of

When you lose someone close to you, you become a member of the club that no one wants to be a part of – but everyone eventually will.  The family of grief is a painful group that no one wants but everyone must one day have.  It’s common in loss to hear people accepting the reality of the loss of their loved one and simultaneously hating it.  They long for a way to not have this reality and, at the same time, understand that it’s unchangeable.

Goodness, Safety, and Predictability

It was years ago at the Indianapolis Zoo.  My wife left the wagon, which we had brought for my son to ride in, outside an exhibit.  When she returned, the wagon was gone.  We ultimately recovered the wagon when I spotted some people with children struggling to get it in their car.  I had a custom jacket in the wagon that they hadn’t removed, so it was easy to identify.  To this day, I don’t know if it was an honest mistake, or it was malicious.

However, to my son, it was the first time that he realized that the world may not be good.  Until that time, he had been sheltered from negative realities.  Luckily, it was a relatively small disruption to his sense of goodness.

We also attempt to instill in our children a sense of safety.  We know that the impacts of stress aren’t good, and that fear makes us behave in unpredictable ways.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.)  In general, our egos protect us from the reality that we can’t protect ourselves from everything.  (See Change or Die.)  We like the illusion of control, because it makes us feel safe even when we know that control is an illusion.  (See Compelled to Control for more.)

Prediction is one of the primary functions of consciousness.  (See Quiet Leadership for more on Jeff Hawkins’ theory.)  Consciousness, and higher-order brain function, is very expensive from a calorie perspective.  It must have an evolutionary benefit to exist, and prediction is proposed to be that benefit.  We know that we’re not always right – but being right even some of the time is evolutionarily useful.  (See The Signal and the Noise, Superforecasting, and Noise for more on our errors and ways to combat them.)

The loss of someone threatens all three of these.  How can a good world have allowed our loss? How can we be safe if we’ve lost someone we love?  Who could have predicted this?

Landmines of the Psyche

After a loss, you never really know what will set you off and when it will come.  One moment, you’re floating through your day, and the next, you’re consumed by feelings of loss and sadness.  Years after the death of my brother in a tragic airplane accident, my wife got me a gift certificate to get up flying again.  (See Rusty Shane Bogue for more about the accident.)  I went from okay to very much not okay in a moment.  I was grateful for the gift, but it caused the memory and feelings of the loss to become unstoppable.  Sure, I recovered after a few minutes, but it was an instant return to the moments and days after his death.

This is far from the only time that I’ve been humming along and suddenly get derailed.  It’s a common experience with those who have experienced grief.  It comes back at us in a moment without warning.

Right Actions

The actions preceding the death are never certain.  When you’re told by an addict that they’re using, and you thank them for trusting you with the information, are you doing the right thing – or not?  As you’re considering the visitation time with a terminally ill family member, do you spend enough time with them – or too much?  The problem is that we perceive these as critically important times, and we have no way of knowing if what we’ve done is right or not.

We could quite easily become consumed by these thoughts and worries.  “What if” becomes the question that haunts the mind – until we’re able to find ways to accept our imperfection and realize that we did the best we could.

Finding Answers

A natural response to a death is to try to figure out the cause and the blame.  Was the cancer caused by the workplace, the pack-a-day cigarette habit, or service in a foreign country?  Did the heart attack come because of high cholesterol or a genetic predisposition?  These and a million other questions race through the minds of those who are grieving as they attempt to make sense of the situation so that they can regain their ability to predict and find a way to reclaim the idea that the world is good.

The problem is that, in many cases, there are no answers.  The accident just happened.  New tires or old tires don’t matter.  No caution or plea to be careful can rewind time and change the outcomes.  Answers are often nowhere because there are no answers.

Meaning and Brokenness

The loss of a loved one leaves us with brokenness, one that we’ll have to mend without their help.  One of the ways that we can do that is by looking for meaning – for us – in the events.  (See Finding Meaning for more.)  Brokenness and meaning are their own worlds that are intertwined with our experience of grief.  In the end, we find ways to find ourselves through the mess with our efforts to be Touching Two Worlds.

Book Review-Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief

Grief sucks.  Finding a way out from underneath the weight is the goal.  That’s what David Kessler proposes in Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.  How do you learn to grieve in ways that avoid suffering and allow you to find some meaning in the aftermath of loss?  Kessler argues that finding meaning helps to transform grief so that it’s less painful and less suffering.

The Grieving Process

Kessler’s previous books include co-author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.  Kubler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying, a classic about how people respond to the prospects of their own death, which she and Kessler adapted to the grieving process in On Grief and Grieving (which I’ve not reviewed).  Not everyone is wildly supportive of this work and approach to both death and grieving for various reasons.  However, as I explained while defending it against the concerns leveled in The Grief Recovery Handbook, it’s solid work that’s often misunderstood.

Grieving doesn’t follow a single linear path from start to finish with regular checkpoints along the way.  Instead, grief is a deeply personal process that has no one answer.  One moment you’re accepting things, and the next you’re throwing things in frustration, desperation, and denial.  This is sometimes confusing to those who are going through it – or those close to them.  After a moment or month of return to denial, it’s hard not to question what progress looks like and whether things are headed in the right direction.  However, that’s not giving the grieving both the benefit of the doubt – and the space to grieve in their own way and their own time.

Nothing Prepares You

Candy Lightner formed Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) after the death of her daughter Cari at the hands of a repeat drunk driver.  John Walsh started America’s Most Wanted after the abduction and murder of his son.  Neither desired the tragedy – but they decided to make the best of it in hopes that others wouldn’t have to go through what they went through.  Knowing intimately the pain and torment of the loss of a child, they decided that no one else should have to.  They found meaning in a purpose.  They developed their grief into a force to prevent others from having to feel it.

Even those who have spent their lives teaching and writing on a topic can find themselves unprepared when it happens to them.  Kessler explains that he lost his 21-year-old son and how none of the work he had done teaching people about grief was enough to prevent his own loss.  He may have handled it better than most – but it wasn’t as if he managed to side-step the grief process.  What he did know was where all the signposts were.

Sense Making

One of the things that we know about humans is that we have a deep need for things to make sense.  If prediction is the fundamental purpose of consciousness, then we need sense-making to feed the prediction engine.  (See Mindreading for more about the belief that prediction is the fundamental purpose of consciousness.)  We know that we learn and think in stories.  (See Story Genius and Wired for Story for more.)  We even recognize the role that sense-making plays in whether someone will emerge from a trauma with growth or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  (See Transformed by Trauma, Opening Up, and The Body Keeps the Score for more on how sense-making relieves PTSD)

It’s no surprise, then, that to transform a trauma of the loss of a loved one, we need to make sense of it.  What is surprising is what that sense can mean.  It can transform someone from believing the world is a fundamentally helpful place to a view that the world is fundamentally hostile, and it’s necessary to protect oneself.  This is a fundamental belief, because it’s not easily changed – but the loss of a loved one is just the size of trauma it might take to shift it.

Conversely, the sense-making can be much, much smaller.  It can be that you develop an avoidance for the source of the trauma.  If your husband died in a motorcycle accident, you may develop a strong aversion to motorcycles.  The sense that you make from the trauma is personal, and it likely will never answer the question about why your loved one had to be the one.

Meaning Is What You Make of It

Meaning is what you make of the tragedy.  It can be a quest to change the world to make it better or form connections with others who’ve suffered similar tragedies.  The meaning you make isn’t the same meaning that someone else would make.

Love and Grief

It is possible to avoid grief – but at what cost?  Grief is the way that we experience loss.  It’s possible to avoid loss only through the avoidance of learning to love others.  If we don’t care about others, then we can avoid grief.  In the moments of deepest mourning and grief, we may briefly decide that this sounds like a good plan only to realize it’s a fool’s errand.  Love is what makes life worth living.  It’s the light in the darkness that we sometimes see in the world.

To be clear, love here is the relationship and connection that you have with others.  It might be the Greek eros (sexual love), but it’s more often philos (brotherly love) or agape (world love or compassion).  The Grief Recovery Handbook appropriately points out that grief is the way that we respond to loss, and therefore it doesn’t necessarily have to be related to love – but it often is.

Acceptance and Non-Judgement

The divorce rate of parents who have lost a child is high – too high.  Kessler attributes this to the fact that the spouses grieve differently, and they don’t allow for their partner’s grief in a way that accepts and validates it.  We believe the way that we grieve – as influenced by our societies, families, and personal experiences – is the way that everyone should grieve, and we’re confused when our spouse doesn’t grieve this way.

David Richo suggests that there are five As that we need in his book How to Be an Adult in Relationships.  Those As are attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing.  Perhaps if everyone practiced these, we wouldn’t have to compound the tragedy of death of a child with the tragedy of divorce.  (See more about Divorce.)

Addicted to Grief

Capture speaks of how our processing of a situation or our life can leave us stuck.  It’s as if our loss has taken the wheel, and we’ve become helpless passengers on the journey of grief.  The process isn’t fundamentally different from the process of addiction, where someone starts with a coping strategy that progressively gains more and more control over them.  Some people can become stuck in their grief process, swallowed up by the support that we receive to the point that we fail to stand on our own or attempt to regain control of our lives.

While it’s natural to be utterly overwhelmed and unable to function after a loss, at some point, we’ve each got to figure out how we can work on our own healing.  No one can heal us – it’s something that we must do ourselves and it’s not easy.  The healing that we muster doesn’t mean our loss didn’t happen or won’t impact us, but it does mean that it no longer controls and confines us.

Suffering is Optional

Kessler argues that grief is necessary, but suffering is optional.  I agree in part – but disagree as well.  The word suffering is “the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.”  The losses that we’re speaking of necessarily cause suffering.  However, where I agree with Kessler is that the amount of time you spend in suffering can be influenced.  You can choose to remain in a state of persistent suffering, or you can crawl and climb your way out of the hole that is suffering.

Those who have lost someone are caught between two incompatible expectations.  On the one hand, they’re expected to return to “normal” as soon as possible.  People wonder if you’re “over it” yet.  On the other hand, we’re told the degree to which we grieve is the degree to which we loved the person we’ve lost.  In that case, shouldn’t we go on grieving forever?

The truth is that we will continue to grieve forever.  It will change and transform, but it will always be there.  We can choose to have the expression of our grief be pain and distress or we can simply experience it as a loss.

Why Me and What Do I Do Now?

There are two different ways to questions we ask ourselves in any loss – and we all use both at different times and to varying degrees.  The first approach is to ask the question, “Why me?”  This comes from a place of victimhood.  Why was I the victim of this unfair event?  The answer that life isn’t fair isn’t very satisfying.  While the question is reasonable and expected, you don’t want to build a home in victimhood.  (See Hostage at the Table for more on victimhood.)

The other question is, “What do I do now?” which represents an awareness of the agency we have in how we respond to the events that happen in our lives.  Losses happen that we have no control of.  We must simply accept they’ve happened no matter how painful they are or how much we want to avoid the outcome.  While losses aren’t controllable, the way that we react to them is.  Certainly, we should mourn the loss and grieve but we can choose for how long and in what ways.

That isn’t to say that we have conscious control of our grieving process, and we can decide that, on Tuesday at 3:02 PM, we’re done.  Instead, we control the responses in a way that encourages our recovery or leaves us in the same place of victimhood.

Life Worth Living

The person that we’ve lost can no longer be present for life.  Their death ends their participation.  However, we have a choice as to whether we are just going to be present for life or whether we’re going to find ways to make the best of what we have left – to thrive as much as is possible.  (See Flourish and The How of Happiness for more.)

Running into the Storm

Imagine for a moment that you’re out on the plains on a motorcycle with no protection from rain and storms.  There are no overpasses or anything to hide underneath.  Your options are to hunker down by the side of the road or charge into the storm.  Which option is a better option?  At first, hurling yourself headlong into a storm may seem crazy.  After all, why would you volunteer for more than what is already where you are?  The answer is because the storm is coming.  You cannot avoid it.  Turning and driving in the other direction will only prolong your experience of the storm.

When you face the storm and push into it, you reduce the amount of time you’ll be in it.  As the storm moves across the ground, you move forward and find the end sooner.  With our loss and grief, we can turn the other way and attempt to run from it, or we can face it and move forward at whatever pace we can manage.  If we face the storm and move into it, we’ll find the storm is over sooner.  No one is going to like loss, but maybe we can find our way through it by Finding Meaning.

Book Review-Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy

Option A isn’t available.  You can’t have what you want.  Whether you want a loved one back or you want something in your life that can no longer happen, you’ll have to do something different.  Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy is what you do when you can’t have what you want.

The Backstory

The backstory for the book is that Sheryl Sandberg’s husband, David Goldberg, died.  She had to learn to deal with it.  Sheryl is (and was) the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, and David was the CEO of Survey Monkey.  David had hired Adam Grant for a talk at Survey Monkey, and the couple had formed a friendship with Adam.  (For more of Adam Grant’s work, please see Originals, Give and Take, and Think Again.)

Though they’re listed as co-authors and despite the co-writing, the perspective is intentionally Sheryl’s.  This was done to create a consistency of story and to improve the flow of the book.  It must have been successful, because the book is a great path through the grieving of Sheryl and the children that she and David shared.

Meaning Reset

Five minutes into a meeting, you look up from your thoughts and wonder what everyone is talking about and, more importantly, “Why does it matter?”  Losing a loved one can have the effect of radically restructuring your perception of life and, as a consequence, what is important.  We all live by a set of expectations about how the future will be.  Couples expect to grow old together to watch their children’s children.  We don’t necessarily have a picture of the car we’ll drive or even the house we’ll live in.  We do, however, expect life to follow a somewhat orderly, forward progression.  If you lose a spouse or other loved one unexpectedly, the result is that your predictions of the future are invalidated in a moment – and that is disruptive.

Simple problems that needed no thought before consume you, because without the anchors you relied on, you feel compelled to consider every possibility and to look for ways that your perspectives may be wrong.  We’re suddenly launched into a world of doubt unlike any that you might have experienced before.

With our perceptions torn down and every decision requiring more thought, it’s no wonder that we’ll reprioritize things that previously would have fallen into the background.  Looking in, people are sometimes confused by the seemingly radical readjustment of priorities and meaning in someone’s life after a loss – but in the context of having to evaluate the guilt you have about the loss, it can make sense.


It’s hard to sidestep the “what if” game.  What if I had come home earlier, in enough time to help them?  What if I hadn’t told the girls I’d go to the movies with them?  What if the gun was locked up?  These games are instinctive after a loss.  Could I have visited more frequently?  Did I call them enough?  Did I tell them I loved them enough?

The problem is that there is no “enough.”  At the extreme, you could tell the other person you love them to the point where they couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  Certainly, that would be “enough” – or would it?  What if they didn’t hear it?  Wouldn’t they get annoyed that they couldn’t get a word in?  So how much telling them would be “enough?”  There is, of course, no answer to this question.

Guilt is practically unavoidable, and at the same time, it’s rarely deserved.

Waves of Sadness

The Grief Recovery Handbook is a good book on addressing our grief.  Though it – inappropriately – criticizes Kubler-Ross’ work On Death and Dying, it effectively makes the point that the emotions we feel after a loss aren’t linear, distinct, or prescribed.  We each experience grief in our own way.  However, what it doesn’t cover are the “deadly sneaker waves” of sadness.  In Iceland, there’s a magical beach where visitors turn their back on the ocean to their own peril.  What they call deadly sneaker waves wash onto the beach and pull people down and into the water.  Sadness can feel like this.

It comes seemingly out of nowhere, and it can knock us off our feet and tumble us in the surf.  We believe ourselves to be rational creatures in charge of our emotions.  We believe that we carefully regulate what we feel, and we’re rudely awakened when sadness washes over us.

Fortress of Solitude

Sometimes, the waves of sadness lead us to a fortress of solitude.  We push or block others out so that we don’t have to burden them with our sorrow.  Instead of allowing those around us to support us, we make a point to not be anywhere that they’ll be.  We create (or try to create) our fortress of solitude before we realize that we’re creating our own prison.

It might surprise you to know that many people will choose to self-administer a shock rather than to sit in solitude – for 15 minutes.  Being alone with one’s own thoughts is so painful that we’ll take a physical pain to distract us.  So, as we seek to be alone, we are inflicting pain upon ourselves.  Good friends will gently but firmly push us to continue to engage.  They won’t let us be alone.  Sheryl relates a small way that two of her friends went to a game for her son – after she said she didn’t need them to come.

Perceived Control

One of the chief issues with losing someone is that you recognize that whatever sense of control you had was just an illusion.  The belief that the world was orderly and safe came crashing in – and there was nothing you could do about it.  One of the ways that we cope with the slings and arrows of everyday life is our perception that we could – if we chose – change some of them.  We could deflect them or return fire in a way that would prevent them from happening in the future.  However, the death of someone close reminds us that nothing can be done.

Imagine, for a moment, there’s an annoying noise.  In one condition, there’s nothing you can do.  In the other you can press a button to make it stop – but it comes at a cost, one that you’re not willing to pay.  Which condition is more tragic?  The answer is the first.  The belief that we can stop something is more important than actually stopping it.


One of the odd things that happens when someone loses another is that their friends can end up distancing themselves.  As I explained in What If I Say the Wrong Thing?, there is no wrong thing to say – except nothing.  Sheryl explains that she considered carrying a stuffed elephant with her but decided against it, because she suspected that others wouldn’t get the hint.  There’s an elephant in the room when you’re not comfortable talking about it.  The truth is that some friends will move into the loss and hold you up when you can’t stand.  Others will step back and believe that they have no way of helping.  They don’t realize that often it’s their presence that is the help that those who are grieving crave.

The unfortunate reality is that people who lose someone close to them often simultaneously lose closeness with people with whom they had relationships but who couldn’t bring themselves to step into the space enough to be uncomfortable with the other person.  The best friends you’ll find can’t imagine being anyplace else except by a friend’s side who is hurting.

Principle of Non-Abandonment

Whether it makes sense or not to the outside world, one of the feelings that those closest to the loss will feel is that the person who has died has abandoned them.  It’s natural to feel a loneliness that they caused, and therefore they have, in some sense, abandoned you.  Parents whose spouse has died wonder how their spouse could have abandoned them to raise the kids.  That wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.  That wasn’t the deal.  The deal was together – but now the deal has been broken.

As friends and family move in and stay even in the midst of uncontrollable emotions, it helps to recognize that not everyone will abandon us.  The people who stay prove that abandonment by everyone isn’t inevitable – it’s not even possible.  The whole process of feeling abandoned doesn’t happen at an intellectual level.  It’s a sense of comfort to know that, even though you may be walking without your partner, you still won’t be completely walking alone.


Sheryl relates an approach from Susan Silk where you draw circles of proximity to the person who has died.  The closest people surrounded by the next closest and so on.  The key is that you offer comfort to the inner circles, and you seek comfort from those in the outer circles.  It’s a simple model for ensuring that the people who are closest receive the most support and receive it from the people who are close enough to be relevant.

It recognizes Megan Devine’s observation that some things can’t be fixed.  They can only be carried.  No one can fix the problem undo what has been done.  All we can do is carry the burden – ourselves – and as much of the burden as possible for those who were closer to the person who is gone.

Gratitude and Contributions

Even though some people find gratitude journaling helpful, not everyone does.  (For instance, I don’t.)  However, recognizing our power to help others is almost always helpful.  Twelve-step programs are big on service and helping others – encouraging everyone to get people to sponsor rather quickly.  They do this in part because there’s a straight line between self-esteem or self-image and the work that you do to support others.  Where gratitude is passive – and happens to you – contributions are active and are how you respond to the world.

Contributions don’t have to be large per se.  Small contributions are still contributions, and recognizing that anything that you can do to help others as you’re struggling can be amazing.  It’s when your capacity is least that the value of those contributions is greatest.

Change How

After an event of such proportions, you’ve entered a new world.  You’ve walked through a one-way portal.  The question isn’t whether you’ll change or not.  The question is how you’ll change and what you’ll change to.  You can choose to change in a way that shrinks your life, becomes trapped in victimhood, or you can choose to build your resilience, capacity, and contribution to others.

There’s no shame in whatever decision you might make.  Some battle with survivor guilt more than others – that is, the feeling that they should have died rather than the person who did and that somehow the world would be better off.  Guilt (believing that you did something wrong) and shame (believing that you are bad) inhibit recovery, and sometimes it takes a while to work through them.  (See I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on shame and guilt.)

Take It Back

Since our tragedy, Terri and I have met many others who have lost their child or children.  Some of them have chosen the path of shrinking their lives.  They’ve decided that since Christmas can’t be with their loved one, they just won’t have it any longer.  Whatever the special occasions are, they hide from them as if not celebrating them prevents them from happening without their loved ones.

For us, we have chosen the path that Sheryl describes as “we take it back” – their way of embracing those moments rather than hiding from them.  For us, we bought a new Christmas tree and new lights.  It was one of those things that we’d been talking about for years, but it was never important enough.  However, there was significance.  We could acknowledge and honor our memories of Christmas’ past and recognize that we’d be doing things a bit differently from here on out.

Our decisions didn’t stop there, but it’s the one that best represents the attitude.  We still struggle with our feelings as the waves of sadness crash over us, but at the same time, we can remember the good memories and recognize that different can still be good – well, at least okay.

Normalizing Struggle

Brene Brown calls it “gold-plating grit” in Rising Strong.  It’s the tendency to minimize the struggle aspects of life.  Sheryl and Adam recognize the need to normalize the struggle.  Kids of all ages need to understand that life is struggle.  Buddha taught all of us that.  However, struggle isn’t bad.  Struggle is necessary for growth.  (See The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children for more.)

What we need to recognize is that it’s not that we won’t have struggles but rather the results of the struggle will be worth it.  We can accept that we struggle if we know there’s a reason for it and the reason is a better life.  Sure, we wanted whatever Option A meant – that our loved one was still with us.  However, in the end, we may find that there’s a lot of good to be had in Option B.

What If I Say the Wrong Thing?

There’s a second tragedy after the death of a loved one.  The tragedy is that, in many cases, the people who you expect to support you – your friends, colleagues, and associates – leave you as well.  Between well-intended attempts to give you space to process and their own fear of saying something wrong, they don’t call, and they don’t engage you in the conversation about what has happened.  There are words that they will no longer say in your presence.  They step around the elephant in the middle of the room hoping that everyone else does, too – or worse yet, they avoid being in the room with you altogether.

I need to be clear that Terri and I have been blessed with the way that some of our friends have stood beside us.  They moved in, making sure that we were okay more often – not less.  Some dear friends arrived at our home and did whatever we needed – even things that we didn’t know we needed immediately after we lost our son to suicide.  These amazing friends challenged everything that I’m about to say here – except that these amazing people are exceedingly rare.  It’s possible to fight the urge and step up, as these dear friends have demonstrated – and you can do it, to0.  They already knew what I hope to share with you: it’s impossible to say the wrong thing.

Receiving Line

I was standing in a receiving line next to my ex-wife at her father’s funeral.  A lifelong good friend of hers walked up and asked, “How are you doing?”  It’s the question that had been asked a hundred times already that day.  Often, I responded with the polite “okay” that people expected as we walked through the instinctive dance of awkwardness.  For her, however, I was comfortable being a bit more humorous.  My reply was, “Well, I’m not dead.”  After a brief moment as she sized up the comment, we both had a quiet chuckle.  It lightened the moment and was what was needed for both of us.

The one question that’s uttered more than any other after a loss of a loved one has got to be, “How are you doing?”  The true answer is, “Not well.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I just lost a loved one.”  Rarely is that answer given, because it’s not the polite expected answer.  We’re supposed to put on a face of stability even as we are powerless to fight back the tears.  For the most part, no one says anything.  We quietly move forward pretending that the awkwardness didn’t happen.

The Wrong Thing

There are things that can be said that are hurtful and wrong.  However, they’re comments uttered by those who don’t really care about you; they care that they get the “scoop.”  One friend seemed intent on knowing the how and the why of our son’s death.  While we knew that we’d share his death was a suicide from almost the moment we found out, we needed time to find a way to make it make sense when we told others.  I’m not talking about changing the details or misleading folks.  I’m talking about coming to terms with the inconsistencies.  However, this wasn’t what our friend was able to accept.

She pushed to know what had happened and why.  Explaining that it was a suicide would have made no more sense to her than it made to us.  It violated everything that you hear about suicide.  Our son was ultra-connected with family.  He had everything to live for – career, house, girlfriend, dog, etc.  We felt like speaking before we had our arms around it wouldn’t make any sense to anyone.  She pushed three separate times to know the truth before we reached out privately to tell her that it was suicide – and that the reasons made no sense.

The point isn’t that she asked the wrong question per se.  Rather, she asked it in the wrong way.  She was concerned about her own knowledge, the sense that she was close enough to be in the know – something she could share with others.  I wouldn’t describe it as gossip, but I wouldn’t describe it as helpful either.

I’ve been truly honored to work with some professional journalists at times in my life.  The reporters who told the story of my brother’s tragic airplane accident were some of the most caring, compassionate, and respectful people I’ve met.  They had a job to do – to get the story – but I never once felt like the story was more important than the people in the story.  The funny thing is that, with this friend, the story was more important than the people.  The story was more important than us.  It wasn’t that the wrong thing was said – it was the heart was wrong in the asking.

I’ve been asked questions that mortified the person asking – and seeing their heart, I was not the slightest bit phased by them.  One of our dear friends, who came to be with us, and I did our own version of the ballistic analysis of the bullet that killed our son, such that the Warren Commission investigating the Kennedy assassination would have been proud.  We made sense of ballistics that couldn’t make sense.  Not a single moment during that discussion did I feel like he said the wrong thing – because he couldn’t have.  It wasn’t the words that mattered.  What mattered was the intent behind the words.

He was willing to walk through the situation not for his own edification but to help us make sense of a senseless organization.  He honestly came from a place of a desire to help – and a willingness to step into the messy.

But the Tears

We’ve always taught the kids that emotions aren’t bad.  They’re not to be feared nor revered.  They’re a part of us and deserve acknowledgement and acceptance.  Not everyone has this experience.  The mirror neurons fire when they see us flash to a painful moment of loss and grief.  Our eyes well up, and they struggle to contain their own emotions.  Too many have been taught that emotions aren’t safe, and that if we’re experiencing them – or someone else is experiencing them – something is wrong.

I’m not going to say that I relish the loss, pain, and grief that I feel.  However, I’m not going to run from these feelings either.  The truth is that I feel them frequently and I expect to for the rest of my life.  It does and will continue to get better, but the losses and grief remains.  They’re made better by the fact that I’m willing to experience them.  They’re better because I don’t run from them.

I know that my tears make others uncomfortable, and I can’t take responsibility for their response.  Similarly, even an honest, heartfelt comment can cause the tears to well up in my eyes, and it neither means the other person said the wrong thing nor that they’re responsible.  The point is that they feel responsible for causing pain that they didn’t cause.  I simply stumbled across it in their presence.  Tears aren’t tragedy.  The tragedy is turning away from those who’ve lost.

The Nothing

There is, I suppose, one wrong thing.  However, it’s not the thing you say.  It’s the thing that you don’t say.  It’s the silence that follows the loss.  It’s the result of the fear of saying something wrong that prevents the question, the comment, the reaching out.  You see, I’d rather someone ask the crudest question than to have someone sidestep the issue.  It’s worse to have people pull back when you need them most because they’re uncomfortable dealing with their losses, their fears about mortality, and their fear of saying the wrong thing.

Ask me what was going through my son’s head during his final moments, and I might tell you that I don’t know – or I might answer you with an answer that could appall you.  Asking the question with the intent of entering the space of grief will always be welcome – even if my response is an attempt at morbid humor.

In the end, it’s only the silence, the running away from those who need friends and family the most, that is the wrong thing.  It’s not something you say.  It’s something you don’t.  If someone you know is struggling with loss – ask them about it.  Talk to them.  Even if you have to admit that you’re uncomfortable but you’re willing to step in.

The Moment It All Starts to Unravel

Relationships are difficult things to “get right.”  They require work, attention, and reevaluation.  Done right, they can be incredibly rewarding.  Done wrong, they bring pain and suffering to both parties.  Everyone has been in relationships gone wrong.  It’s easy in these cases to blame or vilify the other party, but if we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again, we’ve got to look past our selection criteria for new relationships and consider how we may be unintentionally contributing to relationship downfalls.

It sounds easy, but it’s not.  Which eyeroll or harsh word begins the unraveling process?  Where do we draw the line between normal and dysfunctional?  How do we decide which comment that normally wouldn’t have started the ball rolling was the start of an avalanche of heartache and pain?  Perhaps that’s the wrong question.  The key may not be the start of the unraveling but the factors that led to those starts and resulted in an escalation of hurt feelings and mutual pain instead of being shut down and forgiven or ignored altogether.

Starve the Dog

It’s an awful analogy – particularly if you’re a dog lover – but it’s one that begins to expose the underbelly of the problem.  It helps us to see that even though one party finally lashes out, it may not be completely their fault.

If you want to make a dog mean and aggressive, you starve it.  The natural instinct to protect its life will make it compete to get food and resources so that it can live.  However, it’s not quite that simple.  You can’t just deprive the dog of food all at once.  Doing so won’t allow for the dog’s core personality to be rewritten.  What you must do is to intermittently and irregularly provide it with enough food for survival, but never enough to create comfort or safety.  You must create a hunger that threatens the dog’s survival.  Over time, the dog will develop a character of meanness and aggression.

In humans, we see similar circumstances.  People withhold from their relationships the things the other person needs.  Whether it’s words of affirmation, attention, concern, or something else, they constantly have the other party on edge, and ultimately that results in a person who is irritable – at least in that relationship, if not more broadly.  Sometimes the strategy is conscious, but often it’s just the way that they behave.  It’s a pattern they caught from their parents or from someone in their life who treated them the same way.

This dynamic creates a challenge.  The person who has been starved of their needs in the relationship are the ones who eventually lash out – but are they really the start of the problem, or were they just no longer able to contain the pain they were feeling?

Relational Flywheels and Sick Cycles

Counselors who work with couples often speak of sick cycles.  In these cycles, the husband says something that is upsetting to the wife, who in turn says something upsetting to the husband, and the process continues with each being more harmed by the comments at each cycle.  These cycles often erode the trust at the foundation of the relationship and create a wake of damage that neither party intended.

Inherent to the sick cycle is the nature of amplification of negative energy.  Each cycle adds more negative energy to the interaction and this process continues until one party walks away or there’s nothing left of the relationship.

The opposite effect is seen in some relationships and at times even in challenging relationships.  We support, compliment, or engage with each other in ways that contribute more positive energy to the relationship.  This is the foundation for lifelong relationships that get better with time as more interactions create more positive interactions.

When thought of as a flywheel, once things get going either in a positive or a negative direction, they tend to continue in that direction until something changes.  That means we’ll have to make a conscious change to interrupt a negative cycle before it gets out of hand or identify when a positive cycle is breaking down.

Predicting Failure

John Gottman is famous for his 93.6% accuracy rate for predicting divorce in married couples – after three minutes of arguing.  What he and his colleagues did was place people in a room with cameras rolling and asked them to start talking about their largest argument.  The result was four behaviors that he called the four horsemen of the relational apocalypse: criticism, stonewalling, contempt, and defensiveness.  These markers – particularly contempt – predicted relationships that wouldn’t make it.

When we see these show up in a conversation, we know we’re headed down the path of a sick cycle and not a flywheel of flourishing friendships.  Certainly, the arrival of one of these is a good candidate for where it all started to unravel – though often there are still previous behaviors that led someone to bring it to the conversation.


Beyond Gottman’s big four, there are other ways to predict failure of a relationship.  When either party starts to deal in absolutes, you know there’s trouble coming.  When someone says the other person “always” or “never” does something, there are bound to be exceptions and frustrations.  After all, if someone says that you never do the dishes, and you have specific instances where you have, doesn’t this invalidate the comment on its face?

Yes – but too often, the speaker doesn’t mean literally always or never.  Instead, they’re communicating that the frequency is wrong.  They expect more or less than what they’re perceiving – regardless of whether the perception is accurate or the expectation is reasonable.  The choice of words and attitudes does matter even when the other person’s behavior seems unimaginable.

The Unimaginable

In a civil, enlightened society, is there ever a reason to change your tone of voice or yell?  The immediate answer is a quick “no” – but not so fast.  Would you yell “stop” if someone was about to step in front of a bus?  What are the other exceptions to the rule that you shouldn’t raise your voice?

What happens when one party steadfastly refuses to listen?  They talk over you.  They interrupt.  They show no signs that they’ve listened, heard, or understood.  What then?  Should you not raise your voice to keep them from running over you?  Isn’t this a better answer as an initial strategy before exiting the conversation?  Frequently, in the discussions that devolve, we find that one or both parties doesn’t feel heard and understood.  Isn’t it natural to make one last ditch effort to be heard?

Off Limits

Many people believe that some behaviors are off-limits.  They aren’t acceptable.  It’s not until you press them that you can get them to realize there are conditions that the behaviors are not only acceptable but might be the best answer.  Consider murder.  Many people believe they’d never murder another person.  Killing is wrong, they say.  They’re right.  What if you knew that you were going to be killed by someone?  Would you kill them first?  What about your spouse or your child?  Would you protect them even if it meant murder?  It’s at these times that the waters get murkier.

Even Buddhists – who are, like most of us, rather universally against violence – can kill.  In a parable, a killer and a monk are on the boat in the middle of a lake.  The killer confesses (and the monk believes them) that they’ll kill two people when they get back to shore.  What is the monk to do if he can’t convince the other on another course of action?  The answer is to kill the killer – despite the monk’s non-violent nature.

When we encounter a “never” event, our first reaction should be whether the event is something that should never happen – or should only happen rarely based on an extenuating set of circumstances.  If it’s the latter, we should become curious about what the circumstances are.

Judgement and Anger

Anger is a frequent villain when it comes to the amplification of a sick cycle.  We become angry and lash out.  However, what is anger?  Anger, in Eastern psychology, is disappointment directed.  We’re disappointed about something or someone.  We feel the sting of the missed expectation.  It feels like a betrayal of trust.  We predicted their behavior, we got something different, and we don’t like it.  In the Western world, we’re rarely taught what anger is or how we might be able to process it.

While anger is disappointment directed, our disappointments come from our violated expectations, expectations we generated based on our prediction of what the other person would or should do.  We systematically underestimate the impact of the environment on behavior.  Kurt Lewin described behavior as a function of both person and environment.  The point of describing it as an opaque function is that you can’t know how the person and environment will interact to produce behaviors.

Despite this, Shaun Nichols and Steven Stich argue in Mindreading that the fundamental purpose of consciousness is prediction.  We accept the errors in our prediction and even, as Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams explain in Inside Jokes, have error correction routines built in to allow us to adapt to our prediction errors.  However, in anger, we perceive that our prediction failure – that our disappointment – somehow impacts us in a potentially negative way either by changing our perceptions or by our perception of material threat.

Our disappointments are based on our predictions of the other person’s behavior and our judgement of what is – and is not – right.  We are often the angriest when we feel like our judgements of what is right and wrong are violated.  However, where do our judgements come from?  How do we decide what is and is not right?

Foundations of Judgement and Morality

Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind explains that we all have the same foundations of morality, but we each have them in different degrees.  They are:

  • Care/Harm – The need to care for others and minimize harm.
  • Fairness/Cheating – The need to ensure that there’s a fairness, and no one is cheating the system.
  • Loyalty/Betrayal – The need to ensure that we’re loyal to others and minimize our betrayals.
  • Authority/Subversion – The need to accept authority and avoid subversion of that authority.
  • Sanctity/Degradation – The need for cleanliness, respect for those things of deity, and avoidance for those things that are figuratively unclean.
  • Liberty/Oppression – The need for freedom and the prevention of oppression of others.

Our judgements are what we believe to be “right” or “wrong” based on these foundations and what motivates us.  Steven Reiss in Who Am I? outlines his motivational profile, which contains 16 factors that he believes motivate us all.  These motivators shape the way we think about life and, ultimately, what we believe is right or wrong.

One of the key ways that we develop our beliefs and therefore judgements is our values, but that’s not the only source.

Experience Based Decisions

Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power how his study of fire captains initially led to baffling conclusions.  These fire captains claimed that they just “knew” what was happening in the fire and what the firefighters needed to do to battle them.  For the most part, they were right.  The more experienced captains did just seem to have a sixth sense about how the fire was going to play out.  But why?

Ultimately, Klein realized that the captains had developed mental models for the fires and were testing each bit of information with the models they had created.  They’d make decisions based on how what they learned did – or did not – fit their model.  They’d pull back when the fire wasn’t developing like they thought it should or they couldn’t explain new information.  They’d identify the probable sources well before they could know.  Klein called them recognition-primed decisions (RPD).

What’s important about Klein’s discovery is that the fire captains were doing these mental simulations unconsciously.  They weren’t running a checklist or doing anything they could articulate.  They had internalized their experiences and formed their judgements – which were largely right.

When we’re angry, someone has violated our expectations of what “should” happen based not just on our values but on the mental models that we’ve created of the world.  Sometimes the judgements we make are based on a combination of the two.

Young adult (college-age) children accompany parents on a tropical island holiday.  When they’re supposed to return, challenges force flight cancellations, and the parents catch the first flight home, leaving the children in the foreign country with meager but sufficient resources as they wait for an available seat on a flight home.  For some, this is perfectly acceptable – they were, in fact, adults – and for others it’s wrong.  Parents are supposed to support and protect their children above themselves.

Those who are high on the motivator of family bristle at the story.  Those who themselves backpacked across a foreign continent think nothing of the story.  Their experience says that their young adults will be fine.  After all, they were in much less hospitable circumstances, and they survived.  Even if they’re high on family, their experience mediates their beliefs – and judgement.

The Influence of Environment on Experiences and Beliefs

At a table in the Midwest, a Chinese exchange student gets up from the table and offers to help clear dishes as they were taught was polite in the US culture.  However, there’s a problem.  The student left a small amount of food on their plate uneaten.  The host hides her offense.  She tried so hard to create a meal that the student would enjoy, and she believes she’s been unsuccessful.

Beliefs are socially constructed.  In East Asia, a guest would never finish all their food for fear of insulting their host.  Finishing all your food is a sign that your host hasn’t provided enough for you to eat.  In the Midwest, not finishing what the host provided is a sign that the food wasn’t very good.  It’s the same behavior – leaving a bit of food on your plate – with two radically different perceptions of the meaning.

So, while we make experience-based decisions, those experiences are shaped by our societies.

The Need to Be Understood

Our greatest – or at least most pressing – biological need is air and the oxygen that it provides.  This is followed closely by water and food.  There’s little argument about these biological needs and their relative importance.  However, when it comes to psychological needs, there’s a lot of discussion.  One of the candidates for the most important and pressing psychological need is the need to be understood.  It’s a reflection of our mind-reading skills: we want people to read our minds – at least a little.

Have you ever wondered about the kind, elderly people who come into the stores while you’re there?  Some seem to go on and on speaking about nothing.  It makes no sense that they’d share so much unless you realize that there’s no one at home to listen to them – and to understand their lives.  We see this at work in meetings, with some of our coworkers who seem intent on filling any pauses with the sound of their voice.

When someone restates their case, or their perspective and thoughts, louder the second time around, is it any wonder why?  With an innate need to be understood, any perception that you’re not being understood would automatically result in a harder – and perhaps more forceful – attempt.  That’s where the opportunity exists to stop the unraveling and reverse it.

Mitigating Negative Energy

What if you could side-step your emotional response to the greater energy in the other person’s words as they tried to get their point across?  What would happen if you were able to react to the fact that they didn’t feel heard and understood rather than the words or the tone?  The answer is that you might be able to stop the negative spiral and turn it around.  That takes two important pieces – which aren’t always easy.

Sidestepping Emotions

Whether the other person is yelling or simply becoming more direct and staccato with their words, it can be triggering for those who grew up in unstable homes or who have experienced explosive anger.  While there may be no real threat, that doesn’t stop you from feeling one.  You can react to the energy and directness of the words and become defensive – or you can recognize that the response isn’t going to lead to your harm and is instead a signal that the other person doesn’t feel heard.

While this logically makes sense, and most could agree that it’s a better plan, in the moment, it’s often hard to prevent the amygdala from hijacking the brain and putting all that logic stuff to the side.  To prevent this, we create greater degrees of feeling safe.  Even if we do get triggered, we hold on to the fact that we’re in no real danger from a logical point of view.

If we can sidestep emotion, we can begin to focus on discovering what about the other person’s world they don’t believe you heard.

Communicating Understanding

Communicating understanding seems simple.  “I think I heard you say…” is a good start.  More than that, “I think that you mean…” shows more than that you heard the literal words they were saying.  It shows that you were trying to make sense of what you were hearing – and that means you were trying to understand.  The key is not that every interaction results in understanding but rather that every interaction demonstrates the intent of trying to understand.  Even reflecting something back to someone as wrong is generally responded to well, since the perception is that both parties are trying to bridge the gap.

In Sum

The short may be that it doesn’t matter where it started to unravel.  The point may not be the first failure.  The point may be what can be done to validate and understand the other person as much as possible – no matter who is at fault.  Fault-finding, pinpointing, blaming, and isolating isn’t a part of the solution.  Demonstrating a desire to communicate and understand – even when the other person doesn’t appear to be making the same efforts – is the way to stop and reverse the unraveling process.

Anatomy of an Apology

An apology should be simple.  Just say, “I’m sorry.”  However, it’s not that simple.  There are questions about why we apologize and what the other person expects when we do.  An apology is often an attempt to regain or begin the process of rebuilding trust, but an apology done incorrectly can reinforce the negative predictions of future behavior – lack of trust – and make things worse, not better.

Our goal with an apology is never to make things worse.  However, in too many situations, there are more hurt feelings than before the apology was issued.  Here’s how to avoid them, why they happen in the first place, and ways to make relationships better.  We start by examining the forms an apology can take.

The Forms

Though the contents of an apology change, they take a few basic forms:

  • I’m sorry that I did something, and it harmed you. (True)
  • I’m sorry that it happened. (Sympathy)
  • I’m sorry [that I got caught]. (Consequences)
  • I’m sorry that you felt that way. (Felt)
  • I’m sorry, but… (But)

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

True Apology

Obviously, with a label like “true,” I’m conveying that this is the kind of apology that most of us want and the kind most likely to restore a relationship or begin the rebuilding process.  It connects the behavior of the person apologizing to the impact to the recipient.  Implicit in this is empathy, compassion for the person who was harmed, and the willingness to change behavior in the future.

The behavior change may come in the form of notification, protections, avoidance, or other ways to avoid harming the person again in the same or a similar way.  Some of the best apologies explain the techniques that will be used to avoid the same situation again to help ensure that the recipient of the apology can distinguish this form from the others – and can rebuild their trust.

The need for specifics is largely dictated by the degree of remaining trust in the relationship.  In relationships with a high degree of remaining trust, there’s often no need for the details.  But in deep betrayals and harm where trust is nearly completely gone, explaining the “how” of the behavior change is essential – we’ll explain why when we get to the point of apologies in the first place.

Sympathy Apology

While technically not an apology at all, sympathy often starts with the words “I’m sorry” and therefore is often confused with an apology.  It’s the first of the detractors that leads people towards believing that an apology has been issued when one has not.

When our son died, many people said, “I’m sorry.”  They weren’t apologizing for their actions, because they weren’t involved.  Instead, they were offering us their sympathy.  At times, it’s all that can be offered, but it can be dangerous, because it’s too easy to perceive the recipient to be lower than the person who is uttering the words.  Sympathy for a tragic event is understandable; sympathy for who someone is… it’s its own tragedy.

The risk with sympathy is that you separate yourself from the person with whom you’re trying to maintain or build a relationship.  It’s only by trying to gain some degree of empathy (or understanding) and have compassion for them as well that you’re able to avoid the separation.

Consequences Apology

Another form of an apology takes on the unspoken characteristic.  Instead of wishing to eliminate the pain in the recipient because of their actions, the person wishes they weren’t discovered.  Often, this occurs with addicts, who are not yet willing to acknowledge and accept their addiction, as well as those who betray the trust of their partners by straying outside of their agreed-upon monogamous relationship.  Whether married or just “going steady,” those who strayed outside the relationship are sometimes not sorry for their own behaviors but are instead sorry they got caught.

This detracts from true apologies, because instead of changing the behaviors that led to the hurt, the person offering the apology will simply redouble their efforts to keep their activities secret instead of legitimately changing their behaviors.  This makes trust in the relationship harder – often unbearably hard.

Having believed that the addict would quit using or the other person would stay within the confines of their relationship boundaries – whatever they are – they’ll eventually be confronted with another example of the behavior.  This is what leads to a cycle of apologies until the person receiving the apologies can no longer see a path to possibly rebuild trust.

Felt Apology

The felt apology skips over the actor’s behavior and expresses sorrow and sympathy for the way that the recipient feels.  It takes no responsibility – and therefore may not lead to future behavior change.  It can, however, be appropriate when there is no way to reasonably predict the other person’s reaction.  Perhaps they’ve got an undiscovered wound around a particular phrase or a sensitivity to a topic.  The person uttering the apology may have had no way of knowing about these sensitivities. They can honestly be sorry for the pain they caused without accepting responsibility for having directly caused it.

In the case of hidden wounds, the process exposes them and therefore makes repeat behavior unlikely.  The future behavior changes may therefore simply be a heightened awareness of the sensitivity rather than a direct change of behavior.  This can be completely appropriate.  It can be that the hurt felt by the recipient of the apology is not the speaker’s fault.  It can be that the recipient of the apology does have their own need to address these hurts, and all that the speaker should do is create space for the person to address their own hurts.

The difficulty is that often the felt apology doesn’t feel like an apology to the person receiving it.  They don’t see the other party as having taken an appropriate amount of responsibility for the outcome.  It’s difficult to sort out what part of the hurt is from prior circumstances and what part is the result of a person’s insensitivity or poor choices.  Here, there are no clear answers; however, it may be that the apology becomes a process where the person who was hurt attempts to help the person offering the apology understand how their behaviors directly or indirectly caused the hurt.

But Apology

With the but apology, things start off great.  The recipient of the apology hears the speaker acknowledging their behavior and the harm it caused.  However, the hope that begins to form is quickly dashed when the speaker adds “but” to the statement.  Here, the speaker acknowledges their bad behavior but, importantly, fails to accept responsibility for it.  Instead, they inappropriately return blame for their bad behavior on the recipient of the apology.  These apologies often cause more harm than good as the person receiving the apology correctly detects it as an inability for the actor in the situation to accept that they’re responsible for their behaviors.

There’s a common phrase that is quite literally incorrect: “They made me mad.”  The truth is that no one can make us mad – or any other emotion.  We chose to be mad, angry, frustrated, or even disappointed.  Their behavior may have violated our expectation or breached our trust, but we get to choose our feelings and reactions to them.  It may be natural for someone to be mad or angry given the circumstances and behaviors – however, that doesn’t mean that this is the only alternative.

There’s a great deal of research that supports that the stimulus we receive from the environment doesn’t directly control our feelings and moods.  Our feelings and moods are driven by how we interpret and respond to those stimuli.  The but apology ignores this research and, in shifting the blame, abdicates responsibility for themselves.

The Indirect Apology

Before moving on to why apologies are so important, we’ve got to address one other form of apology, the indirect apology.  This happens when one person is used to relay an apology from another.  These forms of apology simply don’t work.  It conveys that the person who reportedly wanted to apologize didn’t believe it was important enough to do it themselves.  In our technological world today, this is simply unacceptable.

Indirect apologies convey very clearly that the person harmed isn’t worth the trouble of communicating directly – even when the trouble of communicating directly is almost nothing.  It’s hard for the person receiving the apology to not hear the dismissiveness in an indirect apology.

At a logical level, the indirect apology should be better than nothing, but the truth is that the indirect apology reminds and reinforces the hurt without offering relief, thereby making it worse.

What’s the Point?

Understanding the different types of apologies and their limitations, it’s time to return to the reason for the apology in the first place.  Is the point to add another patch to a relational road that is filled with potholes and patches simply to make a seemingly obligatory gesture and smooth things over – or is the purpose instead to pave a stronger and healthier relational road?  Certainly, the former is easier and requires both less work and finesse.  However, in the end, the patches to the relationship either make it rocky or cause it to fall apart altogether, requiring a radical restructuring – or, more frequently, a dissolution – of the relationship.

Conflict Avoidance

Many apologies that fail to move the relationship forward are the result of an attempt to avoid true conflict.  The goal isn’t to strengthen the relationship, improve the character of the parties, or move to a deeper level of trust.  The goal is to quell the immediate pain and make things a bit more tolerable now.  The problem is that these approaches necessarily lead to a patchwork in the relationship and more areas that both parties must move slowly and carefully past instead of finding and resolving the root issues.

Apologies that occur too quickly fail to get to the root of the issue or create deep understanding and therefore fail to change the perception that the problems won’t happen again.  The consequences apology is the prototypical example here, but other forms can also apply.  Instead of exploring the depths of the pain, one or both parties decide to quickly cover up the problem with “I’m sorry” and hope that this is enough to escape the discomfort of the conflict.

Getting to the root of the issue that led to the hurt is sometimes hard work, and frankly I’ve never met anyone who enjoys this work.  However, at the same time, I’ve met many whole-hearted people who love others, feel compassion for their pain, and are committed to having the hard conversations to get to the results of true relational repair.

Relational Repair

Many of the circumstances that lead to an apology have caused a rift in the relationship.  One party assesses the behavior of the other as having been bad or hurtful, and they want their relationships to be positive – so they naturally desire the behavior to stop.  Depending on the severity of the violation of expectations or the grievousness of the behavior, it can be that substantial damage was done to the trust on which the relationship is built.  All relationships are built on some form and degree of trust.

The goal of relational repair is to rebuild that trust in a way that builds a firmer foundation for the relationship going forward.  This necessitates the belief that the hurt won’t reoccur.  This can be prevented by changing one or both parties’ perception of the circumstances that led to the hurt, or it can be accomplished through behavior change.  When it comes through a change in behavior, we must believe that the person who both parties concur behaved poorly will have sufficient motivation, tools, and willpower to make and sustain the change.

Trust and Safety

At the heart of our relationships is the belief that we can trust the other person.  We believe that we can feel confident – or safe – that the other party has our best interests at heart and will seek to minimize our pain when appropriate.  Strictly speaking, not all trust is positive.  We can trust that people “have it out for us” or wish us harm.  However, these are not people we are in relationship with – or, at least, we shouldn’t be in relationship with.

Trust serves an important purpose.  We trust so that we can limit our need to protect ourselves and conserve our resources.  We can use those resources for our own betterment or entertainment or for the betterment of others.  We accept the risk of betrayal – that we will incorrectly predict someone else’s behavior and be harmed – because the benefits that we receive through trusting seem like more than a fair trade.

Three Kinds of Trust

There are three different kinds of trust.  There is the basic kind of trust that we extend to others for being a part of being humans.  We trust that the person holding the door for us won’t slam it in our face.  We expect that – for the most part – merchants will treat us fairly.  We use this degree of trust to navigate the world around us and to intentionally reduce our vigilance in places where we need not consume our focus.

The second form, blind trust, is a dysfunctional kind of trust, which ignores evidence that should be leading us to not trust the other party.  Spouses often acknowledge that they should have seen infidelity long before they did because of inconsistent stories.  Many embezzlements are found long after they should have been discovered because the clues are simply ignored.  Rather than patching over the issues with trust, they’re simply ignored.

The third form of trust is authentic trust, where both parties understand the character, values, and circumstances of the other, feel able to predict the other’s behavior, and sure in their belief that such behavior will be in their best interests.  Most people have people in their lives who they’ve gone through tough times with and gotten to the other side.  These “foxhole” relationships are built on strong foundations that make them last through new challenges and the tests of time.

Contextual Confidence in Trust

One thing that is so often overlooked with trust is that it’s contextual.  We trust specific people with specific roles.  We trust our babysitter to watch our children.  We trust our accountant with our taxes.  We likely don’t trust our accountant to babysit our children or our babysitter to do our taxes.  Yes, we trust each of them.  However, we trust each of them within a specific context.

When we say that we “just don’t trust them,” we oversimplify and fail to specify the context.  To understand how we trust, we must both identify the prediction of the behavior we don’t believe we can make and the conditions – or context – that we don’t believe we can make them in.

Three Components of Trust

Trust can also be said to have three components.  There are three aspects that we may choose or refuse to trust a person in.

The first component is communication.  Do we believe that the person will tell us when there is a problem or when they made a mistake?  Will they reliably communicate with us when things are going well, too?  Communication is an essential aspect of trust that enables us to believe that we’re getting an accurate picture.

Trust comes down to an implicit contract.  The contract is what we are offering (which can be nothing) and what we expect (which may be minimal).  Our contractual trust with someone is our belief that they’ll deliver on their end of the contract.  Here, one of the key challenges is the fact that these “contracts” aren’t written.  They’re inferred and estimated.  Often, the difference in views about the nuances of the agreement or contract can lead to conflict, as one party has one expectation, and the second has a different expectation.

The final component is competence.  Do we believe that our babysitter has the skills necessary to perform their job?  Do they have a Safe Sitter® certification where we can leverage our trust of the institution on the person?  Do we trust our accountant – initially – because we believe that being a certified public accountant means that they understand the basics of accounting sufficiently to do our work well?

Competence is often a given in the trust equation – but one that sometimes shouldn’t be, as people mislead us about their competence in areas.  (Often, this misleading isn’t intentional; they’re misleading themselves as well.)

The Safety of Predicting the Future

We want trust so that we can feel safe.  As humans, we’re prediction machines.  We predict wars, markets, and, more importantly, people.  When we have a high degree of confidence in our predictions, we feel safe.  We believe that we can see and avoid problems and that no harm we can’t handle will befall us.

Any sort of hurt lowers our belief that we can predict our future.  We didn’t anticipate the hurt, and therefore we appropriately can wonder what we missed.  The apology offers us the possibility that it was a fluke or a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that will never happen again.  It can also leave us wondering whether the person offering the apology is sincere and therefore unable to predict the future.

An apology does damage to the relationship when it lowers our ability to predict the other party’s future behavior rather than raises it.  Apologies that leave us unsure whether the other person is really going to change – or not – make things worse, not better.  Naturally, after being hurt, we’ll scale back our trust in someone else.  If the apology makes it our fault, refuses to accept responsibility for their part in it, or minimizes our pain, we’ll further reduce trust – since we can’t predict that the person will continue to have our best interests at heart.


Sometimes, the Christian Bible connects language to concepts in ways that aren’t helpful.  Repentance has a negative, almost self-loathing, connotation that is undeserved.  Repentance just means a change of direction.  It means going a different direction.  It’s about different attitudes and behaviors leading to different destinations and different results.  In an apology, we’re looking for repentance.  We’re looking for a change in behavior that eliminates our future pain.

Apologies that fall short of convincing us we’ll see a change in behavior leave us worse off than when we started.  There are many ways to move towards and away from convincing others that the change will really happen.

Premature Closure

An essential aspect of an effective apology is understanding the other person.  The person issuing the apology must understand their behaviors and how it impacted the other person prior to issuing the apology.  A failure to encompass all the factors or behaviors – or, conversely, all the aspects of the pain inflicted – will unravel.

Often, the consequences apology suffers from this unwinding – and it’s the way that you can identify a consequences apology after the fact.  Apologies that fail to enumerate the aspects of the harmful behavior or fail to seek complete (if painful) understanding of the impacts to the other person are often indicators that the person isn’t sorry for their behavior or the pain it caused, they’re simply sorry they got caught.

Even in situations where there is an honest attempt at an apology and sincere regret for the pain that was caused, a failure to walk into the behaviors and the pains can invalidate the apology – and make both parties frustrated, as one believes they’ve apologized and the other finds their apologies lacking substance.

Effective apologies must review all the behaviors that could lead to the same kind of hurt whether they’re known by the other person or not.  They must create space to learn more about the pain that it caused and why.  Without these components, the apology may fold like a house of cards.

The Specifics

If you want to make your apology more believable – and more actionable for you – it requires specifics.  Getting a gym membership doesn’t make you go.  Deciding on a schedule is substantially more effective at getting in shape.  The best apologies are those which are accompanied by the specific behaviors that will change and in what circumstances.

Even when conditionalized with “I’ll try” or “I can’t make promises I’ll be perfect,” the apologies that include the specific behaviors that will be changed and how the person intends to accomplish that change are more believable than those that leave the change up to chance or fail to deliver a specific plan.

The Guardrails

Another way to bolster the effectiveness of an apology is to create space for appropriate monitoring and consequences.  In the case of infidelity, it’s often the case that the activities of the spouse will be more closely monitored.  Whether that comes in the form of monitoring their location or communications or in some other form, the point is that the person who was harmed can identify the situations or behaviors that may harm them sooner – even if this infringes a bit on the apologizer’s privacy for a while.

Similarly, clear consequences can serve as an effective tool for restoring trust.  Knowing that the person will accept a set of consequences that they pre-decided before the next lapse in behavior is both an effective deterrent for them and a reassurance for the other party.

Accepting the Apology

In the end, the person receiving the apology must accept it.  It’s not the issuance of the apology that signifies the end or minimization of the hurt, it’s the acceptancy by the person to whom the apology is offered.  Too often, we believe that we can wipe our hands of hurt when we utter the words “I’m sorry.”  It absolves us of any further responsibility or need to make amends.  Instead, we should work to ensure that the other person accepts the apology before moving on.

It’s hard, because we can own our words and behaviors.  We can offer the apology, but we can’t guarantee that the recipient of the apology will accept it – and we’ve got to accept that they may not be able or ready to accept an apology yet.  It can be the hurt is too big, the situation is unfolding, or they’re simply not able to let go yet.

Our responsibility is to issue the apology in the best ways that we can and wait for acceptance.  We may find that our apologies are never accepted.  While this may mean the tragic end to a relationship, it is something over which we have no control.

Until the apology is accepted, it’s our responsibility to monitor and be open to learning more about what we’ve done to cause the other person harm without insisting, “But I’ve already apologized.”  Often, this only furthers the awareness that the person wasn’t repentant for what they did, they just want to smooth over the conflict.

Acceptance Withdraw

Even after acceptance, there is the chance that the acceptance may be withdrawn, and work must be done again to seek acceptance.  However, the truth is rarely that the acceptance was withdrawn, but rather more evidence has come to light about behaviors leading to the hurt that were not previously disclosed.  Frequently when dealing with consequences apologies, additional information comes to light, it reopens old wounds, and the process of seeking acceptance for an apology begins anew – with a new apology that encompasses all the behaviors.

Book Review-Love’s Story Told: A Life of Henry A. Murray

It was a secret love affair for over 40 years.  It was two preeminent psychologists.  And it’s difficult to get to Love’s Story Told: A Life of Henry A. Murray without stumbling between the public appearance and the private relationships.  I came to Murray through his work with Christiana Morgan and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).  It’s a popular projective test like the Rorschach inkblot test, and it has some of the same challenges.  But I’m way ahead of myself – I need to take a step back and explain Murray and the loves of his life.

Wealthy, Even by Wealthy Standards

Murray was born to a well-to-do family and spent his time at boarding schools before heading to Harvard for his education.  He didn’t seem to be constrained to any one place or even continent as his life seemed to have him constantly traveling from America to Europe and beyond.

As might be expected from someone who grew up with wealth, he enjoyed rum, rowing, and romance.  Much is made of his battles with a professional coach for the Harvard rowing team and the rivalry with Yale.  It seems as if these challenging moments pushed Murray as much as his schoolwork.

Josephine Rantoul

Jo was born to wealth herself, and after a short courtship, she and Henry were married.  Their marriage was described as more helpmate and “pal” than romantically driven.  Their marriage was outwardly positive but internally driven by challenges of infidelity.  In addition to the “40-year secret love affair,” there are at least two other chronicled dalliances.  While Jo was certainly aware of the “secret love affair,” it’s unclear about the others.

Ultimately, Jo felt as if it wouldn’t be acceptable to divorce Henry, and he felt the same, so they remained married even after the big secret was revealed.

Christiana Morgan

She had a husband as well.  Will had Christiana’s hand in marriage.  In fact, the two couples traveled together – and separately – before Murray’s romance with Christiana.  It was certainly disappointing to Will and Jo that Christiana and Murray had an affair, but it was something that both seemed resigned to.  Will because he devoutly loved Christiana and seemed willing to put up with almost anything to have her, and Jo for the social implications.

Christiana would come to work with Henry at Harvard and would co-author the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) but not before both Henry and she had visited with Carl Jung.

Carl Jung

Jung is probably only second to Freud in terms of recognition in the world of psychology.  His work is the genesis for a large number of works including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more on MBTI.)  However, most interestingly, Jung had a former patient, Toni Wolff, as a lover with the consent and perhaps even approval of Jung’s wife, Emma.  This was the legitimization that Murray and Morgan needed.  Sitting for tea with Emma, Toni Wolff, and Carl had to have been an odd experience.

Morgan and Murray’s relationships with Jung continued for years and only really stopped when it became apparent that Jung was using Morgan’s visions as the source for his Visions seminars.  The realization that this secret was on the verge of getting out caused Murray to interject and ask Morgan to stop sharing her visions with Jung.

Jo, for her part in the story with Jung, considered him to be a “dirty old man.”  However, she did seem somewhat more settled after the talk where he explained that Murray was not that different than other men.  This hearkens to the duality of sex as explained in Anatomy of Love, where we profess monogamy with discrete affairs on the side.

The Underworld

Jung explained that Wolff exposed him to the sense of the underworld.  Morgan did the same.  She was able to flow with her feelings and consciousness that seemed unreachable to both Jung and Murray.  Neither man could on their own be so free flowing, and thus used the women as ways to investigate the emotions that they couldn’t themselves let out for fear of losing themselves to it.

Christiana continued to explore the underworld of her psyche with visions and artistry long after she stopped sharing with Jung.  It was this exploration that led her and Murray to the thought of the dyad.

The Dyad

Morgan and Murray believed that, in working together, they could perfect love and share it with the rest of the world – when the time was right.  She would bring visions, emotions, and artistry.  He’d bring cold, calculating reason.  Together, they believed that they could unlock the very secrets of love.  They never completed their mission.  Both, in their own language, eventually would declare their work a failure.  Through 40 years of effort, they’d struggle to understand, define, and document their experiences, and they’d ultimately fail.

The scribe for their endeavor was Christiana, who seemed much more taken with the idea. Henry’s writings are a small portion of the content available from their experiences.  It seemed that the differences in their worlds would pull them apart, bring them back together, and ultimately torture them both.

The Separations

After their initial love making session, Christiana and Henry were apart for about a year.  In fact, there were many times in their relationship of 40 years when they were apart.  The sketches have Henry traveling with and without Jo across Europe, and Will and Christiana taking separate roads of their own.

Despite the long-term view of a 40-year secret love affair, there were many periods when the pair weren’t together.  However, more importantly, their goals rarely were.  Christiana routinely wanted more than Henry was willing to give, and Henry wanted more out of life than Christiana.  This set the stage for the fundamental disconnect in their relationship.

For Christiana, the dyad was the thing.  For Henry, it was a thing.  Though he acquiesced about his fascination with Herman Melville and his desire to write a book about him in favor of the dyad, there seem to be many cases where the dyad wasn’t as important as his work in the clinic and, particularly, his book, Explorations in Personality.


No love story is complete without sex, but here the sex wasn’t a part of the love making process as it was a way for both of them to recover from pain.  In the later years, there was Christiana’s desire for pain and domination and Henry’s struggle with the process.  It’s fair to say that for Christiana the sex and the pleasure associated with it was a primary aim, where for Henry it seemed to be secondary.

More broadly, Henry is said to have lived with a great deal of guilt for the pain and turmoil that he inflicted on both Jo and Christiana.  His guilt, though well hidden, never left him.


My first experience with Henry Murray and Christiana Morgan was through the TAT.  During a custody evaluation an evaluator used this test among others to try to determine who was a better suited parent.  I found out later that the TAT is prohibited from expert testimony in federal court cases because of its lack of reliability.  (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology and The Cult of Personality Testing for more on the challenges with this test and others.)  It’s at that time that I picked up the book Love’s Story Told, because I was curious about Murray and how he created a test like the TAT.

I learned that many of his contemporaries were cautious about the lack of rigor and science in his work; despite that, the TAT became a widely popular test.

Around Suicide’s Bend

The real reason for making a point of reading the book was because of suicide.  Edward Shneidman was a student and fan of Henry’s who went on to lead the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center for many years and became an accomplished, well-respected suicidologist and author.  In The Suicidal Mind, he spoke about his appreciation for Expressions in Personality, and I knew I’d want to read it – but I decided I wanted to do that after I had a chance to learn more about the man behind the book.

What I didn’t realize was that it was Shneidman who would be entrusted with the letters and items for the dyad, nor that there would be so much suicide in and around the couple.

The Suicides in Murray’s Life

While Will and Jo died normal deaths, many around Murray weren’t apparently so lucky.  Other “friends” of Christiana’s, like Ralph Eaton, died by suicide.  At least 6 of Henry’s preparatory school class of 29 died by suicide as well.  There are questions about whether Christiana’s death was a suicide.  Suicide, it seemed, surrounded Murray’s life.

It’s Hard Work

The dyad wasn’t for everyone.  Even if it wasn’t the power-control fight that it appears to have become, with Christiana pulling for more of Harry and more sexual exploration and him longing for zestful thought, it would be hard work.  Both decided that it wasn’t going to be successful, but perhaps they glimpsed the kinds of relationships that folks like John Gottman would journey to discover years later.  (See The Science of Trust, The Relationship Cure, and Eight Dates for some of his work.)

It seemed as if both were so afraid of losing the dyad that they were in a constant battle to see who could control the other.  In the end, Love’s Story Told may have been more about control than love – but you should decide for yourself.

Book Review-The New Peoplemaking

I picked up The New Peoplemaking not because I wanted to continue delving into family systems but instead because that Virginia Satir’s work is often used as a model for change. I have no problems with the fact that her change theories were based on changing the family systems of her clients and many of the applications that we speak of for the model are designed for corporate use instead. While the book doesn’t fully enumerate Satir’s model for changing family systems, it does illuminate some of the powerful forces that shape families and clearly communicates Satir’s respect for those people who bravely pursue the process of having children – and therefore people-making.

Impacting Society

We speak of cultures, nations, and societies as if they exist. In truth, they are collections of people, processes, and thoughts. They don’t exist in the sense that you can reach out and touch them. They are, however, the big questions that we seem the most interested in working on. But because they don’t directly exist, we can only change them by changing the individuals that make up these institutions.

This has been the focus of Satir’s work: individual changes. How do you change the behaviors that people choose in their everyday interactions with their families and the world? Satir simultaneously recognized the personal responsibility of every member of the family system and the system itself. More importantly, she recognized that sustained societal changes happen only when you develop people. No amount of arrangement or organization will be effective in the long term if the people aren’t supported and enabled to be the best people they can be.

Strangely, the connection for individual change and its relation to organizational performance comes from the Hawthorne Works, as described in Management and the Worker. In it, the relationships of the operators changed. It wasn’t the intent of the study, but the result was a change in individual health and therefore productivity.

The Hardest Job

Satir asserts that family is the hardest, most complicated job in the world. While family isn’t one of the Gareth Morgan’s prototypical Images of Organization, perhaps it should be. If raising a family is the hardest job, then perhaps it could be a good model for how to make organizations work.

When you look at the factors that influence the effective and ineffective operation of the family, one can easily see that they’re the same sorts of factors that influence the effective operation of an organization. Quoting Satir (emphasis mine):

The factors in a positive pairing relationship are:

  1. Each person stands firmly on his or her own feet and is autonomous.
  2. Each person can be counted on to say real “yes’s” and “no’s”—in other words, to be emotionally honest.
  3. Each person can ask for what she or he wants.
  4. Each acknowledges and takes responsibility for her or his actions.
  5. Each can keep promises.
  6. Each can be counted on to be kind, fun to be around, courteous, considerate, and real.
  7. Each takes full freedom to choose to comment on what is going on.
  8. Each supports the other’s dreams in whatever way possible. Together, they cooperate instead of competing.

Compare this with the kinds of guidance that Amy Edmondson recommends in The Fearless Organization, Tim Clark exposes in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, or Richard Hackman shares in Collaborative Intelligence, and you’ll see similarities.


The basis of any human endeavor are relationships. Whether it’s a work, professional relationship or a family relationship, it’s the basis of what it means to be human. Historically, counseling focused on the individual who was representing problems, either of their own report or because their behaviors deviated the norms that their families and society could accept. However, Satir recognized that the behaviors operate only in the system that they’re created. Kurt Lewin explained that behavior of a function of both person and environment. (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality.) Thus, counseling one person necessarily misses half the problem.

Satir recognized that relationships start in pairs: two people in relationship with one another. However, these relationships quite quickly take on a third element, whether it’s the first child entering into the marriage relationship or someone else. While triads can be powerful, in the case of relationships, they’re generally fragile. In chemistry, O3 is ozone, and it’s unstable. O2 is the more familiar oxygen molecule that we’re used to. In Grannoveter’s work, he recognized that sometimes we see unstable relationships through forbidden triads like a man, his wife, and his mistress. It can work together, but often does not. (See Analyzing the Social Web for more.)

Family Portrait

While the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is a discredited test that used to be used as a part of psychological evaluations that drew inferences from pictures, the idea of visualizing your family portrait may have value. (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more.) By visualizing the way you see your family and then comparing it to real life, you may be able to see distortions that lead to poor interaction patterns.

Too many people are led to believe that family life must be perfect. This is an expectation that simply cannot be lived up to. In my review of Fault Lines, I explained that we believe our family lives should resemble Norman Rockwell artwork, but it can’t. That’s not real. The perception of our family should accept the faults that we have, that our family members have, and how our relationships aren’t perfect. We can’t expect perfect, we can only look to accept things as they are and work to make them better.

Stopping Problems

Dysfunctional families spend all their time and energy working to prevent problems from happening. They want to hide their reality from the outside world and as a result they use all their emotional energy trying to prevent the inevitable.

Healthy family systems recognize that problems will happen. They aren’t desired or welcomed, but they’re expected. These systems don’t waste their time preventing problems that can’t be prevented or denying the problems that are happening. Instead, they focus their energies on coping with the problems that do occur.

Fear of the Future

All fears are fundamentally a fear of a negative situation happening in the future. Our fears are the result of our concern that a negative outcome will substantially impact them in a way that they won’t be able to cope. (See The Hidden Logic Behind Perceived Situational Safety for more.) The key is that the more people believe they have the resources and capacity to overcome any impacts of the risk or stressor they fear, the less fear they’ll have.

We fear what we don’t believe we can successfully confront – whether that confrontation is a threat to our life or just our ideas.

The Control of our Attitudes

Sometimes the circumstances can’t be changed. Consider a family that is severely in debt. They can’t instantly transform themselves into a debt-free family – though this is possible over time. What they can do is change their relationship with money and, more importantly, how they interact with each other when they feel financial pressure. It’s not the circumstances that have changed that can create the substantially positive result, it’s the attitude about the circumstances that matter.

I’ve seen numerous people who are in the midst of struggles with their finances, their relationships, and their addictions. The most powerful changes they make aren’t the changes they make in their situation. The most powerful changes were in their attitudes about their situation. When they stopped seeing their marriage as an obligation and started seeing it as a way to express their love to their children and spouse, the problems nearly disappeared. Objectively nothing changed, but subjectively the entire world was different.


Having self-worth isn’t always easy. Whether it’s the voices of your parents or others in your life that told you that you were no good, didn’t meet the standard in some way, that they hoped for something else, or a myriad of other options, understanding your inherent value as a human is a powerful way to keep fear at bay – and to improve relationships with others.

Many of the problems that people have in their relationships are reflections of their poor self-worth. Instead of interpreting the other person’s comments in the most generous way possible, they respond to their childhood hurts and lash out. A husband can ask her wife where the spatula is and receive a response about him interfering in her kitchen, because she fears that if he cooks, she’ll have no value.

Everyone has redeeming qualities and aspects of themselves that are adored – or can be adored – by others. Finding ways to expose these aspects in ways that allows the person to grow can be difficult. In Creative Confidence, Tom and David Kelley explain that all of us are born creative and it’s “reinforced” out of us. How do you send messages of self-worth to yourself and others instead of messages of worthlessness?

Planting a Person

Consider for a moment that a trusted friend gives you a seed for a precious plant that they want you to have, but they don’t (and won’t) tell you what plant the seed will grow. You dutifully plant the seed, water it, and fertilize the soil. You’ve created the conditions under which the seed can grow without controlling or directing its growth. (For more of this general idea, see On Dialogue by David Bohm.) Judith Rich Harris explains in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption that you can’t expect your children will grow exactly the way you want them to. There are too many factors involved. The result of this is your children are precious gifts that you can’t control but you can encourage towards growth.

Taboo Against Touching

In some families, touching is restricted. Fathers stop hugging their daughters, and, to a lesser extent, mothers stop hugging their sons. What may have been a family ritual of piling on the couch to watch a movie becomes awkward as the children grow, and the parents become concerned that touching their children may be misinterpreted. Out of fear, they pull away from physical touch that is a part of our human condition.

It’s not that there don’t need to be boundaries and that attention need not be paid to appropriate vs. inappropriate touch – there does need to be. However, in too many families, these waters seem too difficult to navigate and in the process all touch is prohibited.

In our world, I can tell you that I hug our sons and our daughters – and Terri does the same. We recognize that this is an important part of feeling connected as a family and work to find appropriate ways to share touch without it feeling sexual to any party.

Taboos Against Sex

As explained in Anatomy of Love, our Western culture has numerous restrictions on discussion and acts of sex in general where other cultures are much more open. The unfortunate side effect of this is that we’ve unintentionally taught our children that sex is bad. As a result, when they become a part of a relationship where sex is appropriate (say marriage as an example), they still struggle with their ability to express themselves sexually because they can’t shake the feeling that it’s somehow bad.

The more we can be open about sex – without encouraging it for young adults who aren’t ready – the less dysfunction that the children are likely to express as an adult.


There are many words that are used to describe the same concept. “Congruence” is Satir’s word for the same thing that I’d call a “stable core” (see Resilient for more) or that Brené Brown calls “wholeheartedness.” (See Dare to Lead for more.) The Arbinger Institute uses different language in Leadership and Self-Deception about staying out of the “box,” but the point is the same. It’s about being the best possible person, a person who can experience negative external events and situations without being overly reactive. Satir’s word hints at the stance that makes that possible. She hints to the facts that what someone does on the outside, the way they act, is in congruence with the way they feel in the inside. They’ve not just changed their outward behaviors, but they’ve also changed their inner mindset.

Privacy and Self-Integrity

Many people will claim their need to privacy. However, this isn’t exactly what they need. Privacy creates places where we can behave in ways inconsistent with our values or the image, we want to show the world. A person with an integrated self-image (see Braving the Wilderness) will need very little privacy and only in cases necessary to prevent vulnerability.

However, it is important to note that the root of the suggestion that we need privacy comes for the need to protect our identity from others. We also ask for privacy when we’re concerned that others may try to intrude on our identity.

Don’t Talk About It

A friend of mine’s family didn’t talk about certain things. Growing up as a preacher’s kid, he learned that if it was negative or too “out there,” you just didn’t talk about it. The unwritten rule in the family was that if it wasn’t talked about, it didn’t exist. Of course, this is like burying your head in the sand. It doesn’t change the actual situation, it just changes your perception and not in a good way.

His family isn’t alone. Many learn the message that you shouldn’t talk about Aunt June’s drinking problem, Jimmy’s conviction, or the fact that we know other members of the family are cheating in public. If you don’t talk about it, then it doesn’t exist. Embarrassment prevents reality.

The problem is that it doesn’t. In addiction circles, there’s a saying that “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” (See Neurodharma for more.) The more that we can be open about any topic and discuss it, the less likely we are to find ourselves in dysfunctional states.

You, Me, and Us

One of the key questions in relationships is how to take two separate things and mix them together to become not you and me but you, me, and us. Some relationships have a high degree of you and me with very little us. Conversely, some people become so enmeshed that they lose themselves. They really don’t understand how they can exist without the other person.

For healthy relationships, there must always be all three – you, me, and us. For those who have stronger senses of themselves, it’s possible to minimize the amount of me. For those who are co-dependent or unsure of their own identity, minimizing their identity in a relationship is dangerous. They may very well lose themselves.

Often, we see people lose themselves to the us, because they’re so afraid of loneliness that they’ll do anything to avoid it.


Loneliness explains how being alone and loneliness are not the same. We can be surrounded by people and feel loneliness and conversely be alone and not feel lonely. Loneliness is an unfortunate feeling that humans must endure. There is no avoiding it.

The key is to accept loneliness in appropriate amounts and to learn how to move your way back from the loneliness. Forming and maintaining multiple relationships is essential for keeping loneliness from lingering for too long. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on multiple relationships.)

Good from Bad Stock

One of the challenges with guardians – including parents – who are negative about a child’s parents is that you may unintentionally create self-esteem problems. The question becomes, “How can I be good if my parents aren’t good?” This creates a huge problem – and it’s one of the hidden impacts of parental alienation. (See The Progression of Parental Alienation for more.)

There are ways to decouple someone’s self-esteem from their parents’ value, but it’s not always easy. One tool is to reduce the belief that genetics are the only thing that makes someone good or bad. (See No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption for more on the degree to which genetics play a part.)

Reaction Not Control

One of the challenges in any family is the degree to which one family member believes that they have the right to control other members of the family. While this happens from parents to children rather frequently, it also happens with siblings. Older siblings are often enlisted as assistants with the younger children and therefore retain some sense of responsibility or control.

We all want to control others, but none of us want to be controlled. (See Compelled to Control for more.) As we attempt to control others, their natural inclination is to try to turn away. If, however, we learn to be responsive to them and their behaviors without accepting responsibility for them or attempting to control them, we’ll find that the entire family system becomes healthier. (See The HeartMath Solution for more on detachment, and Responsive or Responsible for more on the real meaning of responsibility.)

Pals for Parents

Another trap that parents can fall into is the desire to be friends with their children. Children need strong boundaries (see Parent Effectiveness Training and Boundaries). The primary responsibility of a parent is not to be their child’s friend, rather their primary responsibility is to help their children become functioning adults. Too often, parents become so concerned with being their child’s friend that they’re unwilling to hold them appropriately accountable. (See The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable for more.)

You Should Know

One of the weapons that is used against other family members is the statement, “Well, you should know.” Whether used by children or parents, it’s a weapon that isn’t fair and is one of the worst things that can be done. In The Science of Trust, John Gottman speaks about things that break down relationships the most serious of which is stonewalling. “You should know” combines stonewalling with shaming by implying that you’ve done something wrong that you don’t know – and effectively preventing further conversation on the topic.

It’s a logical fallacy that one should “know” anything, and that it should be allowed to end the conversation. (See Mastering Logical Fallacies for more.) Certainly, “You should know” may be uttered in frustration, but to prevent it from being toxic, it should be followed with “but here’s what the issue is.”

If you’re a parent or you’re thinking of becoming one, I encourage you to prepare for The New Peoplemaking.

Book Review-Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray

It started simple enough. I wanted to explain to a friend who was struggling how there were different kinds of love. The problem is that I couldn’t figure out how to get to the right words. I knew that there were different kinds and different expressions of love, but I just couldn’t find the words. On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up Helen Fisher’s work, Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. Buried in the middle of the work was the important answer I needed, but surrounding it was a rich study of how love works. Drawing from anthropology and neurology, Fisher explains possible answers as to why humans bond in the first place and why those bonds seem to break too easily.


The friends who introduced me to Fisher’s work are polyamorous. Both members of the couple are people my wife and I would consider good friends. While Terri and I are both clear about our beliefs about marriage and relationships, we continue to try to understand the perspectives and beliefs of our friends. The truth is that the couple aren’t the only ones we know who’ve decided at some point to have a kind of relationship that strays from what most people would consider traditional.

With the pieces that I’m about to share from the book, one might reasonably assume that I’m considering a polyamorous life; however, that would not be true. While I recognize that monogamy isn’t the norm for mammals and may not have been designed to last more than the time it takes to rear a child, for me, it’s still the right answer. The good news is that I gained a bit of extra insight as to why and how my friends find themselves with a primary bond and a non-primary bond.

Dual Strategy

The anthropological research shows something odd. Marriages exist in most cultures and adultery is common. It seems that most humans developed a dual strategy for ensuring the survival of our offspring. We find a good mate – a primary bond – and we find lots of others for whom we share a special affinity. In tribes across the globe, it seems like there was a marriage relationship and the expectation that there would be coitus outside of marriage. This is particularly true of men but, in many cases, true of women as well.

In some cultures, men often offer their wives to their hunting partners, friends, and guests. With mutual consent, the wife and the non-spouse have sex. In other cultures, it’s believed that it takes many men to father a child, thus everyone in the village feels as if the child is, at least in part, theirs.

Western Moral Code

It turns out that it’s only Westerners who attach such a stigma to sex in general but also to various sexual relations. The strict regulation of sexual activity may have been necessary to prevent communities from being unduly burdened by children from parents who couldn’t support them, but the result was a sense of shame and guilt about sex in nearly every form.

In other cultures, sex and promiscuity are more openly accepted, with everyone in a village knowing who is coupling with whom. In many cultures, the knowledge is shared in the community but never discussed directly between spouses. Perhaps this approach avoids jealousy and therefore prevents uncomfortable confrontations.

The only sacrosanct prohibitions about sex are that you shouldn’t disrupt the marriage union.


The marriage union serves a useful purpose. Humans’ massive heads can’t fit through the birth canal if fully developed, so Mother Nature started kicking out human offspring before they were fully able to care for themselves. The result was an even larger burden on the mother in caring for the child and therefore the greater need for support from another – typically the father or presumed father.

Marriage, then, as a concept provides a framework for support of the development of an offspring. Fisher’s research seems to lead towards the idea that marriages happened for 3-4 years if only one offspring was produced and continued only for 3-4 years after the birth of the last offspring.

One often points to other species to speak of the kind of monogamous pair bonding that we seek to achieve in marriage. However, only about 3% of mammals pair bond like we do. While 90% of birds pair bond, the problem is in how long it lasts – and the degree to which it holds. Scientists have found both that birds will copulate with others outside of their primary bond, and they’ve found in many cases the primary bond is limited to a single mating season.

Birds have a much shorter time until having an empty nest than humans, and their rapid de-pairing after a season means that it’s possible that humans have the same built-in timeclock, but the clock just takes longer to wind down.

When Marriages Fail

From an evolutionary perspective, having multiple suitors makes sense for the female. It’s been widely accepted that males chase and females choose. For a male with limited commitment to the development of an offspring, copulating with as many females as possible increases the chances of their genes to continue. For women, it can increase their chances for the survival of their genes as well. By courting favor with many men, should she become abandoned – or should there be a situation where her husband dies – she’s got a built-in set of potential stand-ins to assist her in raising her children.

Spiritual Evolution explains that baboons with better social bonds improved the outcomes for their children. What better way to form a social bond than to unlock nature’s reward system with dopamine?

The Reward System

Much has been made of the human reward system and how dopamine is the way that we’re encouraged to keep doing something. The Power of Habit perhaps overplays the hand by speaking of anticipation; but other books about addiction, like The Globalization of Addiction, take a more balanced view, explaining how addiction is fueled by the dopamine system and simultaneously explaining environmental factors.

The simple truth is that evolution equipped us with a set of mechanisms that rewarded behaviors that led to the survival of our genes. Simple biases added up to a system where sexual reproduction was rewarded with dopamine – our natural pleasure drug. It’s a quick response that helps us know that this is the sort of thing to do – like eating sugar, chocolate, or salt. Add to that the neurotransmitter oxytocin, and you add to the pleasure a sense of desire to bond – or pair bond. Which is, of course, what we need if our offspring require a great deal of resources to support their birth and growth to self-sufficiency.

It’s Not All About Sex

Despite the powerful neurochemicals in play most people (95% of females, and 91% of males) say that the best thing about love is not sex. There’s more going on than the neurochemical wash associated with sex. It seems like that the need for connection, understanding, and belief of mutual support is more powerful than we would anticipate.

Moving back to the analogy of love as an addiction for a moment, Fisher’s work parallels what we know about addiction. Addicts do receive a bit of dopamine from their addiction – in whatever form – however, the way that we fight off addition isn’t the use of more dopamine at other times. Instead, the way that we combat addictions is through changing the person’s environment and, most importantly, their connection with a community.

The Risks of Sex

One of the interesting changes that came to the way we view sex is the change in the degree of risk that sex entailed. We’ve had condoms as a form of contraception for centuries. The efficacy of this mechanism has varied over the years but has generally become more effective at preventing pregnancy and often the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. As I mentioned in my review of The Normal Personality, the change in views on sex was accelerated by the development of the birth control pill in the 1950s and the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in the 1970s that legalized abortion.

Within a few decades, the possibility of an unwanted child dropped substantially. Two forms of contraception and the possibility of abortion made it a much lower risk. Add to that a set of new antibiotics and other treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, and you have the foundation for a change in perspective about sexual practices.

While the Western world is still has many cultural taboos about sexual practices, there are forces set against that, and the tide of perspective about sexual practices is changing.

The Attraction

One of the most interesting ponderings is how someone’s love map is formed. That is, why are some people attractive and others are not? What is it that makes someone interesting as a mate? Some of it appears to be due to timing. While it’s possible to be attracted to a childhood friend, it appears as if there’s a period of time when familiarity makes you someone who’s not a reasonable suitor. Children raised together will rarely date or marry – but if they’re not together during a critical phase, there seems to be no such resistance. (It’s estimated between 3-6 years old.)

The opposite is also true. When someone is ready to “mate,” it seems as if the right person will come along. It seems that we tend to be attracted to those who are available – which, of course, would be advantageous if you don’t have that many available options – and it would help to be attracted to someone that actually exists.

That being said, we also tend to be attracted through our noses – and to people who have a set of genetics that broadens our immune defenses. Sweat has been an ingredient in love potions around the world. It’s been found to trigger luteinizing hormone in women – which increases sexual arousal. Sweat was more appealing when there was a genetic diversity in the histocompatibility complex, which drives our immune system.

The Nuclear Family

For the most part, we take for granted that the best family for a child to grow up in is a nuclear family. However, this is largely a new phenomenon. In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood explains that family structure of the “GI Generation” was multigenerational. While Robert Putnam notes the decline of the nuclear family in Our Kids, the nuclear family that rose during the “Silent Generation” was largely considered a luxury by the time the baby boomers were starting their families. Fisher’s work indicates that, in many cultures and in the prehistoric past, it really did take a village to raise a child – or at least that was the way it was typically done.

So, while our mating habits supported our dual strategy with marriage and adultery, the burden placed on any individual marriage was less weighty. Over time, as our relationships with others eroded (see Bowling Alone), and we removed the societal expectation of collaborative support – a social safety net – we began to put more emphasis and weight on the individual marriage, a weight that it seems evolution didn’t plan for, and we saw the rise of divorces. (For more about divorce in general, see Divorce.)

The Rise of Divorce

In Islam, it was easy to divorce a wife. In some cases, it meant saying that you divorced the other person three times and waiting out the waiting period, and it was done. However, divorce was also different. People’s possessions weren’t really up for grabs in a divorce. It was simply the end of the pair bond. The man kept his tools, and the wife kept her things, and both went along their merry – or not so merry – way.

However, the greatest influence on the rate of divorce in the Western world was World War II. During World War II, there were many changes that created a greater competition for men. More important, the labor shortage moved women into jobs that generated income, and suddenly their dependence upon men for their material needs vanished.

That is not to say that women didn’t work before; they did. However, they worked in “pink collar” jobs that allowed them to buy the modern conveniences that they wanted. After World War II, they were making real incomes – and realizing they weren’t dependent upon their men for money.

That is not to say that they didn’t make room for the returning men or that anyone did anything wrong. It’s just that, in the Western world, the illusion had been broken, and it became more of an option to divorce. Additionally, the introduction in the law of “irreconcilable differences” reduced the friction of getting a divorce – and released some of the couples from marriages that weren’t good but for which it was too difficult to escape.

Despite the focus on the United States, divorce rose in all places where women became less dependent.

God and Marriage

Many of the sexual acts that we would describe as immoral today were commonplace in the ancient past. The Greeks were notorious for their sexual practices – including homosexuality. In the Jewish faith, there were relatively few rules for sexual conduct. Though the Genesis account of Sodom and Gomorrah is often used by Christians for the condemnation of homosexuality, there’s a great debate about whether that’s the true reason for God’s decision to destroy the two cities. In fact, it’s in this story that we see perceptions of sexuality, as Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the men – rather than the two male guests. One interpretation of this recounting (one I admittedly favor because it fits within the broader story arc of the Bible) is that it’s not the homosexuality which is the root of God’s anger but is instead the lack of concern for others’ willingness or beliefs that plagued the towns.

Fisher reports that the change in the relationship between Judaism and sex started somewhere after the exile period (516 BC) through to the follow of Jerusalem in about (70 AD). Suddenly, God was much more concerned about what people did – and didn’t do – sexually.

While contemporary Christians believe that the current interpretations about God’s position on sexual relations were always the case, there’s evidence that things have changed – and that they’ve been distorted. (Another serious distortion not covered by Fisher is the idea of whether sex before marriage is prohibited by the Bible or not. My reading doesn’t show any such prohibition on sex before marriage, but it’s become a well-established perspective in Christian circles.)

Why Do We Cheat?

If the system that we’ve created is one that is dual with both commitment and adultery, then why is it that we have adultery at all? The traditional explanation is that the marriage is bad or that one party is unhappy. The problem is that it can’t explain every case. Of those who admitted to adultery, 56% of men and 34% of women rated their marriages as happy. In short, the “party line” doesn’t work. They’re happy in their marriage, and they had a paramour. While the degree to which women admitted to having a paramour jumped from 9% in the 1950s to 25% in the 1970s, there’s no reason to believe they were substantially less happy in their marriages. Either they were more open about their dalliances, or they felt more free to have them.

While Fisher’s subtitle offers the idea that we’ll learn “why we stray,” it would be more accurate to say that we’re presented with a series of reasons why we might stray rather than a straightforward, linear, step-by-step, progression, perhaps indicating that there isn’t one reason but instead many. Factors like higher income increased the probability, while religious affiliation seemed to have no impact.

Perhaps the most strenuous statement about adultery is that these has never been found a culture that didn’t know of it, nor has there been a culture where societal rules have extinguished it. There are, however, many societies and communities where there is a strong pressure to stay in marriages as long as possible.

How Long Can One Be in Romantic Love?

Before fully explaining the various types of love, it’s important to recognize the factors that tend to lead towards the idea that chemically dependent kinds of love must be short lived. If we derive our feelings of attraction solely through a neurochemical, and love makes us feel this more intently, then eventually our brains will habituate or adapt to this heightened level of neurochemical and establish this as a new normal – thereby depriving us of the infatuation kind of love that we expect. From our study of drugs, we know that it takes more and more of the same drug – chemical – to derive the same result. What is called “tolerance” in alcoholics might be called “expectations” in those who are in love.

If we look at love as a set of different chemicals and mental processes, we have the option to find paths that lead us to a permanent, enduring love. Yes, we can develop greater production capacity for these chemicals, or we can release the chemicals in patterns that don’t increase tolerance while still giving us the intense feelings of attraction and infatuation that we associate with love.

Fisher’s research has shown while romantic (attracted or infatuated) love typically fades, it doesn’t have to fade. She found couples who had been madly in love for decades. The sight or thought of their mate still triggered the same areas of the brain and elicited the same kind of response. So, while it’s not the norm to remain infatuated with a mate, it’s certainly possible.

Four Kinds of Love

When C.S. Lewis spoke of love in The Four Loves, he did so more or less metaphorically. When Fisher describes her four different kinds of loves, she does so from the perspective of the four neurochemicals involved in the process. They are dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and oxytocin (estrogen). Dopamine, as has been previously addressed, is associated with infatuation, attraction, and lust. Fisher describes them as potential romance junkies. It’s the first kind of love.

Serotonin-driven love, Fisher proposes, may be disposed to becoming attachment junkies. Serotonin as a neurochemical is most well-known through the class of anti-depressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. The short of this is that low levels of serotonin are connected with depression, and some love increases natural happiness – or at least protection from depression.

Testosterone-driven love are those prone to feeling as if they’ve accomplished something. It’s the kind of love where you guard your mate from being interested in others. Perhaps that’s why men (who have naturally higher testosterone) are two-to-three times more likely to commit suicide after being rejected. They’re also more prone to violence.

Oxytocin is known as the cuddle drug and drives people to want to be together and in physical touch with one another. This type of love is driven by physical closeness and touch.

Intimacy, Privacy, and Trust

Today, we desire greater intimacy in our relationships. We want to know more completely those whom we are committing ourselves to. Perhaps our changing expectations of intimacy are why we are considering ideas like people having Intimacy Anorexia. We expect greater degrees of intimacy – and not everyone has adapted to this greater need for and expectations of intimacy.

At the same time, we’re also fiercely protective of our privacy. We believe that we should be able to keep some things private – even from our committed spouse. We’ve grown up with private bedrooms and the expectation of privacy from even the rest of our family. In the 1940s it’s estimated that a home averaged about 1,000 square feet with only roughly half having indoor plumbing. The 2015 US Census places the average single-family home at 2,687 square feet. That’s with the trend in the number of people who are living in each home declining.

We talk to our neighbors less as Robert Putnam explains in Bowling Alone. No longer do we chit-chat with our neighbors coming home from work. We drive our cars into our enclosed garages and hit a button to close the garage door behind us before anyone can intrude upon our space.

In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explains how we’re not as connected as we once were despite having faster, and richer communications options than have ever been present before. We feel hollow as we use these new technologies to try to form connections. We overexpose ourselves via social media and long for privacy from others.

As I explain in Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited, intimacy comes from trust, which leads to safety, which leads to vulnerability. One of the great challenges of our modern world is the belief that even among married couples there should be privacy. I disagree. I see the need for privacy as the result of a lack of feeling of safety. In some way, we believe that our marriage partner will judge us, and we will be harmed.

I know too many married couples who aren’t willing to allow their partner to see them naked – or at least they avoid it. There are those who don’t know the lock code for their spouse’s phone. In some of these cases, it’s because they don’t want to feel judged for what is on it. If we long for intimacy, we cannot rely on privacy and secrets.

Broken Homes

At some level, all our families of origin are broken. Whether they were fraught with a denial of emotions, bouts of rage, alcoholism, prison sentences, or other factors, we’ve all received our training for how to do love and family in incomplete or dysfunctional ways. This is just a part of growing up.

One of the key challenges that is often overlooked is the degree of enmeshment or fusion between parents and their children. Some parents cannot separate their children’s successes and failures from their own. Some are trying to relive parts of their lives they feel they missed though their children – and it’s unhealthy.

It leads to a potential pattern where privacy may be necessary in a marriage relationship. In every relationship, there must be a you, a me, and an us. In healthy, committed relationships, the amount of you and me can be small but well protected by both parties. An unhealthy relationship – driven by challenges during our upbringing – may require a larger amount of you and me to ensure that they don’t disappear. In general, these should only be large in as much as they are necessary to protect each individual from disappearing all together.

If you’re looking to better understand relationships and love, a good place to start may be the Anatomy of Love.

Book Review-Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success

Nice guys finish last – or do they? This is at the heart of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. If you study people and sort them into categories of the most giving and those that are trying to wring out the very last ounce that life has to offer by extracting it from others, who will come out on top? Does the hard-nosed negotiator win by a nose, or does the giver gallop to the lead?

The Biggest Losers and The Biggest Winners

Grant’s research showed that givers were the biggest losers. When they gave to others, they deprived themselves of productivity, and therefore they lost the race. When they contributed to others’ projects and worlds, they short-changed their own, and that showed up in their results. Game over. Case closed. Just take what you can, and you’ll get further. But wait, not so fast.

What if instead of using the time horizon of a few weeks, months, or years, you began to look at givers across the span of their lives or widened the lens out to account for many years and decades of continuous giving? What then? It turns out that givers come out at the top of the list.

In the short term, being a giver works to your disadvantage; but in the long term, being a giver works to your advantage. Giving is an investment in people, and it pays off – but only after time. Givers may never receive back from someone what they invest in them, but that’s okay. Whether you want to make it mystical and call it karma, or you decide to make it relational and talk about goodwill and positive affect, people begin to do nice things for givers, and those are things that the giver couldn’t do for themselves. They’re invaluable.

Knowledge Management

For years now, I’ve had the honor of being a part of the knowledge management community. It’s practitioners that have the lofty goal of getting more people to share what they know in ways that allows that knowledge to be helpful to others and therefore the organization. It’s fundamentally designed to create more givers in a corporate world that is more often filled with takers. Grant explains that, though we often act more generously in our personal lives, we tend to operate like takers in the corporate world.

Demand explains the idea of a hassle map. It’s the small things that often seem trivial or insignificant – but create big changes in people’s behavior. Knowledge managers are often focused on removing the barriers or friction to being able to share – either by connecting people to one another or improving findability of explicit (written or recorded) information. By paving the roads between the user’s current behavior and a more giving behavior, they help more people share.

Taking a page from Jonathan Haidt’s work in The Happiness Hypothesis (as was picked up in Switch), knowledge managers make the default answer the right answer. (Nudge also covers this idea.) The easier it is to do something, the more it will be done. The Tipping Point explained an experiment where the goal was to get more students to get a tetanus shot. There were several approaches, but the one that was the most effective was to include a map to where the students could get the shot. It didn’t require sharing gory details of possible outcomes. It required reducing the effort and confusion.

In the end, knowledge managers are trying to push the pendulum a bit more towards the giving side than the taking side.

Environment Matters

Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. That is, the environment has a great deal of influence on behavior. You may be generous with family and friends and cold hearted in business. The environment (or context) matters. However, the environment is malleable. The way people behave becomes the expected culture of the environment, and that environment then influences future behavior. (See Thinking in Systems for more on how systems loop back on one another.)

In The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod shows with game theory that cooperation is adaptive. Programs competed in a version of the prisoner’s dilemma, and those that did best were those that used the tit-for-tat strategy. That is, you did back to the other party what was done to you. A slightly modified version, which occasionally forgave indiscretions by the other party, did even better. The kinds of programs that were competing dramatically impacted the overall success. The more positive and giving the programs were, the more likely it was for better overall success.

Weak Ties and Reputation

Programs can’t learn about reputations easily. The simulations are too direct, and don’t run long enough. However, our lives are much longer, and the number of interactions that we have are much more diverse. We begin to develop a sense of how we expect others to behave – and we can rely on other signals in our network.

In Analyzing the Social Web, we learned about how weak ties are sometimes more useful than strong ties. Weak ties bring you things that aren’t already in your experience. Granovetter published his research that showed that it was weak ties – not strong ones – that led to the most jobs. Our reputation is an expression of even weaker ties – and influence on those weak ties. If they’re so important, then perhaps in the very long term, making investments in reputation are critical.

Short Term vs. Long Term

In the narrowest view, the decision between whether you should be a giver or a taker is largely based on how long-term your view is. If you’ve got a short-term, tactical view of the interaction, then taking is the most advantageous strategy. If you’re looking for the long term, then giving up a bit now and being a giver seems to be the best answer.

In The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, I explain that shared history creates a strong bond that in turn creates a relatively positive impact on reputation. If you knew this person when you were both younger, you’re likely to be more positive about them than you would have been then – or perhaps should be.

Philip Zimbardo in The Time Paradox explains that people have different ways of looking at time. Some people look for the hedonistic immediate gratification while others look forwards or backwards in time – either positively or negatively. (Sidebar: Zimbardo is more famous for his role in the Stanford Prison Experiment, which he recounts in The Lucifer Effect.) It may be that the more inclined you are to look into the future, the more likely you are to take a giving strategy. Similarly, if you look at Clayton Christensen’s question, How Will You Measure Your Life?, you may be more likely to be a giver.

Service to Others

An odd aspect of this is service to others and how givers sometimes overcommit and burn out. (Check out Extinguish Burnout for burnout related resources.) One of the things that Grant noticed was that sometimes the right answer to burnout when you’re serving other people isn’t to serve less – but to serve more. What he saw was that, sometimes, when you add additional service, people became less burned out. We’ve seen this too – but the key point is that the people who added the additional service got clear, unmistakable feedback that their service was valuable. That drove their awareness of their results and made them feel like all their contributions were more valuable.

Agreeable and Assertive

One of the traps that givers sometimes fall into – which is often easier to escape than burnout – is the idea that they can’t be assertive and protect their boundaries. They believe that to be liked they must always be agreeable even when it doesn’t support their needs as a human. Learning that although people generally like others more if they’re agreeable, they often respect people more when they’re assertive. (See Radical Candor for more about this.)

Adaptable Styles

In truth, neither the giver nor the taker style is right for every situation – and neither is the third style that I’ve not mentioned, the matching style. The right answer for giving and taking is to be adaptable. Being generally a giver but being willing to prevent getting run over may make it easier to get to where you can use both Give and Take.