Tuesday, February 23, 2010


My local grocery store has a paperback book rack that I’d never really noticed before. This time I noticed it and brushed by, supercilious nose in the air. What literary nourishment could I possibly find at Nelsons County Market? But then I had a flashback – to a time when I did, indeed, find a number of interesting books displayed in just this kind of rack.

When I was a senior in high school, I did not disdain such displays. Miss Zamow, my A.P. English teacher, had ignited an interest in reading, and whenever I was in the drug store in Baken Park (Rapid City’s first strip mall – this was 1964, it had to have been one of the first strip malls in the country), I’d spend long minutes twirling the plastic tower of books, hoping to find something as engaging as “Return of the Native” – our most recent A.P. assignment.  (Although I’ve tried in vain to convince my daughters that I was not, in fact, a nerd in high school, they’ve, alas, seen the class photos. I’m afraid I’ll have to admit that the best way to picture this scene is to imagine that kid from Napoleon Dynamite listlessly watching the books whirl by on the rotating rack.) Anyway, it is at that very rack that I discovered Solzenhitsyn’s “One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Who knew! A world classic at Rexall.

Later, a spin of the same carousel brought forth “The Lord of the Flies,” then (speaking of spinning carousels), Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” (No one evokes a midwestern boys' world like Ray Bradbury.)

After my first year of college I had a job in a small town in far northeastern South Dakota. In another drug store at another plastic rack I picked up a book called “The Lord of the Rings” because the title reminded me of that other “Lord” book that I had recently read. I took it back to my room, opened it, and didn't close it until I got to the end, saw with panic that it "continued in Book Two," jumped into my car, and zoomed almost frantically among the other small towns of that quadrant of South Dakota until, on another rack in some other corner pharmacy, I finally came upon “The Two Towers.” (A week later the cover headline on Time Magazine was “Lord of the Rings Sweeps the Nation’s Campuses.” Thus, I’ve always taken credit for being the American discoverer of J.R.R. Tolkien.)

A few years later, visiting my wife’s farm home, we drove into town on some errands. Another small town, yet another Rexall Drug Store. This time it was the fat paperback edition of “Lonesome Dove.” I had never heard of it or Larry McMurtry – so once again a good read was accompanied by the joy of discovery.

I could go on. Actually, I couldn’t. From that time on I graduated to the world of funky neighborhood book shops, Barnes and Noble, and, now, Amazon – leaving the paperback racks circling backward into the past.  But I wonder? Have I been missing something? Just when I’ve discovered Whole Foods, the Atlantic food editor is recommending the produce and groceries of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart! Should I, in fact, be looking among the paperbound spy thrillers and bodice-rippers next to the film department at Walgreens to find (or even discover!) the next great contribution to world lit?

It would be a good ending for this essay if I could report that I went back to that grocery store book display and found “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” or “The Sonnets of John Donne: A New Interpretation.” But I didn’t. I didn’t go back, that is. But next time I walk by, I’m going to pause … and look… hopefully….

Monday, February 22, 2010


"Let us then pursue the things that make for peace and build up the common life." ~ Romans 14:19

"Speaking the truth in love..." ~ Ephesians 4:15

Imagine that you are at a community meeting to discuss whether to build a new school or remodel the old one. You have just found the courage to stand and speak a word in favor of saving the old school, explaining your reasoning. A neighbor sitting nearby stands and says, "You're crazy! You don't know what you're talking about! You just want the bricks to come crashing down on our kids’ heads!” How would you feel? What would your emotional state of mind be like? How would you feel about your neighbor at that moment? Now imagine the same scene. This time, following your speech, your neighbor stands and says, "I disagree; here's how I see it . . ." and goes on to explain his point-of-view.

In the first instance, the neighbor was labeling you, challenging your intelligence, and – most egregiously – taking the liberty of describing your position in words you had not chosen.  In the second, he was expressing an opinion of his own. In the first example the neighbor was almost picking a fight with you personally; in the second he was participating in the general debate and conversation. Even though it may never be comfortable to have someone disagree with you publicly, the anxiety level surrounding the second example is much lower than that generated by the first. It is much more "civilized."

In the first example, above, the neighbor replied with a "you" statement; in the second, he used an "I" statement.  Your reaction to the accusation of "You're crazy…" would likely be either to sit down in red-faced anger and embarrassment, or to respond with "Oh, yeah?..." and jump into the verbal fight. (In addition, you might be much more timid in the future about speaking your mind.) The "you" statement almost automatically invites argument. The "I" statement invites dialogue.

Here's another way to look at it: If I say to you, "You're wrong," (or "you're stupid," or any other "you" statement) you can (and probably should) argue with me, because not only do you not think that you're wrong – your intellect and grasp of the facts are also being challenged. If, however, I say, "I disagree," you might debate the facts with me, but you can't argue with that statement; it would be absurd for you to say, "No you don't disagree with me!" (I've come to appreciate "I disagree" as one of the most useful I statements. As noted above, it's a good one to use for civilized debate; it also has the effect of being surprisingly disarming when you're accosted by someone who's actually looking to start an argument.)

The you/I dynamic is a very important idea in family communication. "You" statements, especially accusatory ones, almost always raise the level of anxiety and lead to hurt feelings or a fight. Accusatory "you" statements say, "I don't care what you think about you. I am standing in judgment of you and here's what I have decided about you;" they are based on the power differential between parent and child and have about them a decisive "case-closed" feeling. "I" statements, on the other hand, say, "let's talk;" they contain the inviting sense of "what do you think?"

The "I" statement is an example of a technique that can be learned and practiced. In a situation of rising anger, for example, a parent can stop herself from saying "You're just lazy!" and instead say, "I'm angry because you went to the movies without making your bed!" The child can argue about being lazy; the child can't argue about whether or not mom is angry (or if the bed is made!). As with other techniques, this one becomes more natural with use.

I am grateful to the late renowned child psychologist Haim Ginott for his practical suggestions regarding this kind of communication between parents and children. One of Dr. Ginott's particularly novel and helpful insights is that parents may wish to be cautious in the use of "you" statements even when communicating praise. Ginnott points out that to praise a five-year-old’s drawing by saying, "You are a great artist!" may lay a heavier burden of artistic achievement on the child's image of herself than she is able to accept, and – once again – the "you" statement invites argument. ("I am not a great artist!”) On the other hand, a statement such as, "I like this drawing!" expresses how the adult feels, and is not open to argument. The child may feel how she wishes about her drawing, but she also knows how someone else feels about it. And, in the case of this example, she can take pride in the fact that an adult likes her drawing without taking on the burden of being a "great artist."

As with other techniques, it is easy to parody this one. As a friend once put it, “The ‘you statement’ is ‘You’re a jerk.’ The ‘I statement’ is ‘I think you’re a jerk.’” Yuk, yuk. Still, I’m happy to recommend this simple approach to healthy communication. It works.

(This is the last in a series on healthy communication. For a general introduction to the series, see this post.)

Saturday, February 20, 2010


"Let us then pursue the things that make for peace and build up the common life." ~ Romans 14:19

(Note: I lied in my last post, saying that this would be the final installment in this series. Actually, I'm going to do one more. I know you can't wait!)

"Speak For Yourself, Part I: The Triangle Trap"

One of the good things about living in Alaska – which we did for about six years when our children were young – was receiving visits from friends and family who took our presence in the Last Frontier as an opportunity for the great Alaskan tour. On one of those occasions, when my sister’s family was visiting, we were belting ourselves into the van in preparation for heading up to Mt. McKinley when I became aware of a commotion in the back seat. My niece, Sarah, and her cousin, Beret (they were ten or eleven years old at the time), were having one of those predictable tussles about who got to sit by the window. I turned around and started to intervene, “Sarah you sit here and Beret, you sit…” when Sarah interrupted me, “You’re outta this, Uncle Dick!” I turned back around. Sarah was right. Allowing for appropriate adult constraints against violence or unfair behavior, it was advisable to let the two combatants settle it for themselves. I had been trying to initiate a triangle. And triangles are hardly ever helpful.

Here’s another scenario (this one is made up): You are a sales manager and as you arrive at work on Monday morning, a co-worker greets you by saying, "Mr. Jones (your boss) was really unhappy with your work on the Smith contract." You would undoubtedly feel anxious and unhappy. And imagine further that you hear nothing from Mr. Jones himself on the matter for the entire week. What would your attitude be during that week? How would you feel about coming to work each day? You'd most likely be somewhat miserable, apprehensive, and perhaps even angry. Why? Because you were caught in a triangle trap. Instead of hearing directly from Mr. Jones, you heard a third-party report from your co-worker. Beyond that, you're not even sure that what you've been told is accurate – you're not certain what Mr. Jones is really thinking. It may even be an innocent misunderstanding or baseless rumor. You don't know what – if anything – you should say to Mr. Jones.

Imagine, on the other hand, that Mr. Jones comes to your office on Monday morning and says, "I need to have a word with you about the Smith contract," and went on to describe one or two things he is dissatisfied with.  It's never any fun to be criticized by your boss, but at least in this situation you know exactly what he's thinking, you have an opportunity to clarify any misconceptions, and you have a chance – if necessary – to let him know how you feel. And when the uncomfortable Monday-morning session is behind you, you'll be more likely to breathe easier and see the rest of the week as a time of opportunity rather than dread. Mr. Jones has done you the favor of bringing the criticism to you directly. He hasn't involved you in a triangle.

Triangles (what Family Systems Theory calls "emotional triangles") all have the same shape, but they come in many variations. What they have in common is that they interfere with direct communication. Triangling is a way of avoiding "straight talk." The simple antidote to triangling, according to Edwin Friedman in Generation to Generation, is de-triangling: Finding one way or another to eliminate that third leg – the third person – and get two people involved directly. The simplest de-triangling response to an A-B-C triangle is for person A to report to person C what person B has said about them. For example, in the hypothetical office situation described above, the confused sales manager might go directly to Mr. Jones and ask to clarify the situation, reporting what has been said. (This, of course, assumes a basic level of mental and emotional health on the part of Mr. Jones.)

Here are two more common triangle traps (there are dozens):
1) “People are saying….” I serve in a context where this kind of statement is sometimes heard. After many years of experience, I can now assert authoritatively: 99.5% of the time the one who utters this comment is speaking for him/herself – and maybe one crony (and that is probably someone who nodded tentatively while the speaker was opining).  My de-triangling prescription is to say, “Lydia/Hank, unless you bring ten or twenty people with you here into my office, I won’t believe you.”

2) “Just wait till your father gets home” (and variations on that theme). In addition to signaling to junior that (in this case) mom doesn’t have any parental authority and that dad is the “boss” in an unequal family system, this comment has the effect of making dad a bad guy in the father-child relationship. De-triangling? Mom deals with it as it happens. Here’s one of those variations. I once caught myself saying (just once, thankfully), “Anna, mom wants you to practice the piano now.” (Message: If it wasn’t for mean old mom, what a good time you could be having!)

I’ve tried to think of a healthy triangle. The only one I can come up with is if Harry tells Bill what a great guy Ralph is. Otherwise, if you’re tempted triangle-ward, remember, “You’re outta this.” 

Next post: "Speak For Yourself II: You & I"

(For a general introduction to this series, see this post.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010


"Let us then pursue the things that make for peace and build up the common life." ~ Romans 14:19
"You can learn something from books." ~ Ringo Starr

Have you noticed the Emotional Anxiety Thermostat on the wall right there next to the furnace thermostat?

When our youngest daughter was in kindergarten our family schedule was such that it was my responsibility to see that she got up, had breakfast, and made it to the school bus on time. A pattern soon developed: I would enjoy my coffee and morning paper until the last minute, then I would go to the bottom of the stairs and shout, "Anna – time to wake up!" Of course she didn't respond quickly enough for me, so in a few minutes I was yelling louder, and the message became more urgent as the minutes ticked away: "Anna, you have to get up right now or you'll miss your bus!" (I want to emphasize that these were not angry yells, but yells nonetheless.) The morning would often end with both of us frazzled as Anna gulped down her cereal, I made a laughable attempt to fix her hair, and we rushed to meet her bus.

Then I was introduced to Edwin Friedman’s wonderful book, Generation To Generation and his concept of “the non-anxious presence,” which helped me to understand why my morning approach wasn’t working very well – for Anna or for me. I was making two common mistakes:  I was imposing my time agenda on my daughter (by waiting until I had finished the paper to rouse her, thereby producing the very time crunch that made me anxious), and my raised voice (and choice of words) was guaranteeing that our morning together was going to be a time of anxiety. Nudged by Friedman’s insights, I decided to take a different approach: I gave Anna her first wake up call five or ten minutes earlier than before, and instead of yelling from the bottom of the stairs, I went to her bedside and said, in a gentle tone, "Anna, I think if you get up now you'll have plenty of time to eat breakfast and catch your bus." If second or third calls were in order, I 'd say, "How's it going up there?”

Our mornings were transformed! Although there was little difference in the time spent getting ready for school, Anna and I were both much happier and more relaxed as we said good-bye at the bus stop. This new approach worked for Anna – but it worked for me, too!

Although the vignette I describe here was not an argument as such, the family-conflict principles Friedman suggests still apply: His common sense suggestion is that in situations of discord or tension someone needs to be the non-anxious one if emotional balance is to be maintained or restored. When anxiety is allowed to set the emotional tone, no real communication takes place, and – in  cases of argument – no conflict gets resolved. The result is an emotional "vicious cycle" that simply goes round and round within the family. It is never really resolved, although it may fade until the next cycle starts up. The "non-anxious" presence, on the other hand, provides the emotional context which allows for true conversation (as opposed to the proverbial shouting match), leading to understanding and healing.

Someone has said, “Remember, you are the one who makes the weather.” By what we say and by what we do we can raise or we can lower that Emotional Anxiety Thermostat. Hitting and yelling will always raise it, thus producing (always) non-communication.

Non-anxiousness is not just a favor one does for others – it is a favor to oneself. Try this mini-role-play drama on yourself (you might want to warn those around you). You are a parent waiting for your teen-age daughter to come downstairs to go to a family wedding. Go to the bottom of the stairs (or just stand anywhere), raise your voice and yell, “You get down here right now!” Even though this is an artificial drama that took about two seconds, your heart is racing just a bit and you’re kind of worked up. After you calm down, imagine the same scenario and say, loud enough to be heard, but in a conversational tone, “How’s it going up there, honey?” Now how do you feel? (And imagine the difference in the atmosphere in the car on the way to the wedding!) You can actually choose – even as you are opening your mouth – which of those two statements you will make (and which emotional climate you will create.)

About fifty per-cent of us are naturally non-anxious (to use a statistic I just made up), the other fifty per-cent are not. And we often marry each other! My wife is naturally non-anxious. Our grown daughters are not exaggerating when they say that they cannot remember a time – ever – when their mother raised her voice to them. (She says this is quite understandable because her father never once raised his voice to her .) Me? I’ve had to learn to be non-anxious (which is one of the points that Friedman makes – it can be done). However, even after my great insight, my daughters would often remind me, “Dad, you talk a good non-anxious game.” But, for everyone’s sake, it’s worth doing. Good luck to my fellow fifty per-centers.

This is the third of a four-part series on communications techniques that work. Next post: "Speak For Yourself"

Saturday, February 6, 2010


"Let us then pursue the things that make for peace and build up the common life." ~ Romans 14:19

Early in my ministry a young man phoned and asked if he could come in and talk to me. We made an appointment for later that day, and he spent about an hour in my office telling me about some things that were on his mind: mistakes he had made and some decisions he had before him. Later that evening he called to thank me and said, “I think ya done me some good!”

I remember this exchange (and those exact words) because it was the first of what has become a repeated experience over the years: I “helped” somebody primarily by sitting and listening. I don’t mean to be disingenuous; I probably contributed some humble skill in the “art of pastoral conversation” (as the title of one of my seminary texts had it), but, mostly, I listened.

And I’ve been on the other side of the desk, so to speak. Once or twice in the office of another professional listener, but more likely over a cup of coffee or glass of wine with a friend. And the load is lifted. (I have come to see this kind of therapy as almost mathematical: You have this weight you’re carrying around, you divide it in half and ask your friend to carry it with you.)

I suppose, dear reader, that this reflection strikes you as stating the obvious (and, indeed, I hope you have experienced this kind of restorative conversation), but it is such a basic item in the kit-bag of human interaction that I include it here as a part of this series: If the burden is heavy, find someone to talk to – either a professional whom you trust or, in the words of the old saying, “that’s what friends are for.”

I am blessed to live in a marriage in which Caryl and I talk to each other about anything and everything. Still, sometimes it seems as though one’s friend might add a needed perspective. And I remember the time when, after a rare “bad day,” Caryl was sharing her troubles with me. As I launched into a knowing reply, she interrupted me and said, “I don’t want you to fix it. I just want you to listen.” Physician, heal thyself.

And here’s another reason to seek out a friend:

I knocked today at my friend's door;
he answered, and I entered;
"I've the best possible reason for coming," I said.
"What's that?" he inquired.
"I've missed you."
I had no other reason.
I just wanted to stand up close,
shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart
with this, my friend.
We found it reason enough.

                        ~ Gerhard Frost

Next post: "The Anxiety Thermostat"

(Footnote: Clinical depression, of course, is another matter. Both as counselor and as friend I will sometimes suggest, “I think you should talk to your doctor.”)

Thursday, February 4, 2010


"Let us then pursue the things that make for peace and build up the common life." ~ Romans 14:19

I attended seminary during a time when our classes in pastoral counseling included a heavy emphasis on current psychological theories and therapeutic methods. Hanging out a shingle as a licensed therapist requires additional years of study and practice beyond the eight years of college and seminary, so we seminarians joked among ourselves that we were learning just enough psychology to be dangerous. I’m glad to report that we also learned the value and frequent necessity of referring parishioners to those licensed healers, recognizing the point at which – although one continues to walk with the parishioner as pastor – a more studied  knowledge of mental health and the healing of relationships is called for.

So, as is necessary in all callings and occupations, I know the limits of my training and abilities. However, as I look back over thirty-five years of ministry, I have discovered that some of those “Counseling 101” methods and techniques have actually been helpful and have stood me in good stead as I’ve sought – certainly imperfectly – to apply the communication arts as a husband, father, pastor, and friend.

In a series of posts to this web journal, I’m going to reflect on a number of these methods. (This is not just an academic exercise for me. I think these really work in everyday life, and I’m happy to endorse them.)


“If you are having a personal conflict with someone, and you go directly to that person and talk it out, it will never make the situation any worse, and it will probably make it better.”

I’ve put that sentence in quotes because it is exactly the way in which one of my mentors stated it to a group of young seminarians and college students. You might want to read it again. I think I have remembered it verbatim because I’ve applied it often through the years, and have always found it to be true.

True, yes, but not easy. It never really gets any easier to approach someone with, “I wonder if we could talk about what has happened between us…” (or some variation on that request). But the only thing harder than having an honest conversation about a problem in a relationship is not having the conversation.  Although I don’t want to give the impression that my life is peppered with these difficult occasions, I have found nine-and-a-half times out of ten that I have come away from such a session with a lighter heart and an easier mind – and a healed relationship. (The content of such conversations is, in part, what the rest of this series will be about.)

As with all of the tips in this series, this one assumes a basic level of mental health at work in both parties. As St. Paul advises, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18). Sometimes it may not be possible. But, “so far as it depends on you,” I recommend heartily this direct approach to reconciliation.

Next Post: “Ya Done Me Some Good!”      

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


The very best continuing education experience I have had was two weeks at Keble College, Oxford, a few years ago. The subject was “The Eucharist,” the faculty was from Oxford and Yale, the student body (of about 25 people) was made up primarily of Lutherans, Episcopalians, (and even a few evangelicals) from the U.S., and, here’s the thing… it was in Oxford!

Caryl came along, we stayed in college rooms, and while I attended morning sessions, Caryl enjoyed the campus quad, walked the winding streets of Oxford, and enjoyed the cozy aisles of Blackwell’s Bookshop. In the afternoon and evenings we walked everywhere – to 900-year-old pubs, the Ashmolean Museum, the Thames River path, and concerts in the Sheldonian. Of course we visited the “Eagle and Child,” where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met over pints to discuss their work; The Turf Tavern (Oxford’s oldest), where, supposedly, Bill Clinton “didn’t inhale;” and the “The Trout,” where the fictional Inspector Morse relaxed and pondered his latest murder case.

Yes I know, these are the reflections of a tourist, but, as the old saying goes, “everybody’s a tourist – only in different places.” (I’ve noticed that Brits who come to my native South Dakota expect to see “red Indians;” when I go to the UK  I’m unashamedly looking for the wattle and daub of Merry Olde England.) And a stay of two weeks resulted in a relaxed sense of residency rather than the anxiety of following a tour itinerary.

This experience has caused me to say to anyone who will listen: No matter what your occupation or vocation – doctor, lawyer, Indian chief – find a continuing ed. program in Oxford and sign up because .. it’s Oxford!

You can Google “Oxford summer,” or “Oxford continuing education.” And it doesn’t have to be study: most of the colleges have “Bed and Breakfast” accommodations – meaning you’re staying in a college dormitory and eating breakfast in “The Hall.” Here are a couple of interesting links: Keble College,  (click on “About Keble,” and “Conferences”). Oxford Continuing Education.

Photos: Top: "The Hall," Keble College, Oxford
Bottom: "Mary and Joseph Teaching the Infant Jesus to Read," The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford