But still, why should you listen to me? The fact that I have a PhD in psychology is not a main reason, though I have learned a good deal about human behavior in my studies, research, and teaching.
No, the main reasons are because I have been married for 40 years, get along well with my children, have quite a few friends, feel relatively free of resentments (at least toward anyone I know personally), and I can usually put my head on the pillow at night not thinking about someone I have to apologize to. Believe me, it was not always this way for me.
So here are a few of Dr. Mark’s (look, if Dr. Phil can do it, why can’t I?) suggestions for the better life. None of these are necessarily transformative, but they are some little things that can make your day better and, not unrelated, improve the day of those around you.
The first is about unsolicited phone calls, speaking to someone at customer service, and the like. I know, it’s a pain in the neck to get an unsolicited phone call just as you’re sitting down to dinner, and if you’re anything like me, you like to let the caller know, in some sarcastic way, that you are displeased. For example:
Caller: Good evening, how are you this evening?
You: Well, just fine. I love to have my dinner interrupted, don’t you?
Before you say something like that, keep in mind that the caller is probably a person who is making very little money doing something well below his or her intelligence level. Actually, one of my children once did telephone soliciting for a while. At that point I realized that the person being sarcastic at the other end of the line could be talking to my child, and, in any case, it was someone’s child. This really changed my response. Now, as politely as I can, I simply say, “I don’t mean to sound rude, but I really am not interested.”
Calling customer service can present a whole new bunch of challenges. You are not happy, perhaps you have been on hold for a while, and the person at the other end may not be responding the way you’d like. As the conversation goes on, it is sometimes hard not to get angry.
I have two suggestions here. First -- and I know this may sound silly, but I have often done it -- before you make the call, get down on your knees. Why? Because, as some religions tell us, it is much easier to be humble when you are on your knees than when you are standing up or simply sitting. Also, it is really harder to yell when you are on your knees.
Now, I realize that even if you do this, you may find yourself starting to get angry when your repeated questions or complaints are not handled to your satisfaction. Here’s where my next suggestion comes in. Rather than saying how angry you are, or letting it show by your raised voice and possible bad language, change your approach by saying how distressed or depressed this is making you. Now you are focusing on a different kind of feeling, and looking for a little kindness, rather than expressing anger, which elicits either fear, or more likely, anger from the other side.
I have found it amazing how this shift can make a difference. If someone senses that you are depressed or distressed, they may go out of their way to help you, rather than hang up on you when you have crossed over the line in your tone of voice or language.
And even if you don’t get what you want, you won’t feel after the call that you have to call back and apologize for your explosion.
And finally, a suggestion, for your marriage or equivalent thereof. My wife and I first tried this a while back, and we have found it really helps to prevent those little squabbles that can lead bigger fights or sullenness.
It is based on my belief that when one spouse asks the other a question, there is often a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) motive behind it. For example, if you are not happy with where your spouse has placed something in the kitchen, you may say, “Why is this here?” Of course, what you really mean is, “I don’t like this being here.”
I think this happens so frequently that even a genuinely innocent question may be interpreted as if there is an ulterior motive. For example, “Honey, do you want to go to the movies tonight?” is heard as “I really want to go to the movies tonight, and I sure hope you do.”
But often a question is totally innocent, and our partner thinking it isn’t can lead to problems. So, for such questions (and don’t cheat on this; if you have an ulterior motive, be honest about it), use a phrase from Robert’s Rules of Order. Preface the question with “Point of information.”
For example, “Honey, point of information: Do you know where the Times magazine section is?” Without that little phrase, this could be interpreted as “Where the heck did you put the magazine section?!”
Nothing I’ve suggested here will change the world, but it might make your day and those you come in contact with just a little bit brighter. And that really does feel good.
Wishing you a belated Happy Chanukah, a Merry Christmas, and a healthy and happy New Year!