No. 8: Trading Places
Selfishness is as natural to me as speaking. Sometimes I can’t help it, other times I don’t even notice. I struggle with understanding how other people view my actions and comments. It’s probably the biggest reason I have no social skills. A couple of months ago I got fed up with my constant inability to understand how I appear to others, so I enlisted the help of Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott.
I’m told that at my alma mater’s bookstore there is a section dedicated to the Parrotts’ work, though I picked this one up at the seminary book center (no similar shrine exists). In marketing speak its title, Trading Places, is “a little too on the nose,” though I have heard it called “corny.” The subtitle is equally played out. Fortunately, neither has any bearing on the quality of the book.
I am always skeptical of books that claim to be the definitive guide to anything, particularly things related to psychology or relationships (the one exception being the DSM IV). So when I read that the editors believe this book holds “the secret” to a better relationship, I wasn’t buying it. But after reading it, I can say (without a hint of skepticism) that it actually works, and the difference is immediate.
The secret here is empathy, the ability to experience things the way another person does. It’s not sympathy, which is more akin to being with someone as they experience, but involves trying to actively assume their perspective as best you can. The promise is simple: the better you understand your partner’s perspective, let them know that you understand, and react based on that understanding, the better her response will be.
“But I’m a selfish jackass,” you say. “How can I become a fully empathetic husband right away?” Here’s where my incredulity flared up.
It’s simple, suggest the authors. The easiest way to begin making this change is by doing something called “priming”: before you see your partner for lunch or at the end of the day, take a few minutes to think about what they’ve been through and how they might feel right when you see each other. “Trade places” with them mentally for just a few minutes before you see them. That minute task will change the way you relate.
And it is absolutely true! I tried this exercise the day I finished the book and the difference from one day to the next was amazing. Her stress level dropped immediately, she was more relaxed and even had more fun than usual through out the day, presumably because I was more attuned to her feelings and her perspective. I didn’t let her in on the experiment, so I don’t know for sure if she consciously perceived any difference, but she didn’t mention anything. I’m interested to see if the other ideas will have the same immediate impact.
On top of the effective and practical advice, the Parrotts are enjoyable to read, and very easy to read quickly — I bought this on a Thursday and finished it Friday. The book is full of anecdotes from couples they’ve interacted with an from their own lives. Definitely worth picking up if you think you could stand to have a better relationship with your spouse.