Communication in relationships business or otherwise works best when the communicators approach each other positively. This is the central message of the latest self-help guide from Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, the somewhat lamely titled Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy. Lamely titled because if it is indeed true that words can effect changes in the brain, this book has very little to say about it, either biologically or psychologically for that matter. Lamely titled because one of the 12 key strategies preached in the book is brevity — enough said.
What Newberg and Waldman are selling is something called “Compassionate Communication,” a basically common sense approach to social interactions that suggests that the nicer you are to other people, the more positive you are, the more successful you will be in your relationships, be they with your business associates, your loved ones, even the one you may be meeting in the office of a divorce attorney. More often than not their advice seems to be an adaptive application of ideas that we might have heard before: know thyself, do unto others, you can catch more flies, and so on. It’s not bad advice; it just seems a bit familiar. I keep thinking do I really need a book to tell me that people will get along better if they are nice to one another.
On the other hand for those who feel that they do have a need for such a book, I would guess that Words Can Change Your Brain is as good as any. Not only does it outline and explain an easy 12 step process, but it gives you exercises you can practice at home alone and with others. As with many self-help gurus, the authors have touted their methods and exercises in seminars and workshops, and they have testimony to their success from happy participants, even from those who may have been cynical disbelievers at first.
So putting aside my own cynicism, here are a couple of the more interesting, less evident of the dozen strategies. The aforementioned brevity for example: never speak for more than 30 seconds. Human beings, it turns out, can only process a few “chunks” of information at a time. “Chunks,” it seems, is term of art among communication cognoscenti. Too many “chunks” at a time create confusion. Listeners tune out (I guess it doesn’t apply to book titles). Speak slowly, speak very slowly — slower than that. Speaking slowly gives your listeners an opportunity to process what you are saying. Pauses give them an opportunity to interrupt with questions and feedback. They give you the opportunity to examine the listener’s non-verbal responses to what you are saying. Put yourself in a positive frame of mind before hand. Do relaxation exercises; remember pleasant times from the past. Your own positive attitudes will have a positive effect on the person you are communicating with even if in an adversarial situation. Avoid negativity.
Quite obviously this review is not to be seen as a model of compassionate communication. Back in my teaching days, I lectured long. A New York transplant, I talked fast. While it was considered sound pedagogy to begin critical analysis of student work with something complimentary before any attack, advice echoed in this book, it was advice I often found difficult to follow. I don’t know if reviewers need labor under the same restraints. But even if it is, it is more than likely too late for words to change this reviewer’s brain.