When two people are powerfully drawn to each other, yet end up repeatedly hurting and alienating each other, they probably have a problem communicating. Psychotherapist and professor Mary Babits is here to help. His recent book, I’m Not a Mind Reader: Using the Power of Three-Dimensional Communication for a Better Relationship, is a smart, thoughtful, and engaging guide to a deeper and more secure relationship.
The book opens with a section on the basics: the three dimensions of the communication model, the meaning of anger, and the importance of a couple’s willingness to “contribute to a mood of openness” in their relationship. In the second section of the book, Babits uses in-depth case studies of couples who are floundering to illustrate the workings of the three-dimensional model. A final section provides a brief, comprehensible overview of some significant contributions from neuroscience that Babits regards as especially relevant to his model of communication in relationships.
The first two dimensions of the three-dimensional communication model are familiar ones: the literal meaning of what is said and the emotional subtext of the communication. The third is the most challenging, and — if mastered — the most rewarding. In the third dimension, couples need to train their sights on the long-term goals of their relationship: what they would like their relationship to be, at its best. With that in mind, they need to tend mindfully to what they say and when they say it, so that their communication creates greater closeness as a couple.
The label Babits applies to the goal of the third dimension is “emotional safety.” Couples whose communications are guided by their long-term goals are creating an emotionally safe space. That gives them a better chance of expressing difficult sentiments, such as disagreements, and successfully navigating relationship difficulties. They are less likely to keep score of who’s right and who’s wrong, and more likely to repair any hurtfulness they may have inflicted on each other. That willingness to work at fixing what’s broken, Babits maintains, is more important than the frequency with which partners argue or disagree.
Babits offers optimism without the false promise of a quick fix. People who want a better relationship will have to work at it. They will need to be persistent, patient, empathic, and compassionate about mistakes, including both their own and their partner’s.
When describing instances in which negative emotions such as anger and hurt seem to take over a relationship, Babits can be unexpectedly reassuring. He explains, persuasively, that people who express feelings that are likely to create greater distance may actually want just the opposite. Their anger and hurt may indicate their desire to be close to their partner, and their fear that their wish will not come true.
In a further gift of hopefulness, Babits also floats the possibility that the person’s partner — who may be reciprocating the negativity — may actually really want greater closeness, too.
With regard to one of the case studies, Babits explains the dynamics this way:
“Instead of feeling deflated and defensive when Carole edged into a critical statement, Jim was coached to feel needed. He was encouraged to interpret what had been perceived as criticism as a call for help, a cry of frustration at not being able to connect. As Jim softened, Carole followed suit. This is how anger cycles de-escalate. Awareness of the underlying attachment issue had a soothing effect on both partners.”
In addition to discussing the psychology of couples he’s seen in his practice, Babits also shares some of his own process. For example, he tells readers what he is wondering about as he listens to someone for the first time. He describes the many questions he could pose as he interacts with the couples in the therapy room, knowing that some of them will prove more productive than others.
I’m Not a Mind Reader includes effective ways of keeping readers actively engaged with the material. There are exercises that let readers practice applying the three communication dimensions to sample conversations. There are also sets of statements readers can evaluate for themselves, before reading what the author has to say about them. For example, a 20-item assessment of readers’ understanding of communication dynamics includes statements such as “Generally speaking, good communication is a matter of intelligence” and “Blurting out your feelings is always a mistake.”
Many self-help books overstate the scope of their relevance. I’m Not a Mind Reader does the opposite. It is framed as a book for couples, and couples are the only people we hear about. In fact, though, the three-dimensional model Babits describes and the many insights he conveys along the way strike me as relevant to just about any significant adult relationship. I hope that in the future, authors who consider writing books only about couples will reconsider, and will expand their scope to encompass more of our meaningful relationships. Now that Americans are spending more years of their adult lives unmarried than married, people such as friends and family may be more important to us than ever before.
I’m Not a Mind Reader: Using the Power of Three-Dimensional Communication for a Better Relationship
HCI, May 2015
Paperback, 264 pages