Is it our capacity for developing a wide range of interpersonal relationships?
On Monday and Tuesday a special conference will convene in Los Angeles to discuss the topic, "What Makes Us Human?" While panelists will discuss a variety of ideas about what makes humans unique among living things, it will be interesting to see how many of the relevant traits could be said to arise from one overarching and uniquely human aspect: our drive to build deep and meaningful connections to others via interpersonal relationships.
Another panel focusing on human creativity will include Miguel Angel Corzo of the Colburn School and artist Barbara Lambert, and still another chaired by Dr. Charles Pasternak of the Oxford International Biomedical Centre will investigate how curiosity and communication add to human uniqueness. Author and journalist Christine Kenneally and Biochemistry professor Bruce Weber of California State Fullerton will round out the discussion group.
Vision's David Hulme will chair a panel exploring the question of what makes us human from the perspective of Hebrew thought. Religion, after all, stems from the seemingly innate human need to believe in (and relate to?) something greater than ourselves. He will be joined in this discussion by Dr. William Hurlbut, consulting professor at Stanford University's Neuroscience Institute and Jeffery Schwartz, Research Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine.
Other topics will include humor and emotion (John Allman, Raffaella Commitante and Frans de Waal), biology and the brain (Bruce Lahn, John Allman, Antonio Damasio, Frans de Waal and Marc Hauser), and even the dark side of humanity—that pesky trait we often try to disinherit by referring to it as inhumanity. Arnold Schwartzman's background as creator of such award-winning films as Genocide and Liberation promises particular interest for this latter panel.
The two-day conference is sure to contribute a great deal of valuable material for this blog. It's hard to imagine that any of the topics likely to be discussed could be divorced from this important human need to form reciprocal relationships with comparable minds.
Let's say a problem comes up in your romantic relationship. Do you talk about it or not? Noting that there can be differences in conversational styles between men and women, it must surely be no surprise that communication snafus are a major cause of relationship problems.
But how major a cause? And how serious might the resulting tension be?
According to a recent study by Cornell University's Maureen R. Waller, a couple's ability to communicate is a key factor that marks the difference between an enduring, stable union and a rocky, short-lived one.
The study, published in the April 2008 issue of the interdisciplinary journal Family Relations, was conducted among economically disadvantaged couples with children. Their relationship tensions were similar and numerous, and included concerns such as finances, housing, childcare issues and other personal problems ranging from negative personality traits to substance use and even criminal activity.
In identifying the differences between stable unions and unstable ones, Waller notes that "almost twice as many parents in unstable as stable unions talked about general tensions related to communication—a catchall term parents used to refer to problems such as being open, honest, understanding, and patient with each other."
Parents in stable unions had confidence in the future of their relationship, to some degree because of this ability to work through their problems together. Says Waller, "parents in stable unions often characterized their ability to communicate as one of the primary assets of their relationship." For example, one subject commented: "We're able to talk to each other. Sometimes we may get a little testy, but we can talk."
This trait seems pivotal to solving the other issues that were common to unstable couples. Many couples whose relationships later dissolved during this longitudinal study cited trust and fidelity issues, as well as extended family and social network tensions—issues which might have been resolved if communication lines in the relationship had been open.
But there were some other interesting traits noted in the stable couples who participated in the study. Not only did they communicate well, but they saw their tensions in a different light than did those whose unions later dissolved. In Waller's words, "parents in unstable relationships tended to frame the tensions they were experiencing as problematic and intractable, an interpretation expressed by at least one parent in four out of five of these unions."
In contrast, parents in stable unions believed their tensions could change. They saw them as temporary challenges that could be overcome together.
Is it a coincidence that couples with better communication skills took a more hopeful view of the challenges in their relationship?
It might be tempting sometimes to believe that ignoring an issue will help it go away. In reality, however, relationships of all kinds do require honest, effective and frequent communication to be successful. So—back to the opening question: Do you talk about it, or not?
It depends. Would you prefer a stable, healthy, growing relationship or a rocky one?
|Articles about Family and Relationships from "Vision"|
|Healthy communities are built on strong family relationships. "Vision" is a print and online journal that regularly explores the many and varied relationships that contribute to healthy families.|
Life as a Series of Conversations
A family weblog could be fed for years by studies that illustrate why good relationships are important for families, for society, for the global community. But without some attention to the "hows" of good relationships, it's only an academic exercise.
Arguably the most basic of relationship building blocks is the art of communication. At least—it is often referred to as an art, although there is certainly skill required, as well as a certain amount of science if one person is curious enough to delve a little deeper into a more accurate understanding of another.
Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. is one who does apply science along with art and skill as she approaches the field of communication within interpersonal relations. In her 1990 bestseller, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, she explores the complexities and misunderstandings that plague communication attempts between men and women.
"Each person's life is lived as a series of conversations," she points out. Acknowledging that there are dangers in generalizations, and always exceptions, she nevertheless sees it as important to note that: "There are gender differences in ways of speaking," and that "we need to identify and understand them. Without such understanding, we are doomed to blame others or ourselves—or the relationship—for the otherwise mystifying and damaging effects of our contrasting conversational styles."
The common denominator that emerges from many of the studies reviewed by Tannen is that women often tend to emphasize similarities between themselves and their conversational partners, playing to an underlying interpersonal theme of "do you like me?" Men, on the other hand, more often converse to solve problems or impart information, their interpersonal theme being, "do you respect me?"
These differences may lead to misunderstandings because each expects the other to converse in a similar style to their own. A woman may perceive a man as being dismissive of her problem because he doesn't commiserate or offer a similar experience of his own to show he understands. Instead, he may offer a quick solution and change the subject, or—if he sees no quick solution—he may flatly state that he doesn't understand why she is letting it bother her since nothing can be done about it.
On the other hand, a husband may perceive his wife as belittling his problem when she offers a similar experience of her own to express her understanding and solidarity. To him, her response seems to mean, "your problem isn't so bad, I've had worse."
While acknowledging that there are plenty of individual exceptions to her general observations, Tannen illustrates her points with solid research and helpful real-life examples.
There are so many "aha!" moments in her book, that I have few reservations recommending it, though I don't do this often.
Could Intergenerational programs improve school behavioral problems?
The best intergenerational programs attempt to address at least two issues at once. A common set would be, for instance, the isolation of the elderly along with the education of youth. If three or more issues can be addressed by one program it can only be considered a bonus.
Researchers from the University of Tennessee could be said to have reached this level of success with a 2003 study in which they attempted to demonstrate how older adults could affect the school behavior patterns of young children, as well as their attitudes toward the elderly. In this case, the children were 4th graders.
Using an inner-city school as the laboratory, researchers chose two classes as the control group (who continued classroom instruction in the usual way) while two similar classes participated in an outdoor version of the curriculum alongside volunteer elders from a nearby senior center. The "Intergenerational Outdoor Classroom Project" ran two days a week for four weeks.
The findings? Children who participated in the intergenerational project had significant improvement in attitude scores toward older adults, as well as significant improvement in overall school behavior. The control group did not.
According to the researchers, these findings were not a huge surprise. Speaking to the first finding, they had this to say:
"Children's negative attitudes toward elders have often been associated with a lack of positive contact between these two groups." But the researchers point out that not all interactions between these groups are positive. In fact, recalling past studies they note that when contact occurs between children and the elderly in nursing homes, negative attitudes are not changed. Because the elders in this study were actively engaged in interacting with the students, however, the children saw them as positive role models and could imagine being like them someday.
The second finding had multifaceted benefits. "[Behaviorally] at-risk children pose special challenges to school systems already strained with limited budgets," the researchers pointed out. "Research suggests that children with behavioral problems benefit from higher teacher-student ratios, increased adult role models, and non-traditional teaching methods. Higher adult to children ratios can help prevent behavior problems, like school bullying."
The adults from the senior center ameliorated all of these conditions through their participation. They increased the teacher-student ratios, served as role models, and simply by virtue of their presence defined a non-traditional classroom situation, even without considering the outdoor setting.
Perhaps the adults even gained something from the experience themselves—although the latter aspect was not examined: a circumstance the researchers in retrospect viewed as a weakness of the study. Nevertheless, say the researchers, "anecdotal evidence suggests that the elders found their involvement with the children to be highly rewarding."
And sometimes—in the arena of human relationships at least—anecdotal evidence can be the most satisfying kind.