I define “self-help” or “self-improvement” books rather broadly. If the purpose of a book is to describe how to do something, or to explain how to improve a personal quality or skill, it falls under that genre in my mind. Some self-help books are definitely more helpful than others, and even more so than in other genres, opinions of self-improvement books are extremely subjective. Here are two I’ve read recently that I found useful and have prompted me to change how I interact with others. Perhaps they’ll help you, too.
Civility is “a constant awareness that no human encounter is without consequence.”
Dr. Forni’s Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct compiles, as the subtitle promises, twenty-five rules to smooth social interactions and show consideration for others. The rules actually only take up the middle of the book’s three sections, but they are the meat of Dr. Forni’s treatise and by far the most valuable portion.
Dr. Forni describes civility as “a constant awareness that no human encounter is without consequence.” He also links civility to true success: “a crucial measure of our success in life is the way we treat one another every day of our lives.” For Dr. Forni, civility is more than the grease that oils potentially rough human interactions; it is the responsibility of all decent people. “When we lessen the burden of living for those around us we are doing well; when we add to the misery of the world we are not.” Indeed, “to be fully human we must be able to imagine others’ hurt and to relate it to the hurt we would experience if we were in their place.” I appreciated his use of Eric Hoffer’s statement: “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”
The first rule of civility is simple and foundational: “Pay Attention”. “Without attention, no meaningful interaction is possible. Our first responsibility, when we are with others, is to pay attention, to attend to…Only after we notice the world can we begin to care for it. Every act of kindness is, first of all, an act of attention.”
One rule I initially wouldn’t have thought of as falling under the civility umbrella was number three: “Think the Best”. Drawing from Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews, Dr. Forni explains “Be generous because, whether you are aware of it or not, there is a spark of divinity in all of those you will benefit. Be generous to the angel in all of us. In other words: think the best of your fellow humans and act accordingly.” Giving others the benefit of the doubt, determining to think the best of others, provides an optimistic and cheerful effect in our lives. He astutely points out that “Sometimes it is dissatisfaction with ourselves that makes us judge others unfairly.”
Rule four is another vital, basic building block: “Listen”. This is one area where I recognize my need to improve. “What prevents us from doing a good job of listening is that instead of focusing on other people, we focus on ourselves and our own needs.” He describes the three components of good listening. First, “plan your listening”, or in other words, make it a deliberate, conscious effort. Second, “show that you are listening”. This is where you use eye contact, encouraging nods and interjections, and briefly restate what your conversational partner said. Finally, “be[ing] a cooperative listener” involves asking open-ended questions without intruding.
Several rules have to do with the power of our words. “Speak Kindly”, “Don’t Speak Ill”, “Accept and Give Praise”. One that I found particularly insightful was “Respect Even a Subtle ‘No'”. “We frequently fail to understand or choose to ignore signs of reluctance in others…Learn to recognize a ‘No’ when it’s not stated in the most explicit of ways.”
Likewise, if more people observed rule number 10 (“Respect Others’ Opinions”) it would go a long way to diminishing the lack of civility in the public discourse. Interestingly, Dr. Forni defines two ways of showing of disrespect for others’ opinions: “One is by telling them that their opinions are crazy, stupid, worthless, and the like. The other is by assuming that what we think must be what they think also.” He provides templates for “good protocols of disagreements” as well as some guidance on when it may not be appropriate to share your opinions. “Present your opinions as just opinions, rather than transcendental truths. Make room for disagreement. Invite feedback. Among the most civil utterances of all time is the simple, humble, and smart question ‘What do you think?’ Let’s use it generously.”
Dr. Forni also offers suggestions on how to apologize and when it is necessary (rule 16), but also how to assert yourself and establish firm personal boundaries (rule 17). He urges readers to both care for your guests (rule 19) and be a considerate guest (rule 20). This world would be a much more pleasant place if more of us followed even a few of Dr. Forni’s rules more closely.
“There’s no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness.”
“Self-help” books, as a genre, have a reputation – not entirely unearned – that they tend to teeter on the edge of frothy, feel-good generalities. While Daring Greatly occasionally strays into that amorphous, fuzzy territory, it also provides rock solid, research-driven suggestions and steps toward recognizing the fears that hold us back and the encouragement to face and overcome them. Simply put, Dr. Brown defines daring greatly as “finding our own path and respecting what that search looks like for other folks.” (And I will admit she completely stole my heart when she based one entire chapter on Harry Potter’s Defense against the Dark Arts’ class.)
Dr. Brown explains further: “When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationship and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make…We must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen.” For a great deal of my youth, well into my college years, I refused to “walk into the arena” because I didn’t feel “good enough” yet. I wasn’t perfect or bulletproof; if I screwed up or fell on my face in front of everybody, no one would like me or think I was good.
And I lost out on many great opportunities because of that fear. I identified so strongly with her description of her younger self that it brought tears to my eyes: “I spent many years never trying anything that I wasn’t already good at doing, and…those choices almost made me forget what it feels like to be brave.” Looking back, some of my greatest experiences were the times I did take that leap: going skydiving, a semester abroad in Europe. But even those leaps were often very calculated “risks” with little danger of emotional damage.
Vulnerability is key, says Dr. Brown:
* “Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement…”
* “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.”
* “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
Dr. Brown links vulnerability to creativity and innovation in the workplace. “If we want to reignite innovation and passion, we have to rehumanize work. When shame becomes a management style, engagement dies. When failure is not an option we can forget about learning, creativity, and innovation.” Vulnerability plays a vital role in education, as well. “If leaders expect real learning, critical thinking, and change, then discomfort should be normalized: ‘We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable so it’s going to happen here–you’re going to feel that way. We want you to know that it’s normal and it’s an expectation here. You’re not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it.’…If education is going to be transformative, it’s going to be uncomfortable and unpredictable.” In other words, it requires vulnerability.
She also lists several “shields” we commonly use to prevent having to be vulnerable. And boy, did I recognize a bunch of those! Foreboding joy, or expecting tragedy at the moment of greatest happiness, is a big one for me, and so is perfectionism, though I think I’ve come a long way in the past 20 years or so combating that. She lists a half dozen more or so that I could see in friends and acquaintances, if not myself. But she also provides “antidotes” to each shield to help break them down from the inside.
As a parent herself, she is keenly aware of how vulnerability affects our relationships with our children. She shared a vignette from an interview she saw with the author and poet Toni Morrison. “Ms. Morrison explained that it’s interesting to watch what happens when a child walks into a room. She asked, ‘Does your face light up?’ She explained, ‘When my children used to walk in the room when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up…You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. What’s wrong now?‘ Her advice was simple, but paradigm-shifting for me. She said, ‘Let your face speak what’s in your heart. When they walk in the room my face says I’m glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see?'” Repeatedly, Dr. Brown emphasizes the small choices we make that can have a great impact on our lives and on others.
It’s scary being vulnerable; it requires discomfort and uncertainty and all sorts of unpleasantness sometimes. It pretty much guarantees that you will be hurt or disappointed from time to time. But being vulnerable also is the root of courage, love, connection, and growth. And those are worth the risk.
On My Bedside Table…
Just finished: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Now reading: Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire by Jennifer Wright Knust
On deck: At the Earth’s Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs
More “self-help” books next time… And, as always, please come find me on goodreads.com or email suggestions, comments, and feedback to egeddesbooks (at) gmail (dot) com. I’d love to hear from you!