Ep. 66 – Dr. Rod Wilson – Thank You. I’m Sorry. Tell Me More.
- Ways to teach gratitude as an antidote to entitlement.
- How our habits change our brains and our relationships.
- Why and when we say sorry, and why and when we don’t.
High-quality relationships start with high-quality connections. We’re constantly scanning our relationships for social cues on whether we belong and are valued.
This week on family360 our guest is psychologist, family therapist and author Dr. Rod Wilson who writes about ancient traditions and teachings central to building authentic and trusting relationships.
Dr. Rod WilsonRod Wilson is a clinical psychologist, a family therapist, and the author of numerous counseling books including Exploring Your Anger, Helping Angry People, and his newest book, Thank You. I’m Sorry. Tell Me More.
For over 3 decades Rod has immersed himself in the curious exploration of authentic relationships within marriage and families. For over 15 years, Rod was the president of Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, he now works as a senior advisor and consultant with community organizations, helping to create vibrant cultures of care.
Ep. 66 – Dr. Rod Wilson – Thank You. I’m Sorry. Tell Me More.
Rachel Cram – Well, Rod, thank you so much for being in the studio with me today. It’s great to be face to face.
Dr. Rod Wilson – It is Rachel. Yeah, it’s really nice to see a live person across from me.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, when we first started the podcast, most of our interviews were live, but then COVID hit and we’ve been on Zoom so much so, this is wonderful.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah. There’s something about just the sensual experience that just feels more alive, doesn’t it?
Rachel Cram – Yeah, it. It totally does. It took a while to adapt to being on a screen.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah. And, you know, there’s an interesting study I was reading recently from Stanford trying to explain why all of us get so tired when we’re on the screen all day. I don’t know what your life’s been like the last two years, but for me, some days I spend seven or 8 hours on Zoom and I’m exhausted when it’s over, and I’m thinking, why am I tired? I’m sitting in my comfy chair in front of my screen and it just seems like normal discourse. But this study said that in the brain chemistry, there’s a vigilance that’s created when we’re on the screen that’s comparable to anticipating sex or anticipating conflict.
Rachel Cram – Oh! Didn’t see that coming. Now my minds going to be wandering to what my guests are thinking about for all the rest of my Zoom interviews.
Dr. Rod Wilson – How are you Rachel?
Rachel Cram – Oh, I find all this incoming brain research so fascinating. It really changes everything. But back to what you we’re saying about Zoom. Why does Zoom exhaust us?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah. A lot of it is around the fact that we’re looking into somebody’s eyes and into somebody’s face without having a context. And we can’t see around them. You can’t look around because if you look around, you don’t look like you’re paying attention.
And then there’s this funny dynamic that goes on that it’s out of proportion to what life is like when you’re face to face and so the brain chemistry gets going. So I found it a really helpful study because I could not understand why I was so tired all the time being online. It made no sense to me.
Rachel Cram – That is fascinating. Well, you can feel free to let your eyes drift here. You do not have to look at my face. You can look at the beautiful guitars behind me in Roy’s studio.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yes. Yeah. So to be able to talk to you today is lovely.
Rachel Cram – Oh good. Well, maybe this first question might even be some foreshadowing into the phrase Tell Me More. My question for you is Aristotle stated, “Show me a child at seven and I’ll show you the adult.” And I’m wondering Rod, is there a story or experience from your childhood that has shaped the adult that you are today?”
Dr. Rod Wilson – Whoa. Yeah, so immediately what comes to mind is my experience as an immigrant. I was born in Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, and my parents decided to leave Ireland when I was four.
My father talked to me about it many years later when I was older, that one of the reasons they left was because of a lot of the dynamics that my mother had with her family, and my father was kind of taking her away from her roots in order to help her. And I’ve lived with the sense my whole life that we never left well. They never left well, I think as ‘the child’ I never left well. I think we were running away in many senses, and there was a sense of disconnection. And I just remember the tension. It’s funny, as a little kid, you often don’t remember content, but you remember the emotion. It’s more what happens in your body than your head. I just remember the tension of coming over and I had this sort of little boy sense that my parents were doing something that maybe even they didn’t understand. And as I get older now, I have this yearning to go back to Ireland to sort of reconnect with my roots, because there’s a part of me that feels like I lack roots.
Yeah. So it’s a big issue and it’s been the subject of many therapeutic interactions when I have been the client rather than the therapist.
Rachel Cram – Oh, interesting. Yeah. Because you are a therapist as well. And it’s true. Just because you’re a therapist doesn’t mean you don’t need to go for your own therapy as well.
Dr. Rod Wilson – No, no.
Rachel Cram – It’s probably good that you do.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah, it is. Yeah, yeah.
It’s good to sit on both sides of the room because I think often if you’re not aware of your own vulnerabilities and your own wounds and brokenness, it’s hard to enter into other people’s if you’re not conversant with your own and have an ease with your own.
Rachel Cram – Humm. That is a great jump off line for what I want to dig into with you Rod. When I look at the scope of your work, and particularly your latest book, Thank You, I’m Sorry, Tell Me More, I would say you are on a quest to discover and reveal key elements for high-quality relationships.
It almost reads in some ways like a recipe. And I don’t want to diminish it with that, but it’s giving some simple ingredients that when you put them together well and you measure them out well it can create something really beautiful.
I think you can look at words like, thank you and I’m sorry as manners. And that would diminish the quality of the ingredients that you’re talking about.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah. Yeah. No, I think that’s a nice way to phrase it, Rachel. And I think it’s like a lot of life developmentally, we often teach our children things to say, things to do, and it’s often very rote and mechanical and it doesn’t come from deep within their souls, but we want them to learn to get into the habit of saying these things. But then as you get older, I find a lot of the things I said when I was five, I’m now saying all these years later, but I understand the depth behind them now and the complexity of them and what they really mean.
Like when I thanked my grandparents when I was a five year old for a Christmas gift, I was just doing it because my parents said that’s what you’re supposed to do. Now when I say, “Thank you,” like, you know, at the end of today, I’ll say thank you for the interview and what I mean by that is way more than manners. I’m acknowledging you, I’m noting your strengths and your abilities and the way you do interviews and the conversation we had before we started this, like I feel a sense of gratitude towards you and I’m noting that, I’m acknowledging that. So that’s way deeper than saying thank you to Grandma for the Christmas gift.
So I think you’re right. I think manners in a way may get us started on this road, but there’s way more complexity to this as we go further along the journey.
Rachel Cram – I think most of us were raised with the importance of minding our manners. And even that phrase, mind your manners is an interesting one. You can pick up on that if something comes to your head with it. But I remember my mum having us all write thank you cards after Christmas. We’d open our presents and then we had to write thank you cards to Auntie Sybil and Uncle Ralph and all the people that had sent us presents. And it was such a chore to do that. But later on my aunts and uncles have said, “Oh, we still have those cards.” And you know, as you get older, you feel like, “Oh, I’m so glad I did that.” But at the time it did seem irrelevant. It did seem unnecessary. But you grow into understanding why you do that. And so we don’t stop. As parents, even though we felt it was irrelevant when we were younger we do the same things with our kids because we do grow into understanding the depth of it.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Well, I think you’ve raised a really important point, Rachel, because we’ve learned in the last 25 years in neuroscience that the brain changes and it changes based on behavior. Fifty years ago, we used to think ‘we act as a result of what’s going on inside of us’. Now we realize when we act something goes on inside of us. Which is an interesting shift, because what that means is teaching habits and patterns and disciplines and ways to be actually does start to change how your brain comes at the world.
So, you know you could argue, “I want my children to be spontaneous and and say what they feel and not be telling them what to do and not be telling them what to say,”
Rachel Cram – Authentic in the moment.
Dr. Ron Wilson – Yeah. And there’s a place for that. But one of the dangers of that is to misunderstand that we establish patterns in our brain by how we act, by how we behave, by what we do. And so you know, a book like Atomic Habits or our discussions about disciplines or practices or things that we’re committed to doing, those actually change us. So I would argue the practice of saying ‘thank you’ develops a way of understanding the world over time that can be really helpful. So ‘the doing’ has benefit on who you are. It’s not just rote, it’s actually developing a habit.
Rachel Cram Yeah. And of course, if your child’s saying, “I don’t want to say thank you.”
And you’re saying, “You’re not getting down from the table until you’ve said thank you.” That’s different than those moments where you know that they probably are feeling a welling up of gratitude but not being able to identify it at this point in their life, slipping the little phrase of saying, “Would you like to say thank you?” Or, “You could say thank you.” That’s so meaningful, even though they don’t grasp the depths at that point in time.
Dr. Ron Wilson – And you could argue developmentally, that’s true of every single aspect of raising a young child. They don’t grasp the full impact of anything. Because they’re young and that’s what young means.
Rachel Cram – Well, do we at any age, really?
Dr. Ron Wilson – Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Musical Interlude #1
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Rachel Cram – Well, in the introduction to your book you say whether it’s a work friendship, family, romantic relationships, we require the ability to, 1/ interact with others well, and 2/ to impact others as well. And you offer Thank you, Sorry, and Tell me more, as three key phrases that help us interact with others well and impact others well. And high-quality relationships are hard to maintain for a long period of time. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that few of us have them. There’s a lot of people that I know that will say “I actually don’t have close friendships or I don’t have many people that I’m close to.
So I’m wondering if we can go through each of those phrases one by one and have you explain how they help us interact with others well, and they help us impact others as well?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Mm hmm. Yeah. Yeah maybe just a general comment, Rachel, before we get into the specifics. If we believe that other people impact us and we impact others, then I think one of the manifestations of that is saying, thank you, I’m sorry, tell me more.
So if I say thank you to you, like, “Thank you, Rachel, for being an attentive interviewer and asking good questions, and doing it with warmth and sensitivity,” what I’m saying is “You’ve impacted me, you’ve had an influence on me, and I want to name that by saying thank you.”
So if I walk around and think, “Nobody impacts me. I’m my own person.” I won’t say that kind of thing. And similarly, if I do something wrong to you, like maybe I misstep or I say something inappropriate or insensitive to you. And I say, “Rachel, I’m sorry for what I said,” then I acknowledge that I can impact you negatively. And so I’m sorry is a reflection of that negative impact.
And then if I say, “Rachel, tell me more. You mentioned this, you know, when we were talking earlier, tell me more about that.”
Or you say to me, “Tell me more about your childhood or coming from Ireland,” what we’re doing there is we’re saying we impact each other. If we practice these three phrases, we’re actually expressing a belief that facilitates relationships. And I don’t mean this simplistically, but I wonder if people who never say thank you. Never say I’m sorry, never say tell me more, I would want to say I think a lot of those people have low-quality relationships. Not that those three phrases automatically lead to high-quality relationships, but if I think, “Nobody impacts me, I don’t impact anyone. I don’t want to share my story or I don’t hear anyone else’s story.” If I live that way, I’m going to be distant from people. So I think it goes both ways, but it comes with a belief that that’s true, that we do impact each other.
Rachel Cram – Well, that requires a certain level of vulnerability. As you’re describing that, I, to push back on that, I think if we could say those three phrases with the depth that you’re describing, I do think you’d have a high-quality relationship. But I’ve never met anybody, and maybe they do exist. I’ve never met anybody who never says thank you or never says I’m sorry, but I do think it’s possible to seldom say it with depth and vulnerability attached to it. And I think that’s what makes the difference.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Although, you know I’m going to challenge you back just as you’ve challenged me. In my clinical work I’ve met lots of couples where those three phrases are not used.
Rachel Cram – Really.
Dr. Rod Wilson – They don’t say thank you. They don’t say I’m sorry and they don’t say, tell Me more.
Rachel Cram – Are they aware that they don’t?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Until you raise it, they often aren’t. But if there’s an absence of gratitude and remorse and care in a marriage, and in many marriages there is an absence of those things, those phrases don’t come to the surface. I’ve seen a lot of that, actually. People that don’t use that.
Rachel Cram – Well could people say, you know, there’s that line, “I don’t need to tell you I love you because I told you when we got together. And if I stop, I’ll let you know then.”
Like, would people say that with thank you and I’m sorry? Like, I don’t need to say it, they just know that I am. Is there legitimacy in that or do you think it’s necessary to say the words?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah, well, it’s interesting, in marriage-conflict and divorce, one of the best ways to predict divorce is not the amount of conflict present but the absence of respect. Couples where there isn’t a respect, they don’t have gratitude and remorse and care for each other. They really don’t.
So I think there is a sense in which those things are missing sometimes. And you get some famous people, politicians, sports figures, entertainers. “I never say I’m sorry.” I’ve heard that a number of times from various people. Old Don Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada, that was one of his favorite lines. “I never say I’m sorry. It’s not what I do.” You know, that’s some sort of virtue.
Rachel Cram – Well, as I inwardly prepare my launch into the ignorance of people like that, I know there are times I don’t say these words with sincerity. And in even more appalling moments, in the back of my mind I even say them with a sarcastic or a bitter undertone. Although, I don’t think I want them interpreted like that and perhaps faking it is almost as destructive as not bothering to fake it. So, yeah, I’ll hold back. And let’s go this way instead.
In the introduction to your book, you identified 3 criticisms of current society. And sometimes I hear people say these are millennial problems, but I would strongly disagree that they are problems for all of us and they are entitlement, victimization and individualism. And you see these 3 phrases as antidotes to those.
And thank you. You see, as an antidote to entitlement. Can you explain that? How does saying ‘thank you’ buffer us and our kids from entitlement?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Well, I think it’s important to look at the cultural trend and then do I want to live my life in step with that? Like, I look at a cultural trend and I think, “Oh, I want to be like that, or I want to parent this way. Or do I look at a cultural trend and. Say, “Oh, I don’t want my kids to be like that,” whatever that may be and so I need something to fight against that or speak against it. So as you said, I agree with you, I don’t think it’s confined to a certain generation. Entitlement to me is best summarized in the phrase ‘I deserve it.’
So when you watch commercials, when you look at marketing, you look at advertising, as a baby boomer all the stuff that comes my way right now is like, “You’ve worked hard all of your life. You deserve”
Rachel Cram – You deserve a break today.
Dr. Ron Wilson – Yes. And I deserve a holiday. And I deserve to be able to travel. And I deserve maybe a second home on the Gulf Islands because I’ve worked hard and you deserve that. Or you deserve a loan or you’ve been a great customer so you deserve an increase in your credit card limit and that’s very appealing. It’s almost intoxicating. Somebody telling me I deserve it. Wow, that’s great. And then I get into this sort of quid pro quo thing that, you know, because I’ve worked hard all my life, I deserve all these things. Well, that’s entitlement. What’s the antidote to entitlement? Gratitude. Every single thing I have is gift. Every single thing I have I’ve received. Every single thing that I’m about has come from outside of me. Like all the people that influence me. The various factors in my life that influence me. I don’t deserve all this.
So to me, if I was a parent and I looked at the culture and I see this culture of I deserve it, I would stop and say, “Okay, my child is going to pick up this I deserve it all the time.”
Now, I wouldn’t talk to my seven year old and say, now let me explain entitlement to you, what that really means, but I would recognize that I deserve it needs to be fought with ‘thank you.’
Rachel Cram – Ok, so ‘Thank you’ is an antidote to entitlement, Rod, can you go through the other two and then we’ll go into each phrase in more detail?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Sure, that’s good.
Rachel Cram – Ok, so talk about “I’m sorry.” How is that phrase an antidote?
Dr. Rod Wilson – So, by the same token, I think the second thread is victimization. “It’s not My fault.” I love listening to public apologies from entertainers and sports figures. You know, like, “You know, I was doping for the last 20 years. But I’ve had a lot of struggles in my life and I’m going for counseling now and I want to apologize to my fans. But, you know, a lot of this.
Rachel Cram – But
Dr. Rod Wilson – yeah, but but but but but, and everyone’s dropping their ‘but’ after their sorrys, and what they’re really saying is, it’s not really my fault. So that thread of ‘it’s not my fault’ and I’m going to blame somebody else, how do you fight that? Well, you can yell at it and get mad at it, or you can live a different way and to me the different way to look is to say, “I’m sorry. You know what, Rachel? It is my fault. And I’m sorry. And I acknowledge that I’ve hurt you and I may have explanations for why I did what I did to you, but it doesn’t excuse me. So I need to acknowledge that I’m sorry.
Rachel Cram – Ok, quick recap. Thank you is an antidote to entitlement. I’m sorry is an antidote to victimization and then you say that Tell me more is an antidote to individualism. And I’m just going to read the dictionary definition for individualism, because I looked it up when I was reading your book. It says individualism is “The idea that each person should think and act independently rather than depending on others.” And then it goes on to say, “Many North Americans believe strongly in individualism.” That is the Cambridge dictionary definition. Does that resonate with your writing and what you see happening these days?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah. So, the great thing with this culture, which I just love, is the return to narrative and to story. But the problem now is it’s all about my story. And our story dominates so much that we’re not interested in anyone else’s story because no one wants to say, “Tell me more. Like tell me more, Rachel, tell me about your story. Like, how did you end up doing this work that you do in education with parents and podcasts? What’s the backstory to that? I’d be interested to know.”
And that shows care. So my story matters, but so does yours. And that to me is good conversation, which I think we’re losing.
We like proclamation, we like telling people. But conversation is the core of human discourse. And so if I say, tell me more, to you, I’m fighting against that thread of individualism and the culture that it’s all about me. My story matters most, and I’m going to almost use that in an abusive way with other people. I don’t care about other people’s story. I only care about my own.
And then we have controversy and conflict, you know, whether it’s COVID or the truckers or Trump or whatever it is, we don’t know how to talk.
The best way to deal with a culture that’s going in a wrong direction is to embody an alternative and let that speak. Don’t yell at it. Get mad at it, get angry at it. Identify it. And I would say, “How do I identify it? Entitlement, victimization, individualism.”
And once you’ve identified, then
think, what is the alternative? And I would say gratitude, remorse and care. Thank you. I’m sorry. Tell me more. And seek to live that.
Create a family where those are just regular, frequent phrases that people really get and then it’s not getting mad at the culture. It’s living that alternative.
Musical Interlude #2
If you’d like to connect further with Dr. Rod Wilson’s writing and work, or if you’d like to read a written transcript of this conversation with Rod, find links at family360podcast.com. It’s all there waiting for you.
Rachel Cram – I’m convinced you’re right. I have listened to that, and I believe you. Can we take each of those phrases one by one and look at practical ways that we can do that as a family? Because I think you’re right. I think we are aware of entitlement, we’re aware of victimization, we’re aware of individualism and we do not want that for our kids. But you don’t avoid it by being angry at it, like you said, you avoid it by having a plan forward. An antidote.
In your thank you section, you talk about this Hebrew word, which is really interesting, and I’m not going to pronounce it properly. Hakarat Hatvov? The fact alone that it’s a Hebrew word somehow makes it seem ancient and wise. Can you explain the concept of Hakarat Hatov? It’s a really well-defined way of looking at gratitude.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah. This word has three components to it, which I really like, and it’s a great practice. The first component is to acknowledge the good done to us. So it’s not just experiencing it or feeling it, but actually acknowledging it, that there was good done to me. And then secondly, bring optimism to what we observe. Like often when somebody does something to us or for us, we can bring a pessimistic view like, “Well, they may have done something nice to us, but they really did it for this reason, not for that reason.”
And then we get pessimistic about something somebody did for us. So the second part of this is, look with a sense of optimism. And the third one is, express the gratitude directly to the other person.
Rachel Cram – Can I just stop you there for a moment? Viewing what’s being done or offered to us through optimism, why is that tricky? Because it can be.
Dr. Rod Wilson – It can, yeah, because a lot of good things done to us are filtered through a grid that makes them not good for us.
Rachel Cram – Can you give an example maybe even in the context of parenting? How this plays out?
Dr. Rod Wilson – So, I think with parenting, it’s interesting you focus in on this because I think with parenting this is a difficult one. And see, I think part of that, Rachel, for me is this distinction between behavior and intent.
I think often as parents we’re so obsessed with behavior that we don’t honor intent.
So, you know, here’s Sally, nine years old and she picks up her glass to bring it into the kitchen because dinner’s over and she trips on the rug and spills the milk all over the floor. And Mum and Dad are heard to say. “What are you doing?
Well, kind of a silly question. We know what she’s doing. She just spilled milk on the floor. But honoring intent brings a whole different grid to that. That’s where the optimism comes in. She was going to the kitchen to clean off the table. Her intent was good.
Rachel Cram – And so still worthy of a thank you.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Exactly. Less than ideal behavior often comes from good intent. And I think even as adults sometimes, people have a good intent, a good desire, a good motivation to do something. They don’t do it really well. Like sometimes you’re trying to encourage somebody and you get all your words mixed up and you say the wrong thing and you make a mistake. But if intent is honored, then that’s where the optimism comes.
Rachel Cram – And I wonder if this is the undoing of many of our relationships, because behaviors are so much more noticeable and in your face than intentions, so yeah, we often react, and that often ends up just burying the intent.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Exactly. Exactly. It’s very hard to honor intent and not be obsessed with behavior.
Rachel Cram – Maybe spinning off that a little bit. Hakarat Hatvov, am I saying that right? Hakarat Hatvov describes gratitude as optimism toward intent. And then you write about obligation, and how obligation can also becomes a barrier to gratitude. So, to use another dinnertime parenting example, something like clearing off the table afterward a meal, a parent could think, “Well, I don’t thank my child for that because this is their responsibility to do this. They’re obligated to do that because I made the dinner for them and so them clearing off the table, well it’s an obligation. I expect that of them. So it’s not necessary to say “thank you.”
Is that what we were meaning when you wrote about obligation?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah. I think there’s some moves in the parental community right now, like, you know, lavish praise and excessive thank you. And, oh, you’re an amazing child. That’s phenomenal what you just did. Like, you know, even the child will learn soon that that’s disingenuous. I don’t think that’s what I’m trying to argue. But obligation is a step sister of ‘I deserve it.’ When people do things for me, I deserve them to do that, therefore, they don’t need to be thanked.
You don’t deserve your children to do things. If they do something good, comment on it, note it. Because what our parents note as good we soon believe that is the good and what they note as bad we soon believe that is the bad.
Rachel Cram – Well, and kids are always looking for social clues, right? We use this all the time at Wind and Tide. We’ll have something happening that we know the kids need to respond to. Like coming to the snack table. But when child does, we’ll say, “Oh, Levi, thank you for coming to the snack table so quickly.”
And all the other children listen and do the same because they realize, “oh, that’s what the expectation was.”
So thank you is letting everybody know, this is where we’re going. This is the flow of the behavior we are looking for. It’s just how kids learn.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Exactly,
Rachel Cram – It’s actually how we all learn.
Dr. Rod Wilson -Exactly.
Rachel Cram – This is good Rod. Thank you. And I mean that sincerely. Let’s move to the second phrase you offer as an important ingredient for high quality relationships, “I’m sorry.” You start this section in your book with a line from Emily Dickinson. She says, “Remorse Is Memory Awake.”
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah. Well when Emily Dickinson wrote this poem, Remorse Is Memory Awake, I think what she’s arguing there is that when we’re in relationship with one another we have to believe that we do things to other people that are not good, wrong, bad, sinful, whatever word you want to use out of your own ideology. And when we know we impact each other negatively, then responsibility comes with that.
You can’t just go, “Oh, that’s the way I am. You know, I’m a six on the Enneagram. What would you expect?
Rachel Cram – Got to be me.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Rachel Cram – I’ve got to speak my truth.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah, exactly. Or like maybe it offended you, but, you know, that’s your issue.
All this language you have in the culture. But fundamentally, what it comes down to is “it’s not my fault.”
But the reality is, the way we are, how we function, we do a lot of good to others but we do damage to others too. But in order to recognize that, you’ve got to believe that that is true. And so I worry about all this positivity both in religious circles and cultural circles, where it’s like, “I have great intent and I just love people.”
And basically, they’re saying, “I never damage anyone.”
But when you’re awake to the reality that we can hurt other people and we can damage other people, when you’re awake to that, then you recognize I’ve done damage and then remorse. I’m sorry. The desire to mend that, to repair that comes to the surface, and then I’m able to name it for what it is.
Rachel Cram – So what does a good, healthy, “I’m sorry” sound like when our memory is awake to remorse? What does it look like?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Well, I think ‘I’m sorry’ is an exercise in listening, not in speaking. You need to tell me Rachel, what was it I said? And how did I say it? And what was the facial expression? And what was the tone of my voice? And as you speak, I become aware of the nature of the injury. So superficial apologies like,”Ah Rachel, I’m really sorry I said that. My bad.”
Once I say those kind of things, I’m missing the real story behind that for you. And I think often when we listen and hear the damage we’ve done or hear the harm we’ve inflicted on other people, then we’re able to really come to grips with what we actually did. And to me, it’s the difference between intent and impact. My intent may have been great, but Rachel’s hurt. And here’s why she’s hurt.
And I’ve spoken into her story in a way that was really hurtful. I didn’t know that. But now she’s telling me that, and now I can acknowledge it. And I could express remorse and say, “I’m sorry for hurting you. And now I understand why what I said hurt you because you’re speaking about the impact that had on you.”
That requires a relationship. We need to be listening and speaking to each other in order to have a high quality, “I’m sorry.”
Rachel Cram – I’m just thinking about this from the other person’s point of view. You started by saying, “Rachel, you need to tell me what I’ve said, what I’ve done.” When we’re the recipient of the hurt, and we’re being asked about it, or not, is it always necessary, do you think, to bring it to the other person’s attention?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Short answer. No, I don’t think it is always necessary. I think when we are hurt, to me, it’s an occasion for self-examination before an examination of what precipitated the hurt. So, some of us have triggers. Some of us have historical pain. Some of us have trauma from our history. And something can trigger that. And if we don’t separate out the trigger from the reality, we may think we have an interpersonal problem when actually we have an interpersonal problem. We have an issue inside of us that we need to deal with, with a therapist, a trusted friend, somebody that we can go into some depth with and not think it’s actually what somebody else did. We think it’s relational. It actually is not relational.
Rachel Cram – Can you give an example?
Dr. Rod Wilson – I was teaching a class and I was going through the syllabus. And, I said, “For those of you a little more obsessive, what I need is this.”
And I got really into the granular detail of what wasn’t said in the syllabus.
So a woman came up to me after class. Said, “I, I just want to tell you, I was really hurt by you saying ‘for those who you are obsessive,’ Because she said, I really struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s really, really painful in my life. And I know that you didn’t intend to hurt me. And I’m not saying that you did something wrong in saying that, but I just want to tell you that you saying that, for somebody like me is really triggering.”
And I thought, what a beautiful conversation.
I really thanked her for saying it because, you know, I’m a psychologist. I mean, I understand obsessive compulsive disorder.
Rachel Cram – But did you apologize?
Dr. Rod Wilson – I did. I said, “I’m sorry that you received it that way, given your history.”
But she was able to distinguish there between the trigger and what I did. So she didn’t have a problem with me but she wanted to give me the feedback that what I had said was not helpful for her. And I loved her ability to piece that through. And it’s caused me pause. I mean, I still periodically will say something like that but I will drop the pathology term. And I might say, now, “For those of you a little more detail oriented, da da da da da,”
And that’s not as pejorative as calling somebody obsessive.
Rachel Cram – That’s a really good example. You are a very kind man. You’re talking about hearing each other’s stories, and that requires the other person to tell their story like that student did with you.
But, I know when one of my kids or a child at one of our preschools has been hurt in some way, it can be really hard to get them to share their story with the person who’s hurt them. They’re very resistant to that. And honestly, I can get that. I’m often very reluctant to share my stories of hurt as well.
And part of the reason why I think it’s hard is that when you’re talking about ‘remorse is memory awake’, how do you know if the person who has hurt you wants to be awake, or woken up? And then you can wonder, will sharing my story be worth the vulnerability?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah, it’s such an important issue, Rachel, that you’ve raised and I think for adults and for children there’s a sense in which most of us feel that remorse is feeling badly about what we have done. And then we get into this discourse of “So how badly do you feel? Tell me how badly you feel and then I’ll judge whether you’re really sorry because if you don’t sound like you feel really terrible, then you’re obviously not really sorry. And I’m not going to even think about forgiveness yet because you’re not really sorry.”
I think remorse is more about a commitment to the future than an emotion about the past.
So when I say ‘I’m sorry’, or when we ask our children to say ‘I’m sorry’ there’s two components to that. One is the stopping of the behavior that happened but the other component is a re-commitment to what’s coming.
And there’s an interesting Greek word, metanoia, that’s sometimes translated as repentance. And some people think repentance is this, “Oh, I feel terrible for all the awful things that I’ve done in my past,”
The word repentance is not like ‘feel terrible about the past.’ It’s based on your reflection of the past, what’s your fresh commitment for moving ahead.
Like sometimes in our marriage, I’ll say to Bev, “I’m sorry,” but then I keep doing the same behavior. Well, I’m not really sorry. I’m just sorry as a way of shutting her down or making her feel like I’m really convicted when I’m really not.
So the best test of I’m sorry is how we deal with the future rather than how we feel about the past. And I think if we’re not ready to make that commitment, we may want to acknowledge that we recognize there was hurt and we may want to acknowledge that we’ve impacted somebody negatively. But then we may want to share a little bit of our own story and say, “I would like to move ahead in this area, but I’d like to keep talking about that before I say a superficial I’m sorry.”
Rachel Cram – Oh, wow. That would be incredible to hear that, actually. You want to try to try?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah. Yeah, I’m committed to commit, but I’m not ready to commit.
Rachel Cram – Humm. Well, that actually could be a really excellent opening for the last ingredient to high-quality relationships, Tell Me More. Let’s use that as our segue.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Sure. That’s good.
Musical Interlude #3
Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation with Dr. Rod Wilson.
For our next episode, we’re returning to a previous topic. Last month we released an episode on Baby Sleep and this month we’re looking at Adult Sleep in an episode called, Insomnia: Now Playing In A Person Near You. We’re with sleep clinician and counselor, Tony Ho, talking about what wakes us up, what keeps us up, and how we get our weary selves to the quality and quantity of sleep we need. Join us for this informative conversation with Tony Ho.
And now back to the conclusion of our conversation with Rod, as he tells us more about Tell Me More, his third suggested phrase for high-quality relationships.
Rachel Cram – So, ‘Tell Me More’ is the third phrase you included in your ingredients for high-quality relationships. What’s the importance of that phrase?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah, I think it’s in many ways foundational to the first two. When we say thank you and when we say I’m sorry, we’re acknowledging the impact others have had on us and the impact we’ve had on others. When we say, Tell me more, we’re really establishing a conversation where we’re finding out what is your backstory? Where do you come from? What’s going on in your life? And we’re bringing a perspective to relationships that doesn’t start with an evaluative right and wrong.
When we hear something we have these two boxes in the back of our head and it’s the right box and the wrong box. So Rachel tells me her story. Well, that’s wrong. And then Rachel tells me this story. Well, that’s right. And then we proceed from there rather than really listening and saying, ‘tell me more’ and giving people the opportunity to tell their story. And then in our own attitudes, to treat people as if they have a story. And so often we don’t do that. So often in our relationships with one another we don’t even stop to think, ‘they have a story’. And because we all have dignity, I give you dignity and acknowledge your dignity by listening to your story. And being acknowledged gives us a deep sense of belonging. And I think too many of us are obsessed with belief and behavior and not enough with belonging. And belonging requires us to listen to people.
Rachel Cram – I’m just thinking about my kids and how Brene Brown says so many kids don’t feel like they belong, even in their families. I’m sure often the reason our kids don’t ‘tell us more’ even though we really want to hear more, is because they are expecting us to be listening with that belief and behavior lens on. So they’re thinking as I tell them the story, whether it’s, you know, what I did at school today or what I did on my date last night or my plans for the weekend. If as a parent, they’re used to us listening to correct or redirect or ask a question that is going to almost make them feel like they’re being morally judged, then it’s not an interesting conversation anymore.
That’s not the way friends talk to each other. That kind of judgment doesn’t come into the friendship. A friend, you do want to know more because you’re interested in the juicy details. And I think as parents when we can be interested in the juicy details just because they’re interesting. And just because we want to know more about our child, who they are, not what their plans are, or, their decisions are about who they are. That changes that. You actually do say, “Adult children will bond more closely with their parents if their times together are characterized by less superficiality and more vulnerability.”
So how do we get those kinds of conversations with our kids or with each other? How do we get to those ‘Tell me more’ conversations?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Well, I see this as a significant problem for 30 and 40-something. So many 30 and 40 something’s go and have a dinner with their parents and come back and say, “What was that about? That was so superficial”
Rachel Cram – Which is so sad because, you know, for the parents, myself, I don’t have a child that age yet, but, you know those parents do not want to be in a superficial relationship with their children. I think parents get scared. They don’t know what to ask their kids.
Dr. Rod Wilson – And I think the way into fear is vulnerability. But I think one of the reasons a lot of us who have older children have trouble with them talking to us and telling their story is because we’re not vulnerable and we’re afraid, both of our own story and their story, so then we hide. I mean, that’s what you do and you’re not vulnerable.
So, recently I was with my daughter and I’ve struggled with lifelong depression, low grade depression. I’m on medication and had lots of counseling for it and I’ve had a little bit of a dip recently. My depression has got a bit worse. So I was talking to my daughter and she said, “So how are you?”
And I said. “Well, my depression is not great right now. And I’m setting up a time with a counselor because I think I need to get back into some counseling again. And I’m still on my medication.” And I just talked to through.
And it’s not saying, “And therefore as a result of me being vulnerable right now what you need to do is…” It’s just modeling a way of being.
She’s hearing my story. And so when she says to me, How are you? I don’t go, “Good. Fine. It’s been great. Mom and I went out for dinner tonight. I had a great burger.”
I’m not sharing that way. I’m cutting through my fear. I’m being vulnerable. When she’s in a context where I’ve self-disclosed, then that breeds her own self-disclosure. Now she will tell me more. So I’m modeling the way to do it and I’m also presenting myself as a normal human being that struggles with depression and takes antidepressant medication. And that just opens up space.
And so I think embodying what we want is way more effective than telling what we want. I don’t do it perfectly but I try to do that in my own relationship.
Rachel Cram – And that might take some planning, right? Like we might not instinctively go there. I think for me it does take planning because I tend to be somebody who’s got the schedule going and making sure everybody’s where they need to be at the right time. I can default into that kind of parenting, but I just think, you know, as you’re talking about this, a few situations that have happened recently with me. My youngest daughter’s 11, and I picked her up from school and on my way to school I bit my tongue really badly in the car. I was eating. And she got into the car and we started talking. She said, “Why are you talking funny?” My instinct was to just kind of blow it off but I stopped and I said, “Oh Fiona, it’s because I bit my tongue on the way here and it is killing me.” I said, “Can you look at it to see if it’s bleeding?”
And she kind of got into the conversation. She looked at it and she was like, “Oh, Mom, it looks horrible.”
I said, “It feels horrible. What do you think I should do? Like, how should I fix this?”
And it was a great car ride home. She relaxed into it. And so I think it’s looking for those moments appropriately, obviously, what you’re going to share with your child. So I do think it takes some planning to have regular moments of self-disclosure if that’s what we want back from our kids.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Exactly. Exactly.
Rachel Cram – So you’re saying self-disclosure breeds self-disclosure. What else can we do to be drawing out those ‘Tell Me More conversations?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Well, I think Tell Me more is words we speak, but it’s also attitudes we hold. So often, even with our own children, we do this caricature of people and we don’t listen to the story. We don’t spend the time and the intentionality to really hear the story and really listen to it well.
So, you know some of your listeners have four children at home and there’s three really alike and there’s the one that, “Well, he’s the grumpy one.”
No, he’s not. He’s not the grumpy one. He is a person who is grumpy at times but also has a story. And it may take time and energy. But a lot of this is shifting our attitude, not necessarily working on their behaviors, but shifting our attitude. And then they pick up almost by osmosis that we are people that want to hear the story.
Rachel Cram – With sensitivity to the grumpy person, there can be relationships where one person seems to do a lot of the Telling More and the other person’s story isn’t told much. Would you consider that problematic and if you do Rod, how do you start to address that?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah, the phrase Tell Me More is really rooted in the idea of conversation. And the thing that’s great about conversation is it’s mutual, it’s reciprocal. I think in marriages where only one person’s story is told and the other one is not, those often move towards abuse of disrespectful situations.
I think the other thing is, if we’ve never really had the opportunity to tell our story to anyone, whether it’s a close friend, a spouse, a therapist, we’re not conversant with that way of being. We minimize our own story. We don’t think it matters. Like, “Yeah, well, you know, my parents divorced when I was three, but it’s not a problem to me.”
And we just pass it off, but we’ve never really had the opportunity to be heard. And I think if you haven’t had the opportunity to be heard, it’s often quite a struggle to use those skills to listen to the other.
You know, I love going for counseling because when I go for counseling, it’s not just that the counselor tells me more but I listen to myself tell me more. Sometimes what I hear myself say in a counseling session as a client is actually really instructive because I learn something about myself. So I think there’s a skill to telling your own story and there’s a skill to listening to other stories. And sadly, I think a lot of people have never had this level of dialog. They just never really, never really told their story of what’s going on.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, And so sometimes if there is an imbalance, it might not be the other person’s not willing to listen. It might be that if you don’t know how to tell your story you don’t know how to let it come out.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And a lot of families, that is the family rule, right? We don’t tell our stories. We talk about ideas, concepts, political views, ideological observations, religious convictions, whatever it might be. But we don’t really tell our stories in the family. That’s not allowed.
Rachel Cram – And so if we want high-quality relationships for our children, this is something we start practicing when they’re young. Letting them tell their story.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Very important because again, we’re modeling what we think is valuable. And when you model anything, it’s interpreted as that’s the way we’re supposed to be.
Rachel Cram – And sometimes it can be a bit boring and long when they’re little, but worth sitting and listening to it. I’m listening to you trying to think of why I would hold back from asking my child or partner or actually even more likely a friend, why would I hold back from asking them to ‘tell me more’ and I think sometimes it would be because I’m concerned my response would miss the mark. I’ll say the wrong thing and not be helpful at all. And you have to be open to hearing that, right?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Exactly. And I think so often, I mean, for me, I think Rachel, what a lot of this comes down to in our parenting with the Tell Me More is we’re so into that right wrong way of being.
We’re threatened by other people’s stories. When people are opening up and telling us what’s going on in their lives, it makes us uncomfortable.
Rachel Cram – Well, you just don’t want to make matters worse for anyone right, by sticking your foot in your mouth.
Dr. Rod Wilson – I mean, I tell a funny story in the book. We struggle with infertility our whole life and hoping we continue to struggle with infertility at this stage, and I was at a job interview once, and this guy said, “Do you have family?”
And I, you know, it’s a little bit nasty in some ways and honest in another way. I said, “No, we struggle with infertility.”
And I got the infertility out of my mouth, like literally out of my mouth and he said, “Have you ever tried vitamin E?”
And I thought, “What the heck am I going to do with vitamin E? What do I put it on or what do I put it in?”
Rachel Cram – He was trying to help you solve your infertility problem?
Dr. Rod Wilson – He hardly even knew me. He just met me in the lobby like 30 seconds before and I mentioned infertility. He has a solution. And it’s not like, “So what’s that been like for you?” or, “Tell me more about that.” It’s not that discourse.
It’s like, “I’m going to solve this problem that you have with Vitamin E.”
And I thought. “You’re talking about my sex life and I just met you 30 seconds ago.”
But that’s what we do. We love solving. We declare it right or wrong, and then we solve. And then we wonder why people don’t want to talk to us.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. I wonder if sometimes we do that because we’re not sure if it’s prying to go deeper as well, right? I put myself in that guy’s shoes. If you said, “I struggle with infertility,”
I think I’d be like, “Oh, oh”.
But then the thing is, you wouldn’t have brought it up if you weren’t willing to discuss it. The thing is you have to make these decisions so quickly, right. But offering a solution is probably the fastest way to shut down the conversation. And people are doing it out of caring, right?
Dr. Rod Wilson – Absolutely. Absolutely. Well intentioned.
Rachel Cram – That’s the thing.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah. And that’s what we try to do, honor the intent. They’re trying to help, but they’re a little short on wisdom.
Rachel Cram – Just like the spilt milk.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Exactly.
Rachel Cram – Well and that’s why understanding all this is important, right? Because if we want to have high-quality relationships these are vulnerabilities we need to understand and practice if we want to get there.
Maybe this can bring me to my last question for you. This all sounds like a lot of work and a lot of thinking.
Do we really need high-quality relationships? Because sometimes it feels like it would actually be easier to go without that and just sort of have medium-quality relationships.
Dr. Rod Wilson – I think that’s well said. I think some of us are just tired. We go home at night, close the door and shut out the world. Shut out relationships. We get asked to go somewhere. We’re just like, naaa, I don’t want to do that.
And that’s the nature of the culture right now.
the high pace, the lack of balance and tranquility in our lives at the core, that’s missing for a lot of people, which I think then leads us to cut off relationships.
And there’s different personality styles. Some people love relationships, some people are energized by them. Some people aren’t. I think that needs to be taken into consideration. This is not an argument that we all need to be hyper relational. It’s not about a quantity of relationship, it’s about a quality of relationship and recognizing the dignity of people and treating them accordingly.
Rachel Cram – The dignity of people, that’s a good way to end. Well, these ingredients, these sacred sayings, Thank you, I’m Sorry, Tell Me More, these are out there for all of us to use. They’re not expensive but they’re costly. It costs us something to commit ourselves to these phrases.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Yeah, well said.
Rachel Cram – And I thank you for bringing them to this book and to our attention.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Well, thank you. And I say that genuinely, and I don’t think I’m sorry for anything.
Rachel Cram – And I take it optimistically.
Dr. Rod Wilson – Good. Lovely to be with you, Rachel. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Rachel Cram – I have too. Thank you so much.