Book Chat: The Secrets of Happy Families

— by Hannah Lee

Who doesn’t seek family harmony? What I found compelling about Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families was that the author did not seek out therapists, happiness researchers, or self-help gurus. Instead, he explored different disciplines, learning how to successfully apply their results to family management. I appreciate the affirmation from outside the social sciences.

The first chapter dealt with how to deal with stress points. Two of the techniques discussed were the use of a family flowchart/checklist (children love making checkmarks) and a weekly family meeting to discuss problems. These strategies were developed in the software industry and are now used in practically all forms of product development. Two startling strategies suggest involving the children, both in devising rewards and in assigning punishment, because they then become invested in the follow-through. The author wrote about the marvelous results that led to his sharing in his children’s emotional inner life, as our children often do not open up to us in this way.

More after the jump.
Another chapter discussed how to fight smart. Feiler writes that we spend about half our days negotiating — with our spouse, our boss, our clients — but most people do not understand its nature. Managing disagreements hinge on:

  • timing (6-8pm is usually the most stressful time);
  • language (“I” and “we” are signs of a healthier relationship than “you”);
  • length (the most important points are made in the opening three minutes); and
  • body language (eye-rolling, sighing, and shifting in the seat are signs of disrespect).

For this technique, Feiler went to the experts in negotiations: Bill Ury (co-author of Getting to Yes) and the Harvard Negotiation Project, which teaches people involved in the most difficult global issues of the day. Ury’s teachings involve a five-step process:

  1. isolate your emotions;
  2. go to the balcony (to see the big picture);
  3. step to their side (to understand their reasoning);
  4. don’t reject, re-frame; and
  5. build them a golden bridge.

This last point is especially important for families, as we live with our negotiating partners and we cannot leave anyone embittered.

When Feiler visited Joshua Weiss, cofounder of Harvard’s Global Negotiation Initiative and Ury’s business partner, he witnessed one family fight amongst the Weiss daughters (aged eleven, nine, and five). It was remarkable that the five-year-old was the one who stepped in as peace negotiator, asking each sister to state her case, without interruption. The middle sister had learned other techniques, such as “Stop, Think, Control” (a child’s equivalent of going to the balcony) and to consider the other person’s feelings. The eldest girl had already mastered some adult problem-solving strategies, demonstrated in separate incidents, for going to the balcony and trying to understand the other side.

Additional chapters in the book dealt with having difficult conversations with our families, improving marital relationships, and even how smart families share space. The final part of the book covers the fun-but-trying times of family vacations, sporting events, and reunions. You might not be ready to adopt all of the insights described, but it’s certainly eye-opening to learn about them.

Feiler had already published ten globetrotting books by the age of 43 when he was diagnosed with bone sarcoma. His twin daughters were only three, so he pondered how to maintain his connection with them in the event of his death. His novel solution was to create a Council of Dads, male friends from six different periods in his life who could serve to convey his values and perspectives to his daughters when they face milestones or difficult decisions. The resultant memoir of the same name is a lively account of how these men became important people in their lives, as their friends, not just friends of their father.
With the book The Council of Dads and now The Secrets of Happy Families (begun after his cure), Feiler is forging a new direction, one about relationships. I cautiously predict that his new career may reach even more readers than did his first bestseller, Walking the Bible, which inspired a television series. (Readers of The Council of Dads have created their own councils to deal with the pressures of different parenting situations.) The Bible is the greatest story ever told, but Feiler’s recent two books are his own stories and they shed a different light on our world.  


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