Do Same Sex Conversations Help to Reduce Your Stress?

I am writing this as a male observer of female to female conversations and I am inviting any female to write the corresponding post, as an observer of male to male conversations. Could the LGBT community provide corresponding perspectives?

For many years I was virtually the only male in a large, open plan office accommodating about seventy staff. I had to overhear female to female conversations over an extended period of time and so I could not help but notice the style and content of the talk going on around me. It may help to know that the culture was western and UK based.

Most of the conversations were about ‘relationships’ or interactions, as I prefer to call them. They could be divided into three categories: 1. Females talking about their social circle, including their parents; 2. Females talking about themselves and their children; 3. Females talking about males.

In the first and second categories the interactions were largely positive in tone. There were challenges mentioned from time to time, such as difficult pregnancies, children’s school exams, minor illnesses and so on, but there was usually much good humour about how hurdles were overcome. In the third category, females talking about males, the interactions  were mainly negatively toned. Females often seemed to report their female to male relationships as a source of dissatisfaction and stress. When these conversations were going on around me, I had to conclude that the female’s degree of dissatisfaction with the male spouse/partner often seemed quite significant. It was not clear to me that the ‘letting off steam’ I was witnessing was sufficient to deal with this level of stress.

My concerns were in three areas: 1. I was seldom able to form the impression that these issues had been discussed at the same length with speaker’s spouse or partner; 2. The listener usually, not always, seemed to collude with the talker in saying that the man was at fault; 3. There was much talk in generalisations or stereotypes about men, such as men are selfish, men are arrogant, men do ‘mansplaining’, men do ‘manspreading’, men have ‘man flu’, men talk mainly about sport, men talk about solutions, men won’t talk, men are just little boys and so on.

As five minutes on Google will tell you, there is a lot of literature about male and female talk, for example, Jennifer Coates (1996). Women Talk: Conversation between Women Friends. Wiley Blackwell. Some authors fall into simple comparisons, such as men communicate through action, women communicate through conversation, or men compete, women collaborate and so on.

Coates (1996) recorded and analysed twenty conversations between females. This was a scholarly work, looking at what female talk contains, for example questions and repetition. The analysis also revealed what is the purpose of their talk, for example, constructing and maintaining their friendships.

Moving on to stress management, the issue is what happens after these conversations are over. For successful stress management to take place there needs to be some form of perception change. We need to learn to see the world differently, as a less stressful place. Has the speaker or the listener learnt something from her female to female talk? Is subsequent interaction with the spouse/partner enriched and less stressful as a result?

In the female to female, workplace conversations I was forced to overhear, I seldom heard anything resembling a learning experience. There was little along the lines of the listener inviting the speaker to stop and think, or cautioning the speaker about maybe judging too harshly, jumping to conclusions or inviting her to review her negative stereotypes about men.

Frequently the mood of one female appeared to lighten when the other female agreed with her about her man and about men generally. But this may be just a warm bath; comforting but superficial. When the bath water goes cold, the participants may be non the wiser about how to deepen their relationships with men. Over a period of time it was difficult for me to detect any signs that the female to female interactions led to stress reduction in relationships with the male spouse/partner.

What happens when we look at male to male conversations? Coates attempted this in a separate book (Men Talk: Stories in the Making of Masculinities. Wiley Blackwell, 2003). Are there any indications that men learn to see the world differently as a result of male to male conversations?

Would any female care to write the corresponding article about male to male conversations as observed by a female?




Reducing Stress in Other People

As you see from a previous post it is possible that you create stress by your interactions with others (Does Your Conversation Create Stress in Others?). What can you do to turn that around and reduce their stress?

Going back to an example from another post on your need to talk about the frustration of your traffic jam experience (Do Your Relationships Deepen Over Time?). Your partner hears the words, traffic jam, and their own traffic jam story pops into their head. Without any listening to you they talk about that. You are left hanging with no chance to let off steam. The failed attempt to share an experience with your partner may have left you feeling even more stressed than before.

From the opposite point of view, do you ever behave like that with other people; hear their first sentence, then just go into your own story? Daniel Kahneman (2011) might say that you do. (Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin Books).

One of the things you can do to reduce stress in others is take a real interest in what other people are going through. To convey to someone that you are interested in their life, it is not enough to say you are interested. To be authentic, your caring for another person needs to show in your behaviour towards them, for example by allowing them time to talk whilst you listen. That may help reduce their stress. A bit of letting off steam can provide a sense of relief from tension.

To enable people to let off steam the main thing is to refrain from talking yourself. When you hear someone talking about a stressful experience and a similar story from your own life pops into your head, do not talk about it. Stay quiet and listen. If your talker needs a bit of encouragement, from time to time during their story, a mild prompt along the lines of, “Tell me more about that,” will probably be enough.

“Thank you for listening.” Have you ever heard someone say that? I imagine you have, but not very often. When something is rare it is valuable. You can be valuable to others when you listen.

What do you think?

Do Your Relationships Deepen Over Time?

Take marital relationships as an example. If we believe what we read in the newspapers, something like fifty per cent of UK marriages end in divorce. If that is the case in the UK, it seems likely to be at a similar level throughout the western world.

Think of any couple in a long term relationship.  We may expect the relationship between two people to deepen with the passage of time. However, if the reported divorce statistics are reliable, for married people as example, the relationship does not deepen. The relationship becomes stressful and often falls apart.

Do relationships deepen automatically, as time passes? It’s probably not an automatic process. Everyone is familiar with the notion that we have to make an effort to sustain any relationship. What does working on a relationship look like? What is the outcome? Have we simply welded our cracked relationship together? Maybe we could do better than that.

In straightforward terms, working on a relationship might mean forgiving our partner when they undermine us, demean us, offend us and so on. However, another style of working on a relationship could be preventative. There may be something we can do to deepen our relationship. With the passage of time we could strengthen the bond between two people and avoid getting to the point where we are badly hurt emotionally. That approach may be less stressful but how do we do that? The bestselling author Daniel Kahneman (2011) may be of help here (Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin Books).

Kahneman explains how everyday conversations between two people can take place in a form so simplified, there is little chance that the speaker’s words will touch the heart and mind of the listener. The listener is not likely to feel known and understood and so the relationship does not deepen. Simplified conversations are all around us. It is nothing to do with our ability or educational level.

Take a simple example of how our talk does not meaningfully touch or reach out to our partner. One of us is stuck in a horrendous traffic jam on the way home from work. There is the exasperation and stress of the traffic jam plus late arrival at home which disrupts our plans for the evening. We are now going to be late for things and the feeling of letting people down adds sharply to our stress.

We get home and need to reduce stress by letting off steam to our partner. Our partner listens for hardly any time at all and then changes the subject to tell us story about a friend’s traffic jam. We are left hanging and hurt by our partner’s disregard for our stress. They would rather tell us about the stress of someone we have not even met. The interaction with our partner increased our stress when we were hoping for stress reduction and soothing from our loved one.

Why do partners react like this when we need their help? Kahneman says it is because we want our conversations to be effort free. We react impulsively and say what pops into our head instead of thinking of the needs of others. We talk by simple association. We hear the words, traffic jam, then think of a traffic jam somewhere in our own world and talk about that.

We increased our partner’s stress when we had a chance to reduce it. We created anger, frustration and emotional distance when we had a chance to trigger warmth, gratitude, emotional closeness and a deeper relationship. Deepening of our relationships may be an effective preventative action, lessening the tendency for outbursts which hurt us emotionally, reducing stress and sustaining relationships over time.

What do you think?

Does Your Gossip Create Stress in Other People?

Most of us may be of the opinion that gossip is harmless. Some of the people I know seem to spend at least half of their conversational lifetime in gossip. They cannot imagine that any harm has been done.

What do I mean by the term, gossip? Saying negative things about people behind their backs seems like a good example of gossip. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable when I am in the company of people who are dishing the dirt on someone who is not there to defend themselves. Occasionally I might venture to suggest that we should not be talking about people in this way. The replies I get are along the lines that they are ‘only saying’ or they are simply showing an interest in relationships. There is no awareness that their gossip might be harmful and the gossipers imply that it might even be a virtue to dwell on the lives of others in this way.

But gossip can cause stress. When someone gossips to me about a mutual friend, I often think that I did not want to hear that. I know this person. I work with them. I spend a lot of time with them planning things, problem solving over lunch and so on. Now I have to chat with them and pretend I do not know what I have been told. That causes me stress.

When I overhear people gossiping I am aware that I might be their next target. They might be saying negative things about me when my back is turned. That possibility creates stress in me.

Whoever is the target of gossip can have their reputation damaged without being aware that is taking place. They have no opportunity to defend themselves. It starts with a harmless comment from the gossip target judged by the gossipers as showing bias or prejudice. Then the gossip target may be seen as unworthy, labelled an ‘ist’ and condemned to an out group. The gossip spreads and the target then finds their colleagues and friends avoiding them or adopting a patronising attitude towards them. That is stressful.

Should people stop gossiping? Could they stop if they tried?

What do you think?


Does Your Conversation Create Stress in Other People?

Yes – to varying degrees, we probably all create stress in other people. The first step is to accept that is the case. Some of us have a congratulatory view of ourselves. We say we are caring, in touch with our feelings, interested in relationships and so on. We are such nice people. How could anyone accuse us of creating stress?

Some of us have a negative view of ourselves. We often feel rejected, let down by others, we have low self esteem and so on. We believe that others give us stress. It’s that way round.

However we are all human. We all have faults. It may be unwise to claim perfection in any aspect of our lives. Everything we do and say may be faulty to some degree. Take any conversation between two people, for example. This may be one of the most frequent sources of stress in our lives. A conversation with our partner at home or our manager at work can go wrong and leave us feeling tense, frustrated, not understood or appreciated; in other words, stressed. We often know beforehand that these negative experiences are likely to take place and we may do our best to avoid them.

We can have ‘weather’ conversations about trivial topics. These may look like a good way of avoiding stressful talk. But this may mean you avoid talking about how your partner came to crash the family car. It may mean you don’t get round to talking about why this person is taking a lot of time off work. When serious topics are not grappled with, stress can increase.

What might we do? Any suggestions?


Choosing What to Think: what does this mean?

Thinking about something stressful can have the same effect on your body as it would were you actually in the stressful situation.

If you can recall the last time you had a near miss when driving a car. Your body went automatically, by reflex, into stress mode. Your heart rate and blood pressure increased, maybe you sweated, had a churning sensation in your stomach and so on. After a moment or two your body calmed down and you continued on your way. Then, a few moments later thoughts of that near miss may have come into your mind again. What were your bodily reactions? You had similar responses with heart rate, stomach churning and so on.

This why stress management includes ‘choosing what to think’. When thinking of something stressful puts our bodies into stress mode, thinking of something pleasant can take our bodies out of stress mode. Choosing to think of something pleasant is an important part of stress management.


Stress Management: a quick fix?

I am often asked for tips on stress management. People ask me to give them a short list of easy routines to reduce stress. They may be thinking of the stress reduction advice which you sometimes see in newspapers including, take exercise, watch your diet, make time for yourself, read a book at bedtime and so on. That may be helpful, but my approach to stress management is not a collection of quick fixes.

Giving you a list of tips for stress reduction does not give you the motivation to follow them. For example, many people may know how to lose weight but lack the motivation to carry it out. Knowing what to do is not the same as doing it. In your busy life you need a fair amount of motivation if you are going to set aside a mere  twenty minutes or so each day to complete a stress management routine.

My aim in stress management is to give you some very simple guidelines to follow, but there is carefully structured thinking underneath. None of the ideas in the books and CDs is originally mine. I am simply bringing you some of the best practice from my field of psychology, in a straightforward manner which is easily accessed and not too time consuming.

My book, Say ‘No’ to Exam Stress is most often used for helping youngsters at school in dealing with exam stress. However the principles and methods in that book are also applicable to adults. Read Chapter 1, only six, short pages. Then listen to the enclosed CD, Track 1 for about twenty minutes. Figure 3 on page 41 explains how Track 1 can provide you with the motivation to listen to further tracks up to Track 5. You might listen to Track 1 each day for five days in succession, then move on to Track 2, or repeat listening to Track 1 for two or three days, then move on. It is up to you to decide how often you listen to a given track and when you move on to the next track. It is Track 5 which gives you the ‘touch on the wrist’ technique to use for exam stress, but you cannot jump straight in at Track 5. When listening to the CD for the first time, it is best to listen to the tracks in order, Track 1 to Track 5.

The rationale behind the ‘touch on the wrist’ is to make stress management easily portable. You learn your stress management in a quiet room and then apply it out in the world, in exams or anywhere in your everyday life.

The programme is suitable for college and university students as well as adults in a wide range of stressful situations, not only exams. People who find stress in the workplace, in relationships and so on, may find this programme beneficial.

The relaxation scripts spoken on audio CD are written to provide a combination of muscle relaxation plus guided, positive thoughts. The structure is similar to mindfulness which may have its origins in meditation practices from other cultures. Nowadays these activities have been established as relatively mainstream techniques in western civilisations.

No quick fixes here, but psychology literature and practice distilled into authentic techniques which are quick and simple to use in a busy life.