1 big idea to think about

  • Relationships can be transformed by recognizing how our assumptions and weaknesses affect our relationships.  

2 ways you can apply this

  • Accept the idea that there is no monster in the relationship. I’m not a monster. They’re not a monster. It just is what it is. 
  • Investigate and question the stories you have been telling yourself about the other person in the relationship. Are they true? Is there another perspective you may not be considering?

3 questions to ask

  • Am I in the “monster trap” in any of my relationships? (I’m a monster, or they’re a monster)
  • Which relationship could change if I accepted that there are no monsters and accepted the person for who they are?
  • Do I fall victim to self-deception in my relationships because I only tell myself one side of the story?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • The dangers of conflict resolution models (3:13)
  • The richness of human relationships (9:13)
  • Transforming a relationship by changing your thinking: Eliminating the monsters in our relationships (19:04)
  • The trap of self-deception (23:06)
  • The eye-to-eye and face-to-face nature of communication (24:20)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Connect with C. Terry Warner

LinkedIn | Facebook 

Greg McKeown (00:02):

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. And I’m the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Effortless and Essentialism. And I’m here with you on this journey to learn how to understand each other. Have you ever felt seriously stuck in a relationship where the harder you tried, the worse it got? Today I am thrilled to have one of the wisest people I have ever had the fortune of knowing to be joining us, Professor C. Terry Warner. His book, Bonds That Make Us Free, changed my life more than once. I return to it regularly. This is part one of two. Warner shares the story behind one of the most startling discoveries in psychology over the last 50 years. By the end of this episode, you will understand what keeps you trapped in the most frustrating relationships of your life, work, or at home. Let’s begin.

And remember not to take this journey alone. Teach the ideas in this podcast to someone else within the next one or two days. I don’t know if you’re going to be able to solve this conundrum for me, but when we spoke the first time, it’s about a month ago, I mentioned to you conflict resolution and my interest in it. And you said this, you said, “Well, I think conflict resolution needs you more than you need it.” And you didn’t explain that because you didn’t have time in that moment. But I asked you about it, and you said, “Well, it’s not about this. It’s about that.” But that’s as far as you went, and that left me hanging as to what you, what you meant by that?

Terry Warner (02:13):

I think I may have said something about the dangers of models. If you are focusing on understanding one another, that’s going to be a lot more fruitful than somebody developing some interventional or therapeutic modality for intervention, where the specialist works on the people or gives the people the secret formula or gives prescribes a course because it never quite fits. And in fact, it’s the wrong direction. I think the idea of enlightening people so they understand one another better and can empathize deeply with the other person’s situation is without any further endeavor fitting that is absolutely appropriate and connects with the situation as it exists, rather than some, rather than a generic model that never quite fits and always locates the responsibility in the wrong place. I think that my views grow out of the intellectual property that I bequeathed to Arbinger, the Arbinger Institute. And it’s very productive and enables people to take responsive belief of their own situation, their own relationships and to heal them. And I think it’s the only possible way. I got a lot of reasons for that. I’m going to be giving a talk in the fall about it.

Greg McKeown (04:08):

Basically, you are saying to teach anyone any model where they are to understand this model and therefore, because of now understanding it, they will then be able to interact with people better.

Terry Warner (04:25):

Oh, well, typically, they go to a place like George, George Mason University, and they get armed with their credentials and the tricks of the trade. And then they go out into the world, and I’m not sure that there’s any more specialized discipline in the world that is such an abject failure as conflict resolution. And it has a lot of sibling similarities to a lot of counseling and psychotherapy approaches. And that belief, this kind of medical treatment sort of model, the faith in it is grounded in deep misunderstanding of the source of most of our problems. I think the name conflict resolution is such a powerful misnomer. It says that somehow people find themselves engaged in conflicts that these conflicts can quote, be resolved, and that’s kind of a transactional, it already implies a sort of a transactional approach. 

And that there’s somebody who’s mastered the processes for a resolution, how you, how you meet across the table, or how you find common ground or whatever. And it pays no attention, whatever that, as far as I can tell to the responsibility of the individuals who are conflicted with one another for the situation that they’re in and if they’re not responsible for it, they can’t do anything about it, except by agreeing to some sort of transactional solution that they can put on paper and sign, and this part will be yours and this part will be mine, and the potential contentiousness still exists. They may resent the fact that they sign the agreement at all. More than likely, they won’t even get into it. My little bit of it’s not a professional, but it’s being associated with some professionals.

My little bit of acquaintance with what is called conflict resolution would suggest that people who’ve been most trusted to be help helpful in international conflict resolution situations have kind of come into their role by accident, by long-term friendships, or by gaining the trust of somebody. And maybe their circle of friends bridges the two conflicted parties. I think conflict resolution on that scale is incredibly difficult, and it is conflicted parties who prepare very carefully about how they’re going to where and how they’re going to meet one another and under what conditions and what assumptions. And it’s almost all contrived to prevent any concessions, whatever, any, any substantial concessions, whatever. And they would be given grudgingly and only on a quid pro quo. I think the way to go after conflict resolution is an interpersonal way.

And any approaches are going to spin out of understandings what and who human beings are and how they relate to one another. And in fact, even what reality is because reality is nothing that can possibly be represented in a symbol, by means of a symbol set on a piece of paper or on with pictures or symbols of any kind. Reality is very rich, and it’s interpersonal. And we have gifts of mutual understanding and collaboration and mutual support and caring and loyalty that can just can’t be represented. One of the key problems with any, I’ll use the word, any psychological understanding, be it theory, or just offhand impressions, depends upon intellectual moves that are extra psychological. That is to say, if you’re going to talk about the attitudes, emotions, desires, dispositions, agency, et cetera of human beings and how they interact with one another, you have to find what used to be called operational definitions of all those kinds of terms, for example, very simple example.

Do you want to find out about religiosity? You have to define it in some kind of observational terms. For instance, how often a person prays, how often a person attends some kind of congregation of people, of life, of people, of a similar faith.  You’ve got to find some way that you can observationally cash in the notion and that observation, that operational definition, that defining something that can’t be accessed otherwise in terms that are observation grounded that move is by definition outside of the science, outside of the skillset and it’s intuitive, and it can’t be taught. It can sort of be picked up. People can copy one another, but it has no, there’s no conceivable argument ever for people to defend the idea that something attitudinal or relational consists in those things that we can observe.

And there’s a host of arguments against that. And, and generally speaking, when some genius comes along like a kicker gore or a, an Emmanuel Levinas, and he, or she puts their finger right on what it is, and wrestles with how to say it so that people don’t grab it and make it in for something else they tend to be, they tend to have to generate some kind of a flashpoint of illumination in the world of people who talk about these things. And then they die because nobody knows how to make a professionalized use of it that can generate power, fame, or money by means of it. You’re entering into an area that is recognized but also the only fruitful way of talking about the subjects, and you almost have to be embedded in that world. In the world of enhancing the productive relationships among human beings, you almost have to be deeply engaged in it in order to try to find some way which geniuses have not been successful at doing in the past. I know that I’m saying things that are hard to get. I can give some examples.

Greg McKeown (12:48):

Now I will say, you know, I have read, of course, Bonds That Make Us Free, and I’ve read it. You know, when I say I’ve read it, I mean, I’ve read it and read it and read it and tried to break it down and tried to get to the pieces of it and tried to limit…

Terry Warner (13:05):

Then you’ll know, from that reading you’ll you already know, because I tried to write that book in a decidedly non-theoretical way. I came to all this by a theoretical route. Talk about that later, but yes, I wrote that book, so in itself, it could be an occasion for self-therapy because of the nature, the very nature of the kind of problems that I’ve been concerned about, the problems that have at their core, some form of self-deception puts the responsibility for those problems, right upon the individual. I worked for a long time, trying to solve a problem in philosophical psychology that I was aware had never been solved. And that is how is it possible for people just to deceive themselves? Jean-Paul Sartre said, the only way it could happen, it appears, and this is what Sigma Freud believed, was that people would have to know the truth. Very exactly, in order to hide it, hide it from themselves more carefully.

And so Freud was pressed to devise a theory of the unconscious, a theory according to which there are things we know that we cannot talk to ourselves about because the unconscious is inaccessible to consciousness. Nevertheless, its ideation and energies drive our behavior. Sartre was one of the first to strike a blow against Freudianism, but it hasn’t survived intellectually. It can’t. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a construct that is, in principle, unverifiable. It’s a way to try to invent a sort of homunculus inaccessible to the individual or to anybody else that is at the root of our behavior. And, but it, for a generation or two, it swept the Western world. And it’s been left far behind and deservedly so. But because the theory says in effect, there are times, and there’s a lot of people who have had this sort, an insight to this, of this kind, there are occasions for every human being in which they encounter situations that call upon them in an imperative way to respond caringly or helpfully, and is widely accepted that we all go through life interpreting our world through socially constructed mentalities mindsets, if you will, ways of looking at things categories and, and concepts that structure the world for us if we didn’t, we couldn’t make any sense of it.

And we get those from our, our society, from our culture, as we grew up their culture, the way the culture impedes upon the individual and controls the human behavior. And nevertheless, the gospel teaches us. And I believe that it’s true. And there’s a lot of sweet argument that this would have to be. So we do have times when the humanity of others falls upon our humanity, and that is an obligation to have that kind of intuition to see another being that way, maybe even an animal or some living thing, is who we are. It can’t be ignored, and we either yield to it. We, and in a gospel context, we yield to the light of Christ, or we refuse to, but we can’t just let it alone and walk away as if it were a flavor of dessert that we didn’t want to order at the restaurant because we don’t like the taste of those things. It is binding upon us. And so we, in a gospel context, we couldn’t be, we couldn’t be agents if we didn’t have the possibility, whenever it matters, of choosing between good and evil, light and darkness.

Greg McKeown (18:04):

I do remember in Bonds that sentiment of being trapped by the story of, well, either they’re a monster, or I am a monster. And that’s it. Once you’re in that trap, it’s all, it’s like the devil can leave us alone because we’re already trapped. We’re already miserable because the more, the more we push on that system, the more it will push back on us. And this can go on the course for years or a lifetime. And not only do I sort of understand it conceptually, right? That it, once you discover, oh, there is no monster, you know, I just acted in these ways and justified myself in these ways and have then gone on along with this story, oh, I can be liberated, and I’ve experienced it. So sort of beyond the logic, the logical alignment, I have experienced some very profound moments of liberation, independent of the other person.

I was once driving along on my own, thinking through these ideas, thinking about this relationship, thinking about my own frustrations and hurt. And I just started to, just to weep, literally had to pull over from the road as it just sort of all came out of me after years and years. It’s been, it was long enough ago now that I don’t really remember; I’d have to go back into my journals to remember what the thought was on that day. That was so liberating, you know, in a precise way. I think, I mean, it was just coming to the truth of like who they are. Yes. I think it’s coming back to me now. It was a sort of discovery of like, look that that’s just who they are. And it’s okay for them to be that, you know, like it’s, it’s me that wants them to be that.  It was my own father.

And it’s, I want him to be a whole set of things. And I want him to behave in a certain way. And it’s like, it’s okay. It’s me that’s building all the expectations. And it was like this alignment of just coming to the truth of like, look, this is just what it is. And it was extremely liberating, and it changed the relationship without ever talking about it. And that’s been repeated for me with other family members where talking is just not an option or appears not to be. And yet the relationship could be transformed. I mean, that’s shocking really that a relationship can, in practice, be different, be transformed, without talking about it. Just by understanding what’s really going on within yourself, one’s own weaknesses. And then, because you’re different now within, you are going to come across differently in every interaction. You’re able to interact with the other person. I have actually experienced it.

I mean, I suppose it fits with what you said here, your self-therapy. I mean, it’s a good term, isn’t it? Because I mean, I’ve gone through therapy too in my life. And I think that it is a rich experience, but there is an error in all therapy, right? There is, let’s say, an embedded weakness in all therapy, even what I see as being, you know, I mean, the person I’ve gone to is spent years communicating, working with, I think, is as good as they come and the weakness is, they only ever have one side of the story. I mean, it’s a pretty foundational problem to, you know, if you’re not careful, I mean, I’m quite a persuasive person. And I sort of think, well, if you just listened to me for years about something, you really would probably think I was right, or, you know, convinced by it. Anyway, I just, I just keep in the back of my mind, always thinking about that with therapy. It’s like, well, you can’t really overcome that. The model is, you know, one person advising one person. And so the risk, I think of, of just believing the stories is pretty major, reinforcing the self-deception.

Terry Warner (22:04):

Yes. Well, if you think about it even a little further, you realize that a self-deceiver is propagating his or her theory of why they’re acting as they are by acting that way. Emotions are different from feelings. The emotions have propositional content. Emotions are assertions of some kind or another that feelings aren’t feelings are just non-articulate. If I get angry with somebody, you are stepping out of your rightful role here, and I don’t have to listen to you. And I’m really perturbed. We assert something. People who are in what I’ve called collusion in that book are all asserting a theory of behavior, which has become widespread in the psychological world that has taken to be what human nature is that we do get on each other’s nerves. We can make, people can make me angry. People can discourage or victimize me in a way that just deflates me.

And I can’t work my way out of it. This theory is very widespread. Now, some Buddhists don’t believe it, but they’re in the minority. I’ll just share one other thing with you. There are some very fundamental reasons why you can’t develop a standard theory that enables some skilled people to manipulate other people successfully. And it is this, and this is an insight, a very powerful insight of a Lithuanian Jew who became a naturalized French citizen and studied phenomenology. His name is Emmanuel Levinas, and he said two things that are very powerful here. There is a kind of encounter with one person with another that is eye to eye, face to face. And it may not even engage people looking at each other’s eyeballs or each other’s spaces, but it’s directly, it’s second person encounter. And that encounter is received by me is that encounter is made by me as an obligation or responsibility for the welfare of that other person to the extent that I can do that. 

The point is that any third-person observation of that encounter will miss that. You can’t push. You can’t express the most fundamental second person sold to soul eye to eye and the realities, the obligational realities that press that presses upon us, which are, which realities are precious beyond imagination. You can’t put in any third person language, but all theories are expressed in third person languages. That’s why it’s so powerful. When one person honestly comes to understand, the way you talked about, who they are, what they’ve been, and another hears that that’s the second person encounter, and you can’t mediate it. Levi now said something in another way, in a later book, he’s very difficult to read, but the reason is he’s trying to say something that won’t get him into the third-person trap.

Greg McKeown (25:24):


Terry Warner (25:26):

And, it’s not easy. It’s not easy. But anyway, he said, there’s a world of difference between the saying and the said. When we are with another person, we respond to their saying. If somebody records what they, what records their saying and transposes it into a said, it’s different. You can’t capture coyness. You can’t capture irony. You can’t capture all kinds of things, all kinds of dimensions of this rich interactive person-to-person humanity Laden responses to one to another.

Greg McKeown (26:07):

Thank you, really, thank you for listening. And I say thank you for other people who will have their relationship with you changed, improved, or even healed because of the information and insight from Terry Warner. If you have found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive a year-long access to the Essentialism Academy. That’s a $300 value. Just send a photo of your review along with your name and address to info@gregmckeown.com. Remember to subscribe to this podcast now so that you can receive the next episode. They come out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So make that easy for yourself by subscribing. Finally, if you feel trapped in a relationship where you either think they are the monster, or you are the monster, just pause to reflect on the revelation it is to discover that there is no monster. I look forward to continuing this conversation with Terry Warner and with you very soon.