Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

The Dining Room Table

Over the recent holiday weekend, four generations of my family – from 9 months+ to 91 years+ – came together. we had time together to walk, talk, swim, cook, and just generally hang out and connect. At our family beach house, people pretty much do their own thing until dinner time, when everyone gathers around the dining room table.

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One evening we inadvertently fell into a discussion about the recent US Supreme Court cases. With a range of generations, life experiences, and perspectives came a range of understandings and ideas about what all of these decisions will mean for each of us, our society, and the future. It was intense, and as difficult as it was, it was supremely moving for me. Why are these conversations important for our mental health?

1. Trust. Difficult conversations depend on a shared sense of trust in each other and those in the group, and, when they are constructive, they expand and enhance our sense of trust in those who participated in the discussion. Growth depends on knowledge. Knowledge emanates from good questions. Good questions are essential to good conversations. Sometimes they make us uncomfortable. Embracing the discomfort requires trust. Trust is foundational to interpersonal functioning and the public good. Individually and collectively, fostering trust has positive effects on mental health and wellbeing.

2. Strength in Vulnerability.  The “Beautiful-mess Effect” is a term that describes the tendency for people to view vulnerability in others as a strength, and vulnerability in themselves as a weakness. Brene Brown has written extensively about this paradoxical phenomenon in her book, Daring Greatly. She, and others, also persuasively argue that the emotional exposure of vulnerability makes way for interpersonal exchange, intimacy, and understanding, which strengthens one’s self-awareness, self-acceptance, social connection, and belonging – all good for our mental health. Being vulnerable also exposes us to risk, which takes us back to the cornerstone of trust.

3. Spun Glass Theory of Mind.  A colleague recently shared with me the notion of the “spun glass theory of mind,” put forward by University of Minnesota psychologist Paul Meehl. Meehl asserted that we do ourselves and others a disservice when we act as if we are “delicate, fragile, and easily shattered creatures who need to be treated with kid gloves.” He contended that people, even in the face of extreme trauma, show tremendous resilience. Columbia psychologist George Bonanno and others have demonstrated this to be true in a range of contexts. It is also true around the dining room table. Resisting the temptation to pull back from difficult conversations, especially if the conditions of trust and safety exist among the group, provides tremendous potential for emotional and psychological growth for all. As Professor Bonanno describes in The End of Trauma, we move from trauma and fear to strength and resilience.

4. Cognitive Bias and Blind Spots.  When we sit at the dining room table, we see parts of the room and others at the table more easily and clearly than others, simply by virtue of where we are seated. The same is true when it comes to our beliefs, what we think we know, and what we are clearly unable to see. When we lean into difficult conversations and engage with curiosity about what happened, how we feel about it, and how it impacts our identity, we uncover our biases and blind spots and open the door to a learning conversation. These are also the moments and experiences that invite us to grow psychologically and heal emotionally. You can read more about the mental health benefits of difficult conversations in a previous Five on Friday and in Bruce Patton, Douglas Stone, and Sheila Heen’s classic book, Difficult Conversations.

5. Theory of Mind. The disparate ideas, perspectives, feelings, and interpretations of the recent Supreme Court rulings shared around our dining room table challenged and stretched us all in our understanding of each other. How does this work? The social-cognitive skills that enable us to think about mental states – our own and others’ – is called theory of mind. Our capacity to develop a theory of mind enables us to recognize that we have emotions, desires, beliefs, and knowledge that inform how we operate in the world and that other people’s emotions, desires, beliefs, and knowledge may differ from our own. This basic human capacity is so fundamental to our capacity to engage and navigate in our social and interpersonal worlds, we rarely think about it. In difficult conversations, stepping back to intentionally consider how another person’s emotions, desires, beliefs, and knowledge differ from our own and why, can go a long way in creating opportunities for expanded understanding.

Difficult conversations around the dining room table are not always on the dinner menu, but when the occasion arises and the conditions are right, it is a feast for emotional and psychological growth for all who care to partake.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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