For ages now I have found myself feeling increasingly ambivalent about those ‘Five Ways To’ panels you often find in newspapers and magazines. They are everywhere; five ways to become a motivational speaker, five ways to succeed at interviews, five ways to run a successful course, five ways to coach your staff.  There is even one in my paper today about improving relationships.  The five ways it recommends are:

  • Listen to your partner
  • Acknowledge his or her feelings
  • Don’t criticise
  • Be interested in your partner’s life
  • Don’t react normally.

Each of these ‘ways’ is followed by a brief paragraph giving advice on how to go about it.  For example, the one about listening suggests that you should stop arguing and take it in turns to talk for three minutes without being interrupted. The one about acknowledging feelings suggests that you build small gestures of reassurance into an argument such as nodding your head or saying ‘I see’.  The one about not criticising suggests that it would be better to convert criticisms of character into complaints about a specific behaviour.

So, what’s wrong with that?  Why my ambivalence? 

I’d better start by declaring a vested interest in these things being useful.  Once a month for many years I churned out a ‘Five Ways To’ column for Slimming magazine.  I still have copies of them all in my archives: Five ways to beat the blues; to stop feeling scared; to stop putting things off; to make a good impression; to assert yourself; to calm yourself in a crisis; to boost your confidence….and so on.

It is smug of me to admit it, but my heart was definitely in the right place when I wrote these pieces.  I was convinced they were helpful and that the readers of Slimming would be suitably grateful and, embracing my recommendations, would transform their lives.  My arrogance took a severe knock when a complete stranger came up to me one day and said ‘You’re Peter Honey aren’t you?  You write for Slimming magazine’.  Pleased to meet a member of my adoring public at last, I admitted to this and she said ‘We always have a good laugh at your column.  I bet you even believe in pink elephants!’  She went on to explain how she and her friends found my suggestions hilariously unrealistic.

Tempered by this encounter, I strove to make my ‘ways’ more realistic.  But this adjustment attracted another criticism; my columns became pedestrian, even boring.  There was nothing fresh, nothing with any novelty value.  It became too easy for readers to say dismissively ‘I knew that before. Tell me something new’. My suggestion (put a touch defensively) that it’s better to have something practical than something new, fell on deaf ears. Eventually I admitted defeat and gave up producing short, pithy lists in favour of longer, more expansive pieces of prose (that sounds very grand, but, in case you hadn’t noticed, that’s what you’re reading now!).

My unfortunate past history, coupled with being constantly exposed to Five Ways-type columns, has led me to reflect on the formula. The basic problem, I think, is that the punchy, bullet-point brevity they call for makes everything sound so simple and straightforward.  Invariably, however, the recommended actions are really tough things to implement.  Just think about the suggestions in today’s paper about improving relationships. Have you ever tried listening attentively to someone with whom you are in total disagreement without interrupting?

Or take the last of the five recommendations: Don’t react normally.  Can you imagine what it would be like, on the brink of a good old argument with your partner, with your emotions running high, to stop and think to yourself ‘What could I do differently?’.  Surely this would be a remarkable feat of self-control?  My paper goes on to suggest that a good starting point is to try the opposite of your usual behaviour!  Instead of crying, you’d laugh.  Instead of yelling, you’d whisper.  Instead of throwing ornaments, you’d straighten them.  Not slipping into your ‘normal’ behaviour pattern may well be laudable (even this is debatable – it sounds to me as if some of these things could easily inflame the situation) but we all know that doing so would call for a super-human intervention from the Adult ego-state.

Yes, the problem with the Five Ways formula is that it makes things that are difficult sound tantalisingly easy.  Perhaps they should carry a health warning saying, ‘This may sound simple, but, believe me, it’s not easy’.

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