Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Roberta Isleib

I first met Roberta Isleib while at a conference in Los Angeles. At the time I was completely unaware that she was a clinical psychologist and could have answered all my questions regarding the business. With a little luck she might have even been able to do something about my own psychoses. But maybe she’s too busy writing her wonderful series to fix me because she’s just seen her eighth novel published in seven years. (http://www.robertaisleib.com)

ASKING FOR MURDER is the third book in the series featuring advice columnist/psychologist Rebecca Butterman. Roberta is also wrapping up her year of service as president of National Sisters in Crime. So thank you, Roberta, for all the hours you’ve contributed to SINC, and for joining us here in the convertible.

Thanks to everyone at Riding with the Top Down for hosting my ASKING FOR MURDER blog tour today!

Dr. Butterman (AKA Dr. Aster), the main character in my mystery series, most recently ASKING FOR MURDER, is an advice columnist. Even though I’m a psychologist and an advice column junkie, I’ve found that writing her columns is not so easy. After cranking out three of her books, I think I’ve figured out how she would describe her approach: “Most people have a pretty good idea of where they’re already headed when they ask for advice. A wise friend simply shines a flashlight on the path.”

But wait a minute, what about the famous Dr. Phil? He’s not one to stand by on the sidelines with a flashlight. In 2006 while visiting Los Angeles for the “Sisters in Crime Goes to Hollywood” conference, I sat in the good doctor’s live studio audience. (Lois was there too!) A pair of sisters who’d been estranged by boyfriend/husband issues fought like cats and dogs for the better part of their fifteen-minute segment. Even Dr. Phil, an expert on handling catfights, looked defeated by the end of the show. These women had come to Dr. Phil for help as a last resort, but darned if they were going to let him get a word in edgewise! After several attempts to expose the bones of the problem and redirect the sisters, he slumped on his barstool, chin in hand, and rolled his eyes at the audience—as if asking the question “where did I go wrong?”

I’ve been in similar positions—you may have too. An unhappy friend bashes her husband for his insensitivity, miserly approach to money, and emotional abuse, and then asks you what to do. And pleased to be of assistance, you trot out your best Ann Landers/Dr. Phil imitation and offer excellent advice, stating the obvious: “Leave the bum!” Then she makes it clear you’ve overlooked his many fine qualities and offended her to boot.

Here’s an example of how it sometimes goes:

FRIEND: “My mother-in-law refuses to share Christmas with my side of the family…what do you think I should do?”

YOU (feeling wise): “You have to talk this over with her, tell her she needs to take turns with the holidays.”

FRIEND: “Yes,” she says, “but there’s no point in talking to my mother-in-law. It never works. She wants Christmas Eve at her house and that’s that.”

YOU: “Maybe it needs to come from your husband. He should tell her, not you.”

FRIEND: “Maybe,” says your friend, “but he always says what’s the big deal? I can have it my way once she’s dead and buried.”

You feel like an advice-giving idiot! Like Dr. Phil, you want to help but you’ve been stumped. What went wrong? What would Dr. Butterman advise?

She would say that if you don’t acknowledge the feelings first, you can offer solutions until the cows come home and your friend won’t find them useful. If she says she’s upset about Christmas Eve dinner, don’t assume you know exactly what she means. Ask questions and then reflect back what you’ve heard. For example: “Sounds like you’re feeling really pissed at your husband. Do I have that right?” Or even more simply, “you sound so sad when you talk about your marriage.” Comments like these may help your friend recognize feelings she wasn’t fully aware she had.

Then before inserting foot into mouth, find out where she is on her internal map. Ask your friend what she’s considering, what she hopes for, or what she’s already tried—rather than use the conversation to explain your own wise ideas. Even a simple question can do the trick, like “what do you think you should do about Christmas?” If she says never mind the damn dinner, she’s thinking it’s time she left her husband, wow! You can see that helping her negotiate dinner parties was on the wrong track. But be careful of piling on! Many of us have had the experience of criticizing a friend’s husband or boyfriend, and then faced the embarrassment and strain to our friendship when she takes the creep back.

If you absolutely must give a suggestion, make sure to couch it in statements that start with “I.” For example: “I worry about your safety when you talk about Dave like that.” And if you feel like you’re in over your head, trust your gut and tell your friend she needs a professional opinion. Even Dr. Phil refers his TV customers to therapy once their fifteen minutes of shame are over!

And now the doctors are in, ready to answer your questions about giving advice, and to hear about the worst advice you’ve ever gotten—or given. A signed copy of ASKING FOR MURDER goes to the best story…


ArkieRN said...

Taking advice is funny. My DIL would rather take medical advice from her mother than me even though I'm a RN. I had to learn to wait until she came to me although sometimes I have to bite my tongue as she does things that will make things worse. I just try to remember that if nobody dies it can be fixed.

Roberta Isleib said...

A, That's such a smart way to handle it! Just don't let her see the blood dripping down your chin (from the bitten tongue...)


Chris Redding said...

How very true all that you said.
Thankfully most of my friends are pretty independant people so they really come to me as a sounding board and not in a state of desperation.
It's easier to help them when they really are just trying to work it out themselve.
I'm the same way. I rarely don't know the answer. Sometimes I just have to say it out loud to someone else.
Hey isn't that what we got to psychologists for?

lois greiman said...

Hey Roberta, great to have you with us.

I find that when I ask people's opinions, I generally don't want them to tell me what to do, I just want some ahuhing. I've read that men want to fix things but women are more willing to just listen. Do you think that's true?

Roberta Isleib said...

Absolutely true! I've been training my husband for years: Please just listen honey, I don't need tips:)

ps Lois, I didn't notice any personal psychoses! though you do hike and camp like a teenager--but that's just a cause for awe!

Cindy Gerard said...

Welcome Roberta. I plan to sit back and watch all the action unfold around the blog today. Much like I do when I'm solicited for advice.:o)

Helen Brenna said...

Hey Roberta - thanks for visiting with us today!

I think I'm more like a man when it comes to advice giving - want to always fix things.

Do women make better psychologists? Be honest now.

Playground Monitor said...

My major was psychology but I was more into playing with lab rats than offering advice.

Two friends and I staged an intervnetion a few years ago when another writing buddy was in a very toxic critique group situation. The leader of the group lorded it all over the others that she was published and therefore always right. Everyone had to read their week's work aloud to the group and the leader would stop my friend after every sentence and rip it to shreds.

So we invited her to join us for lunch, chit-chatted for a bit and then segued into stories about bad critique situations we'd been in and how we'd handled them. Before too long, our friend told her sad tale (which we already knew about because she'd confessed to one of the group about it). We told her she needed to divorce herself from the group and gave her several ways to get out without being ugly.

Now if my husband's sisters would just stop acting like two-year-olds about him being in charge of their mother's finances. The problem is jealousy and greed. And I won't even go into the time one tried to hit him and then threatened to have him arrested when he defended himself. I don't think even Dr. Phil could put any fun in their dysfunctional behavior. :-(


Playground Monitor said...

P.S. Love the little Zen garden on the book cover. I gave the DH one for Christmas a few years ago and he thought it was the dumbest thing ever. He took it to work and put it right by the entrance to his cubicle. He said everyone who came by would play with it. They might show up at his door angry, but they left calm and relaxed. Not so dumb, huh?

Betina Krahn said...

Welcome, Roberta!

Yes to everything you said and a few huzzah's for reminding us!

I have some counseling background and have always been a natural "ear" for friends with problems. I learned early that giving advice is usually fruitless. Until all the feelings are out in the open. And then it's usually best to let the person find or choose their own solution.

the most important thing we can do is be there to listen and reflect. . . to let somebody know they're not alone and there is hope.

And I LOVE the little Zen garden, too! They fascinate me. I've been in a big one-- rake and all-- and found it very meditative and cool. I'm afraid if I put one on my desk it would be Solitaire x 2!

Roberta Isleib said...

Marilyn, did your friend leave the critique group? Sometimes it's so frustrating when you SEE what should happen, and the person still won't change...then you back off until they're ready.

Helen, I do think women tend to do better in psychology. But is it because we're female or because we've been raised to be caretakers? that's another topic for another day!

Re: the Zen garden on the cover. It's so cute, but it's nothing like a real sandplay therapist's office. I was stunned when I finally visited the woman I had consulted for details on this kind of therapy. Shelves and shelves and shelves of figurines of all kinds and two empty cat boxes:) on legs. Wow, did I want to dig in...lol

Debra Dixon said...

Welcome, Roberta!

We're happy to have you.

I'm one of those awful advice givers. I don't mean the advice is awful. I mean that if you leave the door open the tiniest crack, I assume you're inviting me in. ::sigh::

Thank heavens I haven't lost friends over this! Mostly, I think, because I can give advice and then drop the subject. I don't expect folks to follow my advice blindly. I don't assume that I'm right.

Well, yeah, I do, but I recognize they have a basic human right to ignore me and screw up their lives.

And I plan to change every holiday we have when my son marries. He's an only child. I can't afford a bad relationship with the eventual daughter-in-law. Seeing him in an unstressed, leisurely atmosphere is much better than forcing them to my routine and having them eye the door every fifteen minutes judging their escape! So, if necessary, we'll begin new holiday traditions.

Betina Krahn said...

Deb, you're a saint-in-training! Thinking ahead, considering your as-yet-unknown daughter-in-law.

But even with all the good intentions in the world, it's not an easy thing to watch your cherished family traditions go by the way. You have to really want to focus on the positive and resolve to see the new holiday ways as new ways to show your love and consideration.

What's hard is when some families (often hers) get to keep all of their traditions, while others (often his) have to give them all up. But in our culture, women tend to be the tradition and relationship keepers, so it's a natural thing.

lois greiman said...

Roberta, my daughter is now pursuing a environmental studies/psychology major. Any advice for her?

Playground Monitor said...

Sorry I didn't tell all of the story.

Yes, she left the critique group and got into a one-on-one critique arrangement with someone who has been very good for her. By first sharing our bad experiences and then letting her tell us about hers (she didn't know we already knew), she didn't feel like she'd been pounced upon. And we offered ways for her to leave the toxic situation peacefully (in other words, tell a white lie rather than tell the woman that she was a tyrant) without causing further fuss.

Re: the holiday traditions. I'm a MOOS (mother of only sons) and have had to do some adjusting. And since my son and DIL had a baby right away, they wanted to stay home for Christmas and start their own traditions for the grandbaby. I can't fault that because we did the same thing. Fortunately we only live 2 hours away and it was very easy to pop down on Christmas Day, visit and go back home that evening.

My MIL wasn't always nice to me when the DH and I first married. I'd stolen her baby plus she painted me with the same brush as her other DIL who was a witch with a capital B. I just sucked it up, acted like a lady and now she knows I'm her best advocate (see previous message about my DH's sisters).

©Hotbutton Press said...

I'm half of a childless couple who is always expected to be somewhere for the holidays, so this scenario really hit a nerve. One year, I'd just like to stay at home for the winter holidays with hubbo. How can I accomplish that without hurt feelings? Trust me, there will be if we don't show up anywhere. Are all families that demanding? Mine is downright weird about following traditions, even the ones we all dislike. I'm ready to grab my man and just head for the nearest monastery for a real silent night, and let everyone else trade gifts.


Debra Dixon said...


That's why I'm trying to focus on the positive benefits of tradition change now so I can get used to the idea over time.

New traditions can be good. I think. Maybe.

catslady said...

How come I can figure out what everyone else is doing wrong but can't fix my own problems! That's really a rhetorical question lol.

We take turns with my daughter and son-in-law when it comes to the holidays. Other times I know not to bug them and then they seek us out - mil hasn't figured that out yet lol.

anne said...

Welcome Roberta
I enjoyed reading your post today since it is so true and typical. For many years I did try to interfere in my sister's life in order to improve it but to no avail. She never heeded advice and has lived to regret it. Thanks for this great post.

ruth said...

Hi Roberta,
Your advice resounds with me. Whenever I am asked what I woudl advise I try to stay neutral because advice is rarely followed and never appreciated.

diane said...

Welcome Roberta,
I think that most people would prefer to avoid taking any advice at all, even though it would improve their lives and relationships. I have learned to stay mum and which works well.

Roberta Isleib said...

Isn't that weird, that people don't run with our amazing advice? LOL

Doing psychotherapy was different in that way--a lot of listening and reflecting and interpreting and very little direct advice. Slow-going, but it helped some people make some serious changes.

Lois, that field sounds so interesting! No advice from me, other than study hard:)

And since there were so many juicy comments about holiday dilemmas, I can't resist telling you all to go out and read PREACHING TO THE CORPSE. It's the previous book in the advice column series and it's set during the holiday season. I had fun with it as you can imagine!

thanks so much for hosting me at RWTTD today--and for all your comments.

©Hotbutton Press said...

Just wanted to mention also that yours is one of the most clever and well-designed blogs I've seen in a long time! Nice job.