Ep. 6 | How Do You Actually Notice Your Life? (with Phil and Carolyn Cowan)
5:52PM Oct 16, 2023
Hi there. This is Heidi Brooks, I'm learning through experience. Today, I'm thrilled to be interviewing Phil and Carolyn Cowen. Years ago, I was looking for a way to have impact in the world. Through the power of what I thought matter. I had discovered the power of psychology and prevention and thinking about that as a lever towards excellence. I was really interested in doing systems level intervention for individual interaction skills that involve wellness and mental health and well being. The Cowen's showed me the way how to do this with family systems, I became their graduate student at University of California at Berkeley, I think you'll hear in this interview, not only the powerful intellectual origins of how they've done the work and how they thought about it, but also very powerfully, the affective components, the mentoring that came through their ways of being, there's so much that motivated, inspired and grounded, the way that they took on their work and the way that they were with each other and with me as their graduate student, learning through how they were being as well as how they were thinking, this is learning through experience. Welcome. Where were you born? So where did the magic of the Cowen's individually begin, if you wouldn't mind tracing it back.
I was born in Toronto in 1937, and we were actually born Carolyn will tell you about six blocks apart. But we didn't know each other till later.
Where does the kind of impetus to pay attention to to families come from?
Carolyn, you want to start now that I got something to say about it.
I think we both were very affected by growing up in the families we did. But we each had things we did and didn't want to repeat or didn't expect to happen. But they did. And we had no idea what to do about them. So for example, in my family, my parents never argued or bickered ever that I ever heard. Phil's parents were sort of nattering at each other all the time. I mean, they loved each other, but they were. So when we got together as a couple, and we did that very young, as you might remember, we met as teenagers. He was 17, I was 15. We each had things we knew we didn't want to repeat or didn't want to happen in the family that we eventually created. But we had no idea how to do that. Well, what would it look like? And over the years, and all the couples, we've seen hundreds and hundreds, that's a lot what they say, I know what I don't want, but I don't know how to get something different, that would feel more satisfying, or, you know, and so on. Yeah,
I know what I want to avoid. I don't know how to create an image that I can't even imagine having never seen it necessarily.
Right. Right? Well, I didn't think you needed to argue about anything. And Phil wanted to work on everything that we disagreed about right away, and I didn't know what to do with. So that's how some some of our attention began.
Family was very central. In my growing up, I'm an only child. But my father is from a family of nine. And my mother is from a family of seven. We visited my grandmother every Sunday. And so I grew up in a family family. And I spent a lot of time figuring out my own parents are trying to, I don't think I ever quite succeeded, but
but as an only child that was really very different than your parents and grow. Oh,
totally. And my ears were very clouded by the fact that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 36. And my parents adored each other. I think this was devastating to my father. And a lot of what went on his head to do with not upsetting mom, but especially and this is back in the 40s 50s not talking about the word cancer was never used. And but it was always, I now realize hanging there as a shadow. And a lot of things that happened happened the way they did to get around that or deal with that, or not have that dominate totally. Right. He actually lived for 11 years, but she died at 47. So she was still very young. And we were still pretty young. And the effects of that were quite profound. Oh yeah.
If I'm understanding that kind of five, or maybe six domain model that you will end up working with, this is kind of the context of stressors and buffers or supports.
And I had vowed that should something like that happened to me, it was going to be different. I was going to talk about it. So then when I was 46, I was diagnosed, you might remember breast cancer for Yeah. And, you know, we have two daughters and a son. And the complications of just doing it differently. Were not apparent to me until I tried to do it. So early on, and over the years, I've had lots of examples of how it's much more complicated than you think.
Right? There's, there's a way in which like, the name of this podcast, learning through experience suggests that we learn through experiences, we want to have what you were also talking about learning through experiences that occur in life. And we have note, we have nothing better to do except learn our way forward. Exactly. Yeah, thanks for that context, because there's a way in which you went about taking on discuss the ability of family dynamics.
Honestly, it's still going on. I mean, our kids are 6159 and 57. Now, and there are still some issues, either in their immediate family or across the generations, there are still things we have to negotiate about what we will or won't, or can or can't discuss, or ask about, per se.
My gosh, how could there not be in like a family communication is so so complex,
we didn't know that.
Right? Part of the reason I want to do this podcast is that there's this idea that experts having known at almost everything, then live it out automatically in their lives with finesse and ease.
Again, in my family, I'm the opposite. I met her as Carolyn said, at 17. I was there for a lot of dinners. And it was great for me, because they were, they were simple and nice. In my family, people were irritable and shouted, my mother and sister, who was probably mentally, what would know, she was mentally ill. They were on the phone every day, it usually wound up shrieking at each other. And yet, you know, they loved each other. So, in my family, things were out in the open, but not the real things. The fighting was trivial irritable. So I had an example of some need to talk about things in a way that made more sense. Whereas Carolyn was struggling with well talking about it at all. Right? So we came to this, you know, the ideas of things that we worked at, with this notion of it's a cliche, communication is really important, but there are different styles of it. And, and you can have two different styles that don't work. So we
did create, we did get married fairly young, although it was not so young for the cohort we were in. And three years later started our family when Joanna was born. And then, within the next year and a half, I became pregnant with Dina, but Phil was also finishing his doctorate, and being offered his first job at Berkeley. And so we packed up excitedly and moved to Berkeley not having a clue about I thought, I think maybe you thought to Phil, that it would kind of be relief to be more of a distance from our families and create our life, however we wished. But that turned out to be more complicated than we thought. And the parenting part was, was very intense. Phil was in his first years of teaching, and he was anxious a lot. I had been a school teacher in my first life in Canada. And now I was home with these babies and young children. And what happened was we sort of lost track of us of our relationship. And as we got to know families in the Bay Area, and started having to do with families in the psychology clinic at Berkeley, we began to realize that a lot of parents were coming for issues with their child. And as we are the therapists work with them, it became apparent But it probably had more to do with what was going on between the parents. And then when we realized, after a few years, this was not just us, there were a lot of people under a lot of stress, and nobody was talking about it. So nobody knew that people were struggling. And that's where the idea of the becoming a family project, sort of like, why don't we work with couples, when they're just starting this transition, and help them talk about and think about and anticipate and struggle with stuff before, it's 15 years later, and they're ready to throw each other out?
For the listener? The thing that we haven't really said yet is what it is that we do, which is always been to get couples together. And the focus is on their relationship groups of, of eight to 10, at the most couples to talk about stressors and support. So something about their health and mental health, parenting, of course, how to talk to each other when you disagree, what you carry over from the people that you grew up with? And then you know, what's going on in the workplace? What's going on outside the family? Do you have any stressors out there? Yes, you do? Do you have any support to deal with them? So it's a curriculum for 16 weeks, at least, where people meet together. And that's really unusual these days, where does couples sit down with each other and find out that they're not the only ones struggling? So that's the approach that evolved. But it evolved in the way you started with at the beginning, it evolved by saying, let's try this. You know, we didn't have a model of how to do this. So we just jumped in. It's the sort of Andy and Judy, let's put on a show from the old movies of the 1950s. You know, let's, let's let's do this. Oh, how are we gonna do this? Well, we're gonna save the town. I don't know how, what we do.
So great thing, it's obvious if you think about it, but wasn't at all, is it? Women often talk about some of the stuff that's stressing them in their lives, mostly to other women. But men typically don't do that. And having them both in the room, and having men listen not only to their wives, but to other women and to other men, and having the sort of shared view of what's stressing them out of what they find difficult, is quite unique, really. And it is such a relief to them. Many, many people in retrospect, when we asked what they remember about having been in the group they were in, they remember that they found that they weren't the only ones, right? Who are having struggles. One woman said, this is the first group I've been in where I don't feel stigmatized, either, because we're poor, or because we're struggling with things you guys help explain, you know, Helmus think
that like the tremendous power of like finding out the universal nature of the dilemmas that you're seeing, and then not feeling like less than, you know, I it's not that this is a good thing, but I don't feel so outside of humanity for struggling with
this. And I don't have to hide it all.
Not only is this not so shameful, but actually there are ways about talking about it, that actually might even turn into a buffer.
It was it was true. For example, in the last phase of our work in California, where we wound up over 10 years seeing about 1000 couples, in the last phase of that half of the people in the groups had been referred for domestic violence, or child abuse. Now, they weren't abusing their children at the time. And they weren't violent at the time, but they had been, but they were in groups with people who weren't. And the same thing applied. They felt that they were not just weird or bad people, but that other people had similar problems and that they could talk them out in waves. So it worked as well for them as it did for the non violent non abusing parents.
And we've always been trying to help people make small All shifts in how they handle stuff, you know, how they argue or how they discipline their kids, or whatever. And they sort of come to see, that affects the atmosphere in the family, and it's affecting the kids in ways they hadn't quite realized,
rather than this kind of global people thing that people might take on this idea that I need to be a different person, you're going really much more micro into behaviors people might be able to experiment with, and then learn from their experience of the week, and then you come back the next week, and you reflect on well, did you try it? And what happened? And helping them notice the impact? Which might be a skill in itself? How do you actually notice your lives and in very busy kind of chaotic every day? Pace? How do you actually even notice what happened this week? Right?
Did that work? What about it did work? What didn't? What would you tweak,
right? The mutuality of the reflection with a simple invitation? What worked and what didn't? What did you What did you do? What were you trying to do? How did it go? What worked and what didn't? What happened?
Is he and that's a discussion that most couples don't have, if they're irritated or angry with something, then they're angry, or they are, you know, they don't talk to each other. Right. So it's almost like a phenomenon. We say, well, the two of you could talk about it in a reasonable way. Right. And and couples, we don't know how to do that very well. But it's more possible than you think.
I guess. I'm curious how you talk about the way that you came to work together. I had this idea that intervention in general was Carolyn's prompt. But maybe that's not correct. But I'm curious how you came to work together and what it's been like?
Well, I started out at Berkeley, more on the prevention idea, because it was the 60s, after all, and people were talking about systems that didn't work, of working with teachers in schools, to help identify kids who needed some intervention before things really went down the tubes, and began to realize that that was too late. Yeah. Kids were 567. But they've been living in whatever circumstances they had, for a long time. It was Carolyn's idea. This specific thing, great idea. Lumos, group groups of childbirth preparation, were very popular. So couples were getting together for eight or 10 weeks to prepare for the birth of the baby. And then for the next 20 years or so they were on their own. And it was her idea that maybe, maybe we could use that time. The working together is also a very complicated story. Because we were a couple. We were supervising couples, we were in groups with couples, if you want to tell apart.
Yeah, in the beginning, you know, we had this idea. We worked for one year with John and Lynn Kui, who had been Phil's first graduate student who came back to Berkeley on a sabbatical after he had become a professor at Duke. And his wife, Lynn was a obstetrical nurse. So we we asked, we invited them to work with us, while we tried to figure out what would go into this intervention to these weeks of working with couples. And we wanted to, we wanted some couples who are expecting babies and Lynn had access to some OBGYN ins in the Bay Area, because they used to live here when they were students. So we had the idea, we created a little interview, and wanted to tell expectant couples, what our idea was, and see what their reaction was. They answered all our questions about how it was going and what they were looking forward to, and what they were nervous about, and so on. And when we talked about the groups, they said, When do they start, like, Sign me up? So we sort of had to make honest people of ourselves and say, All right, we better try this. And and so we began to different pilot groups. And, you know, we didn't have a lot of data, but we asked them a lot of questions and looked for questionnaires and developed questions where we couldn't find any in, you know, in the literature, to get at these things that we thought were important. So then we do the first few evenings of our first couple of groups and fill in I leave the psychology clinic, they were usually in the early evening, right? And we get back into the car and we're about to go home and the first First thing that comes to my mind is what I was concerned about and what didn't work so well. And what I would like to try next week was crestfallen. It took us probably about a month to figure out that
he was longer than
he needed to know what we thought went well. And then he could tackle the things that we might need to fix or tweak or whatever. So
but we did also get supervision or consultation, right from therapist who was actually part of the clinical program. But it didn't feed back in our own lives. I think it made us better intervenors. But it also made us a better couple. I think, too, because we kept having to deal with those issues. They weren't just the issues of the couples, we were trying to help. They were our issues, too,
right? You're a couple of you have you two had couples issues.
Right? Sure. And this idea that, that we get someone to help us sort that out, you know, whose issues is this we're dealing with right here was really, really helpful. I don't remember whether Hilda Burton was in the clinical program when you were there. But she was the she ran the the case conference. So she, you know, with the students and sorting out how to sort them to different families, or people that were coming to the clinic. And she was nothing fazed her. Right. So, you know, she, she listened to something that was upsetting us, or either one of us or somebody else, and she say it, learn to go on. So it was very, very helpful to have that. That other pair of eyes on what we were doing, we learned a lot.
Yeah, I bet. And I remember you that you talked about that when I was a graduate student, and I respected so much your integrity of putting yourself on both sides of the equation, if you will, and then willing to discuss the process. And basically, for me really respect the process, rather than be kind of above the process, assigning it to others.
And you can see from our background, so it didn't come naturally to us from either of the ways we'd grown up to know how to do all that. So it was we really needed the help.
Yeah, no, no, thank you for the openness and the candor, I think it still stands apart in the in the field, because not all practitioners consider themselves, you know, susceptible to the, to the things that they're talking about, and I suppose of client population, and yet you held yourselves as in the every day, and yet still able to contribute, because we are all you just held it all as normal. And this is just us. Appreciate that very much about spirit you hold the work. I'm so glad to be able to talk with you about it. This has been an episode of learning through experience. I'm your host Heidi Brooks. This podcast is produced through Yale School of Management. The editor is Miranda Shaffer. Please like and subscribe to learn more through this experience with me and the perspective of the guests who join me to talk about learning our way through life more wisely.