A good conversation can lift our spirits, spark our imagination, and lead to unexpected breakthroughs. Yet talking can also be the most dangerous thing we do, according to psychologists Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. A simple exchange can easily turn into a minefield of misunderstanding. It can then break a marriage, hurt a child, derail a friendship, or disrupt a whole community.
That’s why Harville and Helen created Relationships First, a nationwide organization that teaches people how to listen (a skill that’s surprisingly rare) and avoid polarization.
This husband and wife team has written more than ten books on relationship, including the best sellers Getting the Love You Want, Keeping the Love You Find, and Giving the Love that Heals. They are also the creators of Imago Therapy, an approach that addresses the childhood patterns we keep repeating as adults. In the last 40 years, their work has spread to 53 countries, with over 2500 practitioners. Now they’ve taken on a new and ambitious project: Teaching Safe Conversations and establishing a welcoming space where people can learn how to move past their differences.
Their plan is to help not just couples but whole communities. The reason we need to think broader, they say, is that we all fall short when dealing with strangers—the more different we are, the most uncomfortable we become. And the stakes are especially high when we interact with those from other social groups.
Consider the case of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was pulled over for a minor traffic violation in 2015. Bland was driving home from Chicago to West Texas to take a job at her Alma Mater, Prairie View A&M when a white police officer pulled her over for failing to signal as she changed lanes. What happened next was captured on the patrol car’s dashcam. In The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot says this encounter “has the quality of a nightmare because it starts off too routinely and goes so badly.” Then she describes the dialogue that led to Bland’s arrest.
In the months that followed, Bland became yet another example of the penalties of “driving while black,” and of a determined woman standing up for her rights.
Good communication is essential if we are to get along in an increasingly diverse society. It can also help us end the everyday quarrels that make our living rooms into battle zones.
Domestic violence is on the rise affecting 10 million people in the U.S. each year. Studies also show that children who grow up in abusive families tend to repeat that behavior.
To add to the problem, Americans are increasingly “relationship deprived.” Research indicates that nearly half of us suffer from loneliness and long for deeper and more meaningful connections. MIT professor Sherry Turkle warns that technology is responsible for this alienation of affection. In her view, most of us now mistake a meaningless virtual connection for genuine intimacy. No wonder we need Relationships 101.
New Tools from Neuroscience
That’s the tough love portion of this article. Now for the good news: The expanding field of neuroscience has a lot to teach us about building stronger and better relationships.
Dr. Daniel Siegel, a professor at UCLA Medical Center, and author of The Neurobiology of We, says the first thing we need to consider what part of the brain is in charge when we talk to one another. If we feel threatened, we react from the oldest part of the brain responsible for the “fight or flight” reaction. Our hard-wiring then gives us two options: Attack or run away, as our early ancestors did when facing a predator. To communicate effectively, says Siegel, we need to engage the part of the brain that’s relaxed and receptive.
“A receptive state turns on the social engagement system, ” he explains. “Receptivity is our experience of being safe and seen.”
When we connect on this level, the brain is flooded with epinephrine, a chemical associated with happiness, and with the bonding hormone, oxytocin, that’s linked to caregiving. But how do we get to this place? That’s where Harville and Helen come in.
After conferring with neurobiologists and leading experts on marriage and relationship, they created Safe Conversations—a three-step program that calms the “fight or flight” response, activates the receptive portion of the brain, and encourages empathy and compassion.
Here’s how a Safe Conversation works.
The Set Up To begin, sit close to your partner and make gentle eye contact. “Many people walk around with tight eyeballs and small pupils, what we call the glare,” Helen says. “So we teach people to maintain an open gaze. This indicates that your mind is open and you’re ready to receive.
Step One: Mirroring
Ask what’s going on in your partner’s life. Don’t react. Don’t judge. Don’t try to fix. Just listen, and mirror what they say, noting all the feelings they express.
Then check for accuracy by asking, “Did I get that right?” This is the time to ask for feedback and correction, to find out what you’ve missed. Listening is challenging because our hearing receptors seem to be limited. Most of us only get about 20 percent of a conversation. “Over the years,” says Harville, “we’ve seen a high distortion rate. Most people don’t see the full picture right away.”
After you’ve identified your partner’s concerns, invite them to go deeper. The phrase, “Is there more?” sounds disarmingly simple, yet its effect can be profound. When we tell our stories we often censor or edit them, holding back things we don’t want to face or information we assume others will find distressing or uncomfortable. But this often keeps us from the aha! moment of breakthrough or revelation.
“Sharing with your partner takes courage yet it can be transformative,” adds Helen.
Step Two: Validating
When your accuracy check is over, summarize the essence of what you have heard and validate your partner’s feelings. You might comment “That makes sense to me” or “What you said is helpful” or “I know your view is as valuable as mine.”
Validating is not agreeing with your partner. It is affirming what is true for them.
“You both live in different worlds,” says Harville. “And validation is the only effective way to deal with your differences.”
Step Three: Empathizing
Next, it’s time to show that you deeply appreciate, your partner’s experience. You might begin with a statement like this: “Given what you’ve said, I imagine you might be feeling (glad, sad, mad, or scared). Is that true?” Then ask, “Do you have anything else you’d like to share?”
This three-step process gives participants a wonderful deep-brain experience of feeling seen, heard, and cared for. And it makes up for the fact that intimacy gets short shift in the speed and stress of modern life.