Safe Conversations — The Power to Connect

A good conversation can lift your spirits, spark the 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.   Writing in The New Yorker writer, Margaret Talbot says this encounter “has the quality of a nightmare because it starts off to routinely and goes so badly.” Then she describes the dialogue that led to Bland’s arrest.

Bland expresses her unhappiness at being stopped. But she sounds calm, like a reasonable person educated about her rights, and in a hurry to be on her way.(Officer) Encinia does not seem to like her apparent confidence. He asks her to put out her cigarette. She refuses—she’s in her own car, she points out. It escalates quickly from there. He gets angry; she gets angry; she expresses astonishment that she is being arrested over a signal change and calls him a ‘f—ing pussy’ several times. He eventually pulls her from the car and shoves her to the ground. She says that she has epilepsy; he says, ‘Good.’ Bland ended up in jail. Three days later she was dead.

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.

This is about as bad as it gets — yet this kind of escalation, one form or another, takes place every minute.  As I watched this tragic encounter on youtube, I wondered, Can we change our default setting so we don’t jump to conclusions and push each other’s buttons?  How can we slow things down and lay the groundwork for respectful, egalitarian relationships?

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.

When we don’t get enough reassuring human contact, we pay a hefty price.  A review of 148 research studies shows an increased risk of death for people in stressful relationships — greater than that associated with smoking, alcohol abuse, and obesity.  Sixty percent of those with depression say relationship problems are the cause—and here’s the kicker:  Everyone in a negative relationship is at greater risk of cardiac death. (More on those health risks here.)

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 the 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 get the full picture right away.”

After you’ve identified your partner’s concerns, invite them to go deeper.  The phase, “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 the experience 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.

Dallas: A Social Experiment

Relationships are the hidden factor in all our social problems. If we repair them, might we also heal our cities, our institutions, and our regional economies? To answer this big question, Harville and Helen sold their house in New York and moved to Dallas in 2014.. Their aim was “to bring Safe Conversations from the clinic to the culture” and chart its effect on a whole community.

One of their early success stories involves the city’s undocumented workers.  Dallas provides a wide range of educational services for immigrant children.  Yet during a parent meeting, one father stood up and bravely spoke about his home life.

“You’re doing a great job of helping our kids,” he said. “But my wife and I are under such stress we’re fighting all the time.  Can you do something to help our marriages?”

In response, Harville and Helen began teaching Safe Conversations through community organizations like  Concilio and Avante.  “These newcomers are so proud of what they’re building,” Helen says. “Their homes are everything.  Now they’re getting the tools they need to shore them up.” Later, the couple established a partnership with the Dallas Police Department, showing first responders to make their encounters with the public positive.  They have trained members of North Texas Crime Commission, Bless the Badge and Peace Officers’ Angel Foundation.  And recently they helped caregivers conduct Safe Conversations with veterans suffering from  PTSD.

From the beginning, Harville and Helen saw a strong correlation between healthy relationships and the health of the city. Divorce is costly for a community, in both financial and human terms. Studies show that kids do worse in school, teen pregnancy goes up,  young men join street gangs, and parents are more likely to end up on welfare.  The divorce rate in Dallas, when last measured, was 46 percent, affecting 14,000 adults and 5,000 children.

“If we can reduce that rate by even one percent,” Harville, “studies show that we can save the community $30 million in antipoverty, criminal justice and education programs.”

These numbers don’t just apply to Texas. The same is true for every state in the union. According to the Institute for American Values, divorce is costing U.S. taxpayers nearly $3 billion every year.

To promote Safe Conversations across the country, Harville and Helen launched  the non-profit organization, Relationships First.  They are currently training workshop leaders in major cities from New York and Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, as well as in Australia, Uruguay and Singapore.  And they recently joined forces with former NFL player Dante Wesley and his wife Renetta Wesley to present  “The Relationship Game Plan,” a 31 day challenge to help people living below the poverty line develop stronger family bonds.

A study in The American Journal of Family Therapy now shows Safe Conversations to be an effective program for diverse, low income couples.  Participants report an increase in happiness and a decrease in anxiety (especially about the future of the relationship), and vastly improved interactions with others.

Only 12 percent of Americans choose to, and can afford to go to therapy. Says Harville.  “We want to make these relationship skills available to everyone.”

Learning from Conflict

Like many of Harville and Helen’s discoveries, Safe Conversations was born from the crucible of their own relationship.

When you first encounter the couple, their personalities seem wonderfully complementary.  He is clear, careful, and precise—the kind of guy who has a detailed map of the terrain and expertly guides you to your destination.  She is the magical child all grown up, highly imaginative and intuitive — the person you want to sit in the corner with and spill all your deepest secrets to. Yet several years ago, those differences threatened to destroy their marriage. At one point, their opposite parenting styles were driving their children crazy.  Helen and Harville were also trying so hard to “improve” one another with all the best intentions that they were ready to explode.

“We went to several marriage counselors,” Helen recalls. “We fired the first two, and the third one refused to work with us, saying we were the couple from hell!  Finally, we figured out that we were destroying each other with our relentless scrutiny!”

Things got better once the couple made “zero negativity” their focus and learned to be present without judging one another.

“Listening is the scariest and most difficult we do,” says Helen, “because we might hear something that changes our idea of the way the universe works. But when that happens, your relationship can reach a whole new level.”

“Conflict  is part of every relationship,” adds Harville, “but if you hold your differences without judgement, you will make real breakthroughs.”

In their recent book,”The Space Between: The Point of Connection,”  they explain that a relationship isn’t about two people. It’s about building a safe, and comforting space they build together — where something new and unexpected can emerge.

As the Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung once observed, when partners engage like this, there is a chemical reaction and both are transformed.

The ancient world also understood this concept.  Let’s look at Aristotle’s approach to logic. There is only one way, he said, to move past a philosophical opposition. That’s by embracing the tertium not datur (literally, a third alternative that isn’t obvious).  In this way, we can move past our dualistic thinking and find common ground.

Igniting Awe and Wonder

Falling in love turns out to be a fairly predictable process. It starts with a rush of hormones that flood the brain, allowing someone to literally enchant us. In those early days, we are lost in wonder. ( How did I find this fantastic partner! I can’t believe my luck!) Then, as time goes on, we discover all the places we rub up against each other. This realization ( “I don’t always like what she likes!) comes as a surprise and sadly, the brain perceives our differences as a threat. That’s when we double down, attempting to convince our beloved they are wrong and we are right! The bulk of our energy goes into to trying to remake our partner according to our own standards and beliefs.

The goal, say Helen and Harville, is to move past this power struggle, learn how to appreciate our differences, and reclaim our initial experience of awe and wonder.  What heals a relationship isn’t endless introspection and years on the analytic couch.  It’s the ability to discover something new about each another —  and to be continually delighted and amazed by what we find.

In a 2015 study, Paul Piff, PhD, and his colleagues explored “that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.”  Their conclusion:

By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically speaking, feel like you’re at the center of the world anymore. By shifting attention toward larger entities and diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, we reasoned that awe would trigger tendencies to engage in prosocial behaviors that may be costly for you but that benefit and help others.

Across all these different elicitors of awe, we found the same sorts of effects—people felt smaller, less self-important, and behaved in a more prosocial fashion. Might awe cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others, or doing more to lessen their impact on the environment? Our research would suggest that the answer is yes.

 “In this view, love really does make the world go round.

“People long for this experience of connection,” says Helen.  “We just have to create a safe space where the miracle can unfold.”

Valerie Andrews
Valerie Andrewshttps://reinventinghome.org/
VALERIE is the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home, an online magazine exploring how home shapes our culture, creativity, and character. Isabel Allende calls this publication Brain Pickings for the Home—a thinking person’s guide to the well-lived life. Our contributors explore home as a personal sanctuary and interactive hive, and how home contributes to our health, happiness, and productivity. Valerie calls her own features “a mindful approach to home with a Jungian twist” and considers everything from the secret lives of our possessions to how the dust underneath your bed is related to the creation of the cosmos. Reinventing Home is nonprofit journalism at its best—a virtual living room for an enlightened conversation about the way we feel about our nests and the bigger issues that are shaping home today, from technology to climate change. Read more at www.reinventinghome.org

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  1. Thank you Valerie for discussing Safe Conversations and including the set up to follow and experience. I have read some of their work in the past and the practical application for couples to follow to give their relationships a strong knitting and foundation is exactly what needed in today’s society.

  2. Outstanding article, Valerie. My favorite parenting book of all time is Giving the Love that Heals by Hendrix and Hunt (mentioned in this article). I would add that meditation has supported me in connecting with the deep part of me, beyond ego (fight, flight, freeze) and has freed me to listen deeply to others without judgment. When I notice my body flinching or getting uncomfortable-I can just notice this. I take a deep breath and listen some more. This practice of holding space for myself (thoughts, feelings, body sensations) and other people I encounter continues to source many transformations. I’m thrilled to know that Harville and Helen have created this program of Relationships First as its bound to support humans shifting to engaging the pre-frontal cortex, to that sense of safety/comfort rather than threat. When we can realize that another person’s existence or different ways are not a threat to our lives, we’ll leap in our evolutionary tracks. Thank you so much for sharing the work of two people I admire and continue to learn from.

    • I find Helen and Harville remarkable on many levels. This is the distillation of a lifetime worth of creative listening and engaging on their part, along with the latest discoveries in neuroscience. Amazing how the brain is like an oyster, opening and closing based on the amount of irritation it perceives:)

      • I am guessing Valerie that you are familiar with Nancy Kline’s work and her Time to Think book? In there she talks about this phrase, or very similar. What she has found and I concur, is that you can ask this question of the speaker a number of times and there will keep going deeper and share more, They will say when they have really finished, although I tend to keep silent, just in case there is something more. When asked many times, the speaker cannot believe you have asked them that many times as they only remember a few. It feels like they are asking themselves the question. Colin

        • Thanks for the reference. I come to listening from my training in spiritual guidance, the Western mystical tradition, and the study of C.G Jung and analytical transference. It’s wonderful to learn about a new thread.

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