Safe Conversations — The Power to Connect

By Valerie Andrews

Photo by Alex Holyoake at Unsplash

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 Findand Giving the Love that HealsThey 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 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, in 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 every day quarrels that make our living rooms in 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.

Photo by Shift7 for Unsplash

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 Conversationsa three-step program that calms the “fight or flight” response, activates the receptive portion of the brain, and encourages  empathy and compassion. 

Center: Drs. Helen LaKelly Hunt and Harville Hendrix, the husband and wife team who launched Safe Conversations.

 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 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.

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 The 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 t 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. 

Couple in Safe Conversations workshop

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 best friend 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!”

Helen and Harville crafted Safe Conversations based on what they learned in their own relationship.

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

“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 together,  where something new and unexpected can emerge. 

As the Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung  once observed, when two people engage like this, there is a chemical reaction and both of them 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 move past our dualistic thinking and start finding 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 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, Dr. Paul Piff 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.”

Good Relationships: A Better Measure of Our Nation's Strength

What if we gauged America’s success not by economic indicators like the GDP, but by the strength of our relationships?   And what if we began to build real partnerships instead of falling back on the old paradigm of dominance and control?    These are some the questions Helen and Harville raised in a webinar with Riane Eisler, a noted researcher into better ways of sharing power. 

Founder of the Center for Partnership Studies, Riane is an internationally known systems analyst, attorney,  author of The Real Wealth of Nations, and a lifelong advocate for social and economic transformation.  She is co-founder of The Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence, and editor of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies

Some excerpts from Harville and Helen’s portion of this talk:

  • “For the first time in history, we have a relational science that’s teachable. Now we can talk about the 4 R’s in school.  Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and relationships.”
  • “Relational competency should be the goal of every institution.”
  • “Couples fight for one reason:  because they do not like the point of view of their partners. We call that ‘objection to difference.  But it’s also a human problem.  It’s what produces dominance and control—-violence and war.  In order to change that we need to develop relationship competence.”
  • “The old way of talking is monologue—people want to relate another way but they don’t know how.”
  • “Safe Conversations takes the verticality out of the (situation)—you’re now speaking with someone rather than to someone.  This axis change makes us more egalitarian.”

Here are some of the findings from Riane’s new book, Nurturing Our Humanity How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future, co-authored with anthropologist Douglas Fry:

  • “Einstein said it:  We can’t solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created them.  My research has identified ways of thinking that go beyond our usual modes of Eastern/Western, masculine feminine, dominance-control, secular-religious. In many ways we are shifting from power over, to power with, and of course there is a lot of resistance and a lot of regression. We are shifting to relations of mutual respect.”
  • “We can have domination or partnership.  In the partnership configuration, there is respect and acknowledgement of diversity, a low degree of fear and abuse.”
  • “What we’re learning from neuroscience is that the so called pleasure centers of the brain light up more when we share than when we win.”
  • “We have been told a false story—that’s it’s all about winning.  For millennia we lived as hunter gatherers, the original egalitarian society. So war and violence is not the way it is or the way it has to be.”
  • “In our families we learn how to respect the rights of others.  Every day we practice either domination or partnership (depending on what we’ve seen at home).”

Valerie Andrews is the founder and Chief Storyteller of Reinventing Home.  She has written for New York, Vogue and Esquire, and is the author of A Passion for this Earth: Toward a New Partnership of Man, Woman and Nature.

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