“Talking is the most dangerous thing people do,” says Dr. Harville Hendrix. “It seems so odd even to say it, but most human beings don’t know how to talk to another human being without eliciting a negative reaction.”
In 1977, Hendrix and his life and work partner, Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, had a big argument, yelling over each other instead of listening to each other. (Both are therapists, by the way.) Finally Hunt yelled something that resonated: “Why don’t we stop, and one of us talk, and the other listen?”
In the heat of the moment, it was a revelation to the Dallas couple. And that’s when their argument became an experiment. “We took turns and took it to the clinic and experimented, and determined that the quality of the conversation determines whether or not people can solve problems,” Hendrix says. “If it makes them defensive and anxious, they will deal with anxiety and not the problem.”
Hendrix and Hunt, who married in 1982 and have six children and six grandchildren, established a three-step process that encourages couples to fully listen to each other, creating a safe space for working through conflict. The process became the basic structure of Safe Conversations, the educational model they’ve spent three decades teaching thousands of other couples—and parents and children and therapy professionals—through their nonprofit, Relationships First. For their work, they’ve received raves from Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, and Hendrix has appeared as a guest expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show nearly 20 times.
The couple’s transformative revelation—that fostering better conversation can resolve conflict—might seem elementary. But it’s rooted in years of research and brain science. And, as most of us who’ve ever talked to another human can attest, it’s easier said than done.
The Case for Safe Spaces
“Everyone has different points of view, no one’s brain is the same, and the difference triggers objection, so people don’t know how to connect without polarizing,” Hendrix says.
This polarization can create life-changing problems, from the end of a partnership to a negative environment for children. “When children are in an environment where the parents are polarized and being defensive, that’s what they absorb,” Hunt says. “So, connecting and communicating and feeling safe with one another is fundamental.”
There is a clear need for communities to ensure families are able to thrive. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, in 2014 nearly 10,000 couples filed for divorce in Dallas and Denton counties combined. This largely looming figure has financial repercussions: When a partnership fails, the possibility that the family will become poverty-stricken greatly increases.
Not only that, research shows that people in failing relationships are less productive at work, and more likely to fall into substance abuse. Children from fragmented homes do not perform as well in school as their peers from stable two-parent homes. And both children and adults with a poor-quality family life experience more emotional distress, anxiety and depression.
This kind of research has been the motivating factor for Hunt and Hendrix, who are teaching and sharing the Safe Conversations methodology with faculty members in five North Texas schools. They also offer a two-day workshop available to anyone who wants to train others on how to have safe conversations, whether at school, at home or at work, and are working toward educating first responders, veterans, church attendees and members of community organizations.
A 2017 study by Southern Methodist University confirmed that Hendrix and Hunt’s process can make a lasting difference: Safe Conversations workshop participants saw “significant decreases” in anxiety six weeks and even a year after the workshop.
Hendrix says that turning a relationship into a safe space forges a stronger, happier connection. “The [couple] hangs out together, they like each other—they are talking without polarizing, have a sensation of aliveness, are joyful and relax,” he says. “When they have those features, that means the quality of experience they will have is joyful aliveness.”
The Safe Conversations method isn’t just for people in struggling marriages; learning to create a safe environment for resolving conflict is a skill even happy couples can benefit from. But most couples—especially those who are in a happy relationship—don’t even realize they could use a communication boost.
So, where do you even begin?
Step One: You Say “We Need to Talk”
According to Hendrix and Hunt, you begin by “making an appointment,” or asking your partner if it is a good time to talk about a particular issue.
Dr. Terri L. Gonzales-Ball, a play and family therapist in Dallas, is accustomed to having in-depth conversations and processing through past experiences with her husband, Tim. (She is a counselor, after all.) “I think my husband and I have always been good at reparation and reconciliation within our relationship,” she says.
So she was surprised when the Safe Conversations workshop actually helped them approach those meetings differently.
“It has made us more aware of the importance of ‘setting appointments’ with one another when we need to discuss important things, making sure we are both present to listen to each other and not distracted by other tasks,” Gonzales-Ball explains. “It has highlighted that it is OK to postpone those conversations if the timing is off in an effort to have a quality one later.”
Once the appointment has been set, Safe Conversations dictates that the partners take turns following Hendrix and Hunt’s three-step process: mirroring, validating and empathizing.
The speaker has a few rules to follow (for example, using “I” statements instead of playing the blame game) as they lay out the issue.
The listener repeats, or “mirrors” what they heard, confirming every detail was heard correctly. (According to Hendrix, the accuracy rate of listening is a mere 13 percent if you’re in a good mood; that figure shrinks to zero percent if you’re angry or upset.)
Before moving on, the listener asks if there are any additional details that need to be further explored. This curiosity is “an essential feature of safe relationships,” Hunt says. “It helps people to be more vulnerable because you have opened the door to receive them.”
Then the listener validates the speaker’s perspective with the phrase “You make sense,” confirming that the listener sees the speaker’s truth.
Finally, the listener empathizes with the speaker by verifying how they feel and asking if there are any other feelings the issue has stirred up.
A crucial part of every step is acknowledging each other’s “childhood wounds.” Hendrix says everyone—no matter how exceptional our parents were at parenting—has unintentional childhood wounds that directly affect our ability to communicate and understand one another. These wounds are not necessarily literal, but things like feeling unsupported, or feeling too controlled.
Gaining an awareness of those wounds is crucial and could mean the difference between a successful or failed partnership.
For Kayla and Darrell Young, who live in Lancaster, the workshop revealed childhood wounds of “muted voices.”
“We were both afraid to speak our truth because we were afraid we wouldn’t be heard,” says Kayla, who was encouraged to attend the workshop because of her role as a biblical counselor at church. “Now, anything that comes up we can link back to that. We still have arguments, but it has given us a tool to lean on when we have those problems.”
Darrell agrees. “Before, we had a sense of helplessness to it, where you go with a resolution or an easy compromise, and having the process where we could come to a mutual understanding of each other’s point of view helped,” he says, adding that they no longer use the tired “agree to disagree” statement.
The model was tested when Kayla was pregnant with their last child. She was 45, the pregnancy was challenging, and she felt Darrell wasn’t engaged or supportive. “After months of ignoring the problem, we had a major blow-up,” she says. They implemented the Safe Conversations process and discovered they were harboring wrong thoughts about each other.
“Even though I had three other children early in life, this pregnancy was different and I was scared and needed support,” Kayla explains. “His viewpoint was [that] I had three children before and I was strong and could endure anything without him, and that usually had him feeling inadequate.”
The Safe Conversations model forced them to listen to and validate each other’s perspectives. “Thank goodness it was ingrained deeply within us so we could access it when needed,” Kayla says.
Safe Conversations, Safe Families
A safe haven fosters spontaneity, the telltale sign of a healthy relationship, Hendrix says. Couples who are in the right place are more likely to show random acts of affection—from wrestling or tickling one another to the more risqué act of swimming naked together. Or, basically, they take part in any fun action or event that doesn’t require planning.
“You’ll hear safety is a non-negotiable quality of a thriving relationship, whether between partners and parents or parents and children,” Hendrix says. “When you see couples who can spontaneously play with each other or their children, you know they feel safe and their children can feel safe with them. Whereas, if you are scared, you will be tactical, strategic and withdraw from the field.”
Applying the steps also helps improve connection, another crucial element of a partnership. “When you connect on a deeper level, it takes that judgmental side away, because there is more understanding,” says Dr. Faith Farnoosh Nouri, who runs a private counseling practice in Dallas and teaches in the family sciences department at Texas Woman’s University. She discovered Hendrix and Hunt’s theories 24 years ago and later attended a couples therapy program with her husband, Frank Massoudian.
Their daughter Sahar, now a college freshman, also attended a Safe Conversations workshop after seeing how the method benefitted her parents’ relationship. Nouri says her daughter’s intimate understanding of the process has in turn eased conflict between them. “I have learned to say, ‘Let’s start over,’ then get out of my own world and in my daughter or husband’s world, to hear them out,” Nouri says. “The more you practice, the more spontaneous it becomes.”
Kayla and Darrell Young practice Safe Conversations with their children too. Among other benefits, it shows the kids that, even if they are punished for something they’ve done wrong, their parents understand their point of view. “They have that safe feeling now, where they are going to be heard,” Darrell says.
Recently, when their 11-year-old daughter wanted to move out of the room she shares with her 8-year-old sister, the 11-year-old was able to explain exactly how she felt, and Darrell and Kayla mirrored back to her and explained why she couldn’t make the switch. Later, they can remind her of the conversation.
This ideal form of discussion can shape a child’s own communication patterns—and their future.
“How a parent disciplines their child can really impact how a child reacts to conflict with his or her peers,” says Karishma Chatterjee, assistant professor of practice in communication studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Do we shout? Do we use a negotiation approach where we talk it through? The basic idea of how we treat our kids has a huge bearing on the life skills they have, how they articulate their feelings, their behavior styles—we play a big role in our children’s behavior.”
In fact, children as young as age 3 can pick up conversation strategies from their parents, Hunt says. “It starts with little kids who can learn to talk respectfully to their parents and grandparents. Kids can mirror their parents—they can ask for an appointment, instead of talking when Mom is on the phone. The whole family can learn to respect each other’s boundaries and how to get what they want instead of a glare.” It enables, she says, a mother to tell her child when she isn’t available to do something, such as tie a shoe. “It teaches confidence and sensitivity all the way around.”
When working with children, Hendrix and Hunt teach that there are two parts of the brain—the “crocodile brain,” which is reactive, and responsible for a fight-or-flight response, and the “owl brain,” or upper portion of the brain, which uses a kind tone of voice, asks if the person is available, and collaborates and cooperates to create a win-win. “Kids love to learn about the owl brain,” Hunt says.
The ideas may be as simple as crocodiles and owls, but Nouri believes that bringing these conversation and conflict resolution techniques into day-to-day life, and teaching them to our kids, can ultimately have effects beyond our own marriage or household.
“If we can … communicate how to listen and talk—to talk without criticizing and listen without judgment,” she says, “we can accept people’s differences, and we can change homes, communities and eventually, our world.”
This article was originally published in February 2018.