Life is full of difficult conversations, but most of us have never been trained to have a productive conversation to express our dissatisfaction with another person, be it a co-worker, employer, child or spouse. As a result, we avoid these conversations or talk about difficult topics in a way that offends us or creates arguments with the other.
There is a method to ensure that we protect our valuable relationships and use conflict as a vehicle for growth. Safe Conversations® empowers you to speak without criticism, listen without judgment, and connect across differences. Over half a million people have been trained in this method, which was founded by Helen LaKelly Hunt and Harville Hendrix, who have been married for over 40 years.
Together, Hunt and Hendrix have worked with couples for decades, and their work inspired them to author several New York Times bestsellers, including Get the love you want, keep the love you findand Giving the love that heals.
“When we fall in love afterwards, there’s a power struggle in the couple, and it’s only when we resolve that tension that we can have real love,” Hunt said. “People have trouble experiencing differences; it is natural to love and even seek differences. You can disagree, but learn to cooperate.”
Political polarization, enemy demonization, and break-up culture have invaded our daily lives. Younger generations feel lonely due to a lack of relationships, while older generations continue to experience high rates of divorce. The solution, according to Helen, is to learn a structured approach to talking about differences, disagreements, and disappointments that makes both participants feel safe.
“Conflict is growth trying to happen,” says Hunt. “By not using negativity and employing the three-step process of Safe Conversations, we can learn to approach conflict with gratitude and wonder while feeling safe.”
Safe Conversations teaches a script to follow, which may feel forced or unnatural at first. But that’s the point – to teach a radically new way of listening and speaking. First, ask if this is an acceptable time to talk about an issue, and then compliment the person receiving the information. Then the person receiving the information repeats everything the giver said. They keep asking, “Is there more?” not “Did I get everything?” The receiver repeats what the sender said until it confirms there is no more. The sender also only used “I” statements.
“These methods can be practiced by two people learning them together, but you can bring these techniques to any difficult conversation and create a safe space, even if the person receiving the information hasn’t been trained,” Helen said.
Here are the top 5 mistakes people make when having a difficult conversation.
- Cross boundaries by not asking if this is a good time to talk. Instead, ask if the time is okay, and if not, ask if it’s possible to agree on a time in the future.
- When someone says something we don’t like, we respond or substitute what we think should have been said. Instead, simply reflect back what you are told. Sometimes all a person needs is to be heard and understood.
- Saying “I got it, let me tell you more about me!” Instead, be curious and ask, “Is there more?” Let the person who needs to send a message be fully heard and understood, you can schedule your own time later.
- Use judgmental words when speaking. Instead, just listen.
- Criticize and give advice. Instead, focus on making the person feel safe and finding solutions together.
“We actually hear at most 30% of what is said. This method increases it to 60%
The method is intentionally rigid, it’s a skill, not a process to mess around with. Like tennis,’ Helen said. “Listen, don’t judge. That’s why our method of safe conversations starts with both of you simply looking into each other’s eyes and taking a deep breath together.”
The method has been used in workplaces and at home, and according to the founders, has stopped divorces — including one case where a man actually tore up divorce papers in front of his wife after using the method just once.
It’s a way to feel secure in difficult conversations, but also a way to build bridges and empathy. To feel connection while honoring the space between two different people.
Next, Helen and Harville plan a program to expand safe conversations training so millions of people can use these tools and there will be a critical mass in societies around the world who can use them.