ERP 303: How To Create Safe Conversations — An Interview With Drs. Harville Hendrix & Helen LaKelly Hunt

By Posted in - Podcast January 18th, 2022 0 Comments

In this episode, we’ll discuss an often overlooked skill that is so simple yet has a significant impact on how we negotiate relationships. We’ll also talk about some tools and practices that can help us turn our disagreements into meaningful connections with our partners.

Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt are co-creators of Imago Relationship Therapy, and a social movement called Safe Conversations. Internationally respected as couple’s therapist, educators, speakers, activist, and New York Times bestselling authors. Their 10 books, including the timeless classic Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, have sold more than 4 million copies. Harville appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show 17 times! Helen has been installed in the Women’s Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian Institute. The list goes on and on.

In this Episode 

3:56 What safe conversation is and why it’s important in building a healthy relationship.

12:58 How these safe conversations in the Imago Dialogue process help the relational culture.

28:19 Simple practices to remind us to value our partners, that they matter, and that we adore them.

39:13 The structure of the Imago Dialogue process: mirroring, validating, and empathizing.

42:54 What the on-duty, off-duty days are and how Helen and Harville use this method to make sure that they are connected when they go to bed.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Take turns. When one is talking, the other should listen and wait for their turn.
  • Be present for your partner. Let them know that they matter and that you have time to listen to them.
  • Practice wondering about your partner. Unpack their thoughts with you.
  • Honor each other’s boundaries. It can be as simple as asking if they’re available to talk about something.
  • Ask yourself, what memories you would like your partner to have of you, then, create them for your partner.

Mentioned

Imago Relationship Therapy

Helen LaKelly Hunt – National Women’s Hall of Fame

Meet a Philanthropist – A Conversation With Helen LaKelly Hunt | National Museum of American History

The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology)

Still Face Experiment: Dr. Edward Tronick

Doing Imago Relationship Therapy in the Space-Between: A Clinician’s Guide

The Space Between: The Point of Connection (*Amazon Affiliate link)(book)

Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, 20th Anniversary Edition (book)

Making Marriage Simple: Ten Relationship-Saving Truths (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

ERP 261: How To Strengthen Your Relationship From A Polyvagal Perspective – An Interview With Dr. Stephen Porges

ERP 254: How To Understand Co-regulation And The Importance Of Safety In Relationship

ERP 138: The Most Critical Ingredient For Relationship Success With Harville Hendrix & Helen Hunt

Connect with Harville and Helen

Websites: Harville and Helen and Safe Conversations

Facebook: facebook.com/harvilleandhelen

Twitter: twitter.com/HarvilleHelen

YouTube: Harville Hendrix & Helen LaKelly Hunt

Instagram: instagram.com/harvilleandhelen/

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Harville and Helen, thank you so much for joining us today. I know your schedules are so busy, and you’re jet-setting all over the world, making a difference in your distinguished work. I just so appreciate your time today and being able to do this interview with us.

Thank you. We’re delighted and honored to be here.

For today’s conversation, we’re going to really be pivoting towards safe conversation. And also, the dialogue and the structure that you guys provide to really assist people in this process, but let’s just start with safe conversations. Can you talk a little bit about how this is important? How come it’s relevant, and when we look at people that are listening on this show are in couplehood usually have experienced some level of upset or are even experiencing some negativity, or perhaps even have experienced a breakup or a divorce. So, help us here with safe conversations that you both talked so much about. Can you help people know what that is about? How come it’s important?

Well, maybe I’ll say a sentence to begin. Harville was depressed one day. I said, “Honey, how are you feeling?” And he said, “Well, I’m not feeling very good.” I said, “Oh, say more about that.” The bottom line, he shared that it’s a wonderful therapy that we can help others learn to do in the therapy office. But this, it’s so simple. What we teach is so teachable. And since it’s so simple to learn, it should be taught in schools. If you apply for a marriage license, it should be like a driver’s license. You should read a manual and pass a test. If you fail the test, you have to read the manual again. If you did not pass the test, you do not get a marriage license. In that way, you could start a marriage connected and learn to take turns talking and listening, which a lot of people have no idea that’s how to have a good marriage. And he said, “Let’s call this safe conversation.” And so, that’s what we’re doing now—creating a Safe Conversation Training Institute.

Photo of Bride and GroomHugging

“If you apply for a marriage license, it should be like a driver’s license. If you did not pass the test, you do not get a marriage license. In that way, you could start a marriage connected and learn to take turns talking and listening, which a lot of people have no idea that’s how to have a good marriage.”

It’s fundamental. I love that you’re saying this. We would really benefit from having access to this material when we’re young, so we can start practicing and really get experience around it. And then the importance of partnering with a loved one and our significant other to have the framework, to have the safety, and have this conversation that allows us to have a deeper connection that it’s fundamental. I love that.

I’ll fill in some of the blanks about what the conversation is and what it tries to do. I want to start that off by appreciating that Helen is the person from whom I’ve learned everything that I know. She’s indispensable to the development of Dialogue of Imago and of Safe Conversations. And so, we are partners in life and work, most of which is work. But what happened that puts her in that place, and I want to do that because, in 1977, we met here in Dallas at a party neither one of us wanted to go to. But we nevertheless met and had a conversation that led to meeting after the party. We weren’t actually dating, but we were “seeing each other.” We discovered that we have an intense relationship. That’s on the negative side, as well as the positive side.

The first time we tried to have a date, we got in a fight.

The first time we tried to have a date, we got in a fight. Yeah. 

I didn’t like the restaurant he chose. I like Dickey’s Barbecue, but he took me to a fancy restaurant.

It’s our first date. Helen is not an ordinary woman. She’s a distinguished member of Dallas. I just assumed those people want fancy places. 

That makes sense.

And so, I couldn’t afford it, but I decided I would. Anyway, we had this fight there. But later on, we were having another fight, and we were in her house. She was divorced. I was divorced. And so, we went to her living room. We were arguing. Helen said, “Stop! One of us talk. One of us listens.” 

Now, I will say this with all embarrassment. At that time, I was the head of clinical practice. And at the time had not specialized with couples, but I did see some, but it was shocking to me that I was reacting in a way that, of course, no therapists would allow anybody to do. Even if they told a story about reacting, you would ask something that would help them understand there are alternative ways to respond. But in any case, I was seeing some couples. And that calmed us down. I’m a clinician, so I noticed shifts—neurophysiological emotional shifts. 

And later on, we learned Helen structured the situation. One talk, one listens. So, it moved chaos out. Well, you think about that. I’m a theoretician. In order for you to feel calmed down, you have to have structure. So, the short story is that that was the beginning of what finally became Safe Conversation. It became Imago Dialogue. And for 25-30 years has been the primary therapeutic intervention with couples and with our network of therapists across the world. I think we have about 2561 countries now. 

So, dialogue for them is what they use with couples. As Helen said, what happened with my depression and us, saying, “Let’s take this out of the clinic and put it into the public is that when we did that, we renamed it and called it Safe Conversations Dialogue because we didn’t want it to sound like therapy because we’re not doing therapy in public.” We’ve now got a new word for it called relational competence. That means you have the ability to create positive social interaction with other human beings without polarizing. Most human beings don’t know how to do that. They’re causing at least stress to conflict or polarization all the time. 

All the time. 

And I don’t know how not to because as Helen came up with this one day. She said, “It’s not what people talk about.” This is a famous quote of yours that I’m going to say. It’s, “How do they talk about it?” It’s the how, not the what, because you can talk about any what if you know how. But if you don’t know how, you can’t talk about any what. So, the how becomes the safe thing so that the person isn’t scared while you’re talking. That means you don’t send them negative messages. You learn how to send them the difference, your difference, without making their difference bad. 

We do that with the same structure of the dialogue, which we call Safe Conversation Dialogue, in which people learn how to have a conversation that leads to connecting and sort of polarization. There’s a way to do that, and we can spend some time on the details, but I don’t want to talk too long because Hellen may have something else to say, and you may have another question to ask.

We do want to do that. Yes! And I just want to really acknowledge some things that you’re saying that are so key, and one of which is, Helen, we’re coming back to what you were saying around some of these might seem very simple. And yet, with such a level of expertise and experience and training, part of the distillation of some just key principles can be so profound but so simple. 

And I hear you, Harville. You’re talking about this organizing Principle of Structure gives us something to really orient towards to help us, almost like a guiding light, in this heated moment where we feel aroused, or our system is maybe activated, and it gives us something to feel some grounding, and some organization with because it can feel so chaotic. We don’t know what’s happening. And so, I love that you guys have such a beautiful structure. 

And before we get into the details of that structure and really help people listening here today to have some sense of what this is in orientation of it. Can you talk a little bit about how these Safe Conversations and the Imago Dialogue process, how this helps the relational culture because there was a lot that you were able to respond to her stuff?

And you were willing to get on board, right? You guys weren’t polarized so much that she was an enemy, and you didn’t take that as a goodwill gesture and really have an open mind about that. Right? So, you were willing to explore that. And it provides sons a sense of culture that is fundamental to the health of the bond, would you say?

And speaking of culture, there are two cultures. One is the relational culture, and the other one is the culture that all relationships live in. We are interested in both of those because they are interspersed. This culture is in the culture. And what we learn that God is moving toward Safe Conversation is that the culture outside of us shows up in this culture. 

Absolutely. 

And that this culture between partners is a culture of each individual is, in some sense, interested in their best outcome. Not in how this is for you, but how is this for me. Am I going to get my needs met here? So, there’s a competitive quality in couples before they get transformed out of that, this competitive quality. But that’s integrated from a competitive, larger culture, which is the culture of Western civilization. 

It got clear to us years ago that you have to make two diagnoses of a couple. One is their psychological diagnosis. What was it like as a child because that’s always brought forward into the relationship, how you interacted with your caretaker and how they interacted with you? But the second diagnosis is the part of the big culture that is being operationalized in this interpersonal culture that’s destroying it. 

And so, you have to make those two diagnoses newly found. If you fix this, ultimately, if you fix enough of these, you’ll fix the big culture. But you also should work on the big culture so that these would know that there is an option. So, you want to work both ends of the, what is it? What do you call it, both ends of the? 

Spectrum. 

Of the spectrum. There’s another funny kind of word that I can’t think of now, but both ends of the tunnel, both ends of the tube,

Not the rainbow, but okay. 

Yeah. And so, the culture here becomes, we finally called it, the space between. We have a space between us, and the culture here has to become safe. If it’s not safe, it sucks.

Yes, it’s a paradigm shift. And I love that you guys are doing so much work. Hellen, I want to hear what you have to say around the culture and the relationship. Harville, I love that you’re saying there are both ends that if our culture can support this. I mean, what you were saying about teaching this in schools, right? We have better support around the relational model because it is a paradigm shift, right. And when we can really assist the couple to have this way of relating that is more cooperative and is really much more win-win, then that can help the larger culture as well with our children, and just how we interact with others.

Well, I think the additive might be quoting Martin Buber, who I read back in the 1990s. I mentioned to Harville the book of the I and thou. Buber says, “We tend to treat each other naturally, thinking that the other person cares about us and wants us to be happy in their presence.” And if they are willing, at the altar when you say I do, the other person loves you, so they are going to try to make you happy when they go home. 

So, we sort of naturally think of someone who says, I care about you, or I love you. Well, you’re an “it”. And I’m the “I”, so you will do what I think, right? Because you love me. And Buber says, “You know what? I see it radically different that you have to make a decision to shift from the I/It to the I/thou. And when a person does that, the universal energies of love begin to flow from the cosmos into the space between the two people who have learned to treat each other as an I/thou. What can I do for you today? I’ve got this, I’ve got to do. I’ve got that. I’ve got to do this. Is there something also that I could do for you because you’re important to me? Is there anything I can do to make your day better?” 

Living like that, Buber says, energy comes into the space between, and this energy makes people feel safe. And we say to anyone that we teach Safe Conversations to, our relationship is the quality of the space between two people. If there’s anxiety when Harville looks at me with a look in his eye that I sort of drawback on, or if his voice tone. His words may not have been demanding but his voice tone might be. Or something I just sort of contract and go, “I think I’ll go to the other room right now.” But if he talks safely to me and acts like he wants to do something for me.

Cheerful multiracial couple looking at each other

“Our relationship is the quality of the space between two people.”

Which I always do.

Which you always do. Then I can relax, and we can connect and only with safety in between two people relax. And so, it’s a simple assignment for two people. 

Yeah, and to lean into the bond when it doesn’t feel welcoming, or it doesn’t feel safe, right? The natural inclination is to turn away. And I love the invitation here. It’s almost this alchemy that if we can switch from “it” to the “thou,” it’s a sense of reverence for this person that I love. And it’s calling into the remembrance of this person and what they mean to me and the bond and how important they are and that it’s almost the practice and the living of this love.

Jessica, we have done a few of these in the past 20 years. You might imagine we’ve done a few of these, and no one has called it alchemy ever. And thank you, you got it. You’re one step ahead of us, in fact, so thank you. We will talk about this tonight. We learned something at that moment. But yeah, there’s magic to it. There’s something magical about a look in the eye, transforming the energy field. And another look in the eye. 

I can talk to Harville about the most serious, serious problems and things I want him to change. But if I communicate it in a safe way, he might respond. Whereas if I communicate it to him in a demanding way or problematic way, there’s no way he’s going to respond. So, we teach that couple. Your worst problems can be addressed with your partner, but we will teach you how to use them in a safe way that increases the likelihood that your partner will change.

Yes, so this is beautiful. I just want to add a little bit to Buber. I think he said this, but you read him more carefully than I have. In fact, when Helen introduced Buber to me, I was in a purely Freudian model myself. Buber is in a relational model—the I/thou relationship. I thought that was so superficial. And now, one of the foundational pieces of our theory is that we can say he’s a source. But one thing that he does in that I and thou book, and it may be my language, or it may be his, but your value does not depend upon your value to me. 

Tender African American homosexual male couple cuddling gently while sitting on street in city on blurred background during romantic date

“Your value does not depend upon your value to me.”

That’s huge. 

And other words, the “it” is a utilitarian relationship. You’re valuable because I can use you. I need you. You meet my needs. And most couples are into utilitarian relationships. And if you don’t meet my need, I’m going to beat you up in some way. And that utilitarian relationship is destructive for human beings. I mean, you can make deals with your car merchant, and you know, when you go to restaurants, but not in your intimate relationships. The waiter is valuable to me because they’re bringing me food that is still hot and blah, blah, blah. 

It’s transactional. 

It’s transactional. But no marriage and no intimate partnership that’s transactional will ever be either safe or intimate. It simply cannot be because there’s a leftover piece called anxiety. And if there’s anxiety, there’s no intimacy. There’s no connecting because there’s no safety. So, I’m saying that to say that the thing we like to communicate to the world through you and your colleagues who talked to us is safety is non-negotiable in healthy, thriving relationships. 

Multiethnic lesbian couple resting on bed

“Safety is non-negotiable in healthy, thriving relationships.”

And now we can quote the world’s resource on this named, Steven Porges, who studied for 30 years, the vagal system. We remember being at a meeting where he was lecturing about the vagal network. I understood nothing of what he was saying. He stayed in his academic, clinical research language. So, we asked him, “What did you say? Great things can be said in one sentence.” He said, “Oh.” And then, he’s rather genteel of a man. And he said, in all of his genteel, almost like a British in all of his gentility. “Well, safety is non-negotiable for all mammals, including humans.” 

I spend an hour listening to that? But since we’d been dealing with safety, all of our work, we didn’t have a source to say, non-negotiable. But when you have the world’s leading neurophysiological, emotional person who spent 40 years looking at the vagal system—that’s all he studied was the vagal system, which is the regulatory system of the body and the emotions—saying that none negotiability of safety for thriving, then we felt it’s sort of like we can quote Jesus saying, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Porges says safety is non-negotiable. 

I like to emphasize that because people don’t get it, and they don’t know how dangerous they are. People don’t know Helen is so good because Helen reads me and reads people that the slight tone of voice triggers the vagal network. A hard look in the eye triggers the vagal network. The vagal network has made it before receptors. Three of them are looking for danger. And if they are up, the fourth one, which is we can play now—it doesn’t go up.

Well, and social media. You don’t even know you have a look in your eye. You’re just busy. You’re multitasking.

You’re focused on something else where you’re not giving any welcoming cues. Yes.

Right. Yeah, that’s really good to say, because I hadn’t thought about that. Why don’t you say more about that because you had thought there? 

That was it. That you’re not mad, that you don’t care about the other person. It’s just you’re multitasking. You can be doing this and caring and talking to the other person, but it can feel insulting to them because you won’t put your eye product down and turn and face them place them. 

Let me hear. I want to make sure I got what you said.” That is a very different experience for a couple when one of them is talking. They stop, put everything down and say, “Let me see if I got what you said. And is there more about that?” And suddenly, the other person goes, “Oh, they’ve got time. I matter.”

I matter.

You thou them. And this thing gets them. So, that’s where Buber is so magnificent in the I/thou. He said those are the only two types of relationships. I/thou and I/It. That’s sort of what Hellen and I spend time doing is simplifying things. So, that’s a simplification that we have adopted. That and Porges’s that safety is non-negotiable. And then, once you get that down, you don’t need to do much else except practice it.

Yes. Let me ask a quick question because what you’re describing is so important for the way that we’re relating and the neuroception around how we’re perceiving one another. And, Helen, thank you so much for bringing that in around. I can recognize that between me and my husband. If I’m on my phone and how he’s perceiving me or vice versa, it doesn’t feel responsive. 

Even if he emotionally feels the way he does, I’m not being able to see it on him and his facial expressions or even his demeanor. You also are really inviting this conscious awareness of the value of our other, and our significant other and they matter and this reverence for them. 

Do you have anything you want to say before we pivot to the structure of the Imago Conversation or the dialogue process? What simple practice can bring somebody back to remembering this?

I had an experience. Have you ever seen the ED Tronic Still-Face? 

Yes! 

Well, we love showing that to our couples. Once upon a time, Harville and I were doing a workshop for some YPO people in Miami, Florida, and we had a hotel in Miami Beach. The plane arrived late, and long story short, we were able to do Friday night with the couples. Saturday morning, we unpacked boxes, and we didn’t get them packed the night before, and we were getting to do the rest of the weekend workshop with them. 

We had a suite, and long story short, when I got up early Saturday morning, I thought I’d get out of bed and start preparing for this workshop. I’ll let Harville know that I want to be responsible, and they need their name tags and the pieces of paper they’ve signed agreeing to pay or that we got their check. We haven’t gotten their check yet. But when I walked into the suite, the sun was rising over the ocean and interested me. I stood at the window for quite a while before I went and opened the boxes. 

Thirty minutes later, the alarm went off. Harville got up. He walked into the suite and said, “I need the coffee.” And I said, “Well, it’s over by the sink, and I’m getting these boxes ready for you to look at.” He walked by the window and said, “Helen, the sun is rising.” It was one of the most important moments of my life. I was about to say what I usually say, “I know. I saw it.” 

This couple, Jackie and John Billingsley, I don’t have the money. I thought, “He’s looking at the sunrise.” So I said, “Don’t say anything. Put everything down and go stand at the window with him and be present for him in that experience. Don’t be the still face.” In other words, like your husband is to you. I didn’t think I was like your husband, but I was because that’s how I would have left him hanging, going, “Helen, look at this.” And I go, “Basically, I’m too busy.” Well, the chance of a lifetime to be present standing at the window. 

Fortunately, I saw what I was doing wrong. I put down my papers and acted like I hadn’t seen them before. I said, “Look at that.” And then, he pointed out these things that I’d seen. He goes, “Look. There’s a flamingo. Look at the doves overhead.” So, I had seen him, but every time he said, “Look at this, look at this.” I saw the little baby in the video going like this. And so, I resonated with him. And I realized from that moment on. Anytime Harville talks about anything meaningful, I will stop what I’m doing, and I will face him and not be the still face. I’ll try to resonate with him. That began to change my life. 

Dan Siegel talks about the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, the place where you don’t know as the part of the brain that promotes neural integration. I will tell you, Jessica, it is a wonderful way to live. And for a long time, I thought I was doing it for Harville’s sake. But I feel so much better because it releases calming nerve chemicals, unlike adrenaline and cortisol. There’s dopamine, acetylcholine. So, that was a big takeaway for me to stop and be present for Harville and to no longer be the still face in this life. So, that’s what I tried to do. Any couple will feel better if they learn to live with wonder in their life.

High angle back view of diverse couple holding hands standing in meadow with cereal grass and looking at each other with love

“Any couple will feel better if they learn to live with wonder in their life.”

And thank you for just even sharing that beautiful example. And then, as you were sharing the language, I could hear how it was intended to be of support to be responsive and attune to Harville. And yet, when you are really describing what a sweet shared experience and that connection, I could feel it even as a listener, this really the positive neurochemicals and the importance of that, that that’s so much more than just the taskmaster mode, right?

Yeah. And the goal with Harville the years before that was to know him really well so I could advise him on what needed improvement and tell him what, you know if he wanted this to happen. 

She did, and I became better. 

And he hated being in my presence. “Would you leave me alone?”

Maybe not hatred, but discomfort.

Discomfort. And now, I love being silent with Harville and asking him questions, but also, I don’t need to talk. Maybe we could enjoy the silence to get this. So, I have radically changed. I think for any couple to hear that practice wondering about your partner. You don’t have to figure out everything and know them really well. And so the more you say, “Is there more about that?” when you do the dialogue and let them know you have time to hear them unpack their thoughts with you. That can be a great gift that any couple can get the other person.

And I’d like to add to this another. It’s not so much an example as it is something simple that everybody can learn immediately, but most people don’t think about it, which is that our brains are always remembering, and remembers every interaction with everybody, and especially with the partner because of the significance of the partner to the brain with regard to safety or danger because this is a primary relationship. And if that’s not safe, then you, in some sense of fundamental reality, don’t exist, which is with your primary person. So, the brain is recording everything. 

And so, Helen and I have begun to say to couples, “We want to empower you with this.” Think about what memories would you like your partner to have of you, then create them for your partner. And if you want your partner to remember, boy, he’s warm and funny and paid attention, and blah, blah, blah, then create that memory because she or he is going to remember whatever you do, and they will also anticipate that the memory you create will be repeated the next time they see you. So what do you want him or her to anticipate when you are separate but come back together? Do you want them to anticipate, “God, I wonder if he’s going to be in a bad mood?” Or do you want them to anticipate the dorsal vagal? “Hey, we get to play. I can’t wait for him to come back because we’re going to have so much fun.” 

A Couple Eating at the Table

“You are empowered to create the memories your partner will have of you.”

And whatever memories they have of you, you created them. 

Wow, that’s powerful. 

I find that so challenging to think about every thought, every interaction, every tone of voice I k

now, I am in charge of. And so, whatever Helen remembers, however, she remembers me, I created that memory for her. So, I can’t blame her for having that memory. If she’s like, “You were whatever.” I created that for her. And so she is responding out of my deposit in her memory bank. And she can’t let the memory go because brains don’t get rid of memories. You can push them into the background by building a whole network of new memories in front, but you can’t erase the memory. So, whatever you say will be eternal as far as your partner’s mind is.

Well, thank you for what you both are saying because I agree that what is at stake is so important—the importance and how critical these moments are. So, as you’re talking about, Harville, it’s almost as if it’s integrity, being in alignment and integrity with the value of how you want to have your partner experience you and have a memory of you. And that’s a real reflection of how you’re showing up. 

And Helen, as you’re describing this responsiveness through the face, through the eyes, through the nonverbals, through the breathing around really turning towards and being responsive. This can feel like a lot that in every moment, this is the intentionality and the consciousness that we want to have with our significant other, and it is that important. 

Yeah. Yeah. 

Okay. Okay. Well, I don’t know if you guys want to give us the summary just so that we can give listeners a sense of the structure of the dialogue process before we lose time with you today. Is that possible?

Well, I think we could walk through it, relive it through the stems. 

Yeah, if you do real quick, then I’ll add one more structured thing. 

Okay. 

Be a bit quick, and then I’m going to do the on-duty off-duty days.

Okay, good. That’d be great. So, the dialogue process is a three-step process called mirroring, validating, and empathizing. And each of those steps has sentence stems that you start, and then the other person says, they’ll add their own stuff. You have the sentence stem. So, that provides the structure. The step itself is structured then there’s a substructure. 

For instance, the way it starts is I want to talk to Helen. I started off by saying, “Helen, I’ll make an appointment.” That is the structure. “Is now a good time to talk about…?” Then I give her a topic. She may say yes or no. But if she says no, then I know that talking to her is not appropriate right now. So, if I honor her boundaries, and that’s what this is, it’s a boundary. I accept that and say, “Well, great. And when can you be available?” And she’ll say, “Well, maybe in 10 minutes, or maybe tomorrow.” And that’s honoring boundaries, and I show up then. 

So, every conversation starts off with, are you available? And if not, if I don’t do that, then what I do is I go inside her movie theatre in her brain where she’s running her movie, and I run my movie on her screen. That’s annoying. Some people will throw you out of their theatre. Others will be nice and say okay, but you don’t have their attention. So, it’s boundary violations. That’s the first thing. 

And then, when she says, “Is now a good time?” And I mirror that back and say, “If I’m getting this, you want to know, is it okay now to do that?” And I say yes, then she starts talking. Then we go through sentence stems. I will then say after she talks, “Let me see if I got that. That’s the mirror.” And I will say back what I heard with accuracy. And then, I’ll check that I get it. That’s the accuracy check. And we do that because our brains on a good day have a 70% deficiency rate. On a bad day, it’s 100%. 

You need to check to see. “Did you get it?” And if she says, “Well, yes.” Then instead of going to, “Well, here’s my thought about that. Instead of going to me, I stay with her, and I say, “So, is there more about that?” Which is a curiosity and a question. It’s not so much a question and interrogation as it is. Is there more, which is an invitation for the same more, whatever that is? And then, she may say, “Well, yes. There is blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and we go through that sequence.” 

Once we get through, then I can say to her, so she says, “Well, there’s no more. I’ll summarize briefly what I heard. So, if I got it, you said A, B, and C. Did I get that?” And then, I go to validation. “You know what? You make sense. I can see how you’re thinking about that, and that really makes sense.” I don’t have to agree with the sense she makes, but I have to see that she’s making sense. Everybody makes sense, just different sets. 

And then, I go to empathy, which is the third step. Validation is second. Empathy is the third. And then I say, and I can imagine with that you might be feeling excited, which is reaching for the feeling, the effect that’s going with all that she’s doing. So, that’s the structure in a nutshell.

Or whatever the feeling. Like, I can imagine you’re excited, or you’re unhappy. So, I want to deal with people who are unhappy. What I recommend, and Harville has let me put this at the end of a workshop that a practice take home happened with Harville and me doing something. Once I said, “Harville, why don’t I take every other day of the month, and it’s my turn to make sure if we’ve had a neat blip during the day, any rupture, it’s my turn to make sure we have connected before we go to bed. So, how about if I take the first, the third, the fifth, the seventh, the night. Every day, all of those days, it’s my job to make sure we’re connected before we go to bed, and you take the even days of the month, and that’s the day you’re on duty. Then we’ll call it an on-duty off-duty day. So, you’re on duty to make sure that we’re connected when we go to bed.” 

We talk about couplehood. There usually is someone who’s more like the Hailstorm that they care about family, and they do the end of the year holiday cards, etc. They care about family. And then, the other person cares about the family, but because the hailstorm is one kind and then the turtle is another kind that they care, but they pack their feelings deep inside.

I’m the turtle.

They love their family as much as the hailstorm, but they express it differently by being reliable and being there if someone needs them and they care. They don’t have to show it. They love them. This is a structure that allows both the Halestorm and the turtle to be responsible for the success of the relationship, that they have to do something every other day that if there’s a rupture, they write a poem for their partner, they get some flowers, some chocolate, offer to do a foot rub, or just, they offer a gift, and see if that would make the relationship better before they go to bed or offered to see a therapist in the week ahead. “If we need some help, let’s get some helpers to repolarize around the center.” So, do something so that their partner goes, “Yeah. Yeah.” You noticed I needed help. 

Yes! Yes.

So, we call these alternating days.

Alternating on-duty off-duty.

On-duty off-duty days. And you know what we found? Both of us, I think, say this when the on-duty day turns out to be the better day. 

It’s more. It’s fun. 

Because you go up here, rather than down here. On the off-duty days, it’s like you can be grumpy and critical and all that, but you feel bad. It’s a paradox that what you do for others, you do to yourself.

I am just in awe of what you both are bringing. There’s so much here. I mean, you do workshops, and you write books. And the depth of this is so profound. And thank you for going through that structure because even as you describe it, Harville, I can feel when I’ve been in the place of the listener and asking these prompts. It really gives me a structure to go through this process that deepens my understanding. It helps me calm my nervous system as I understand them. And then it helps me access that empathy when maybe out of the gate I wouldn’t have necessarily felt it or really been able to connect with it. 

And then Helen, what you’re talking about and this gift of off-duty, on-duty, and Harville as you’re adding in if we have in our intention and our mind and we’re really actively in pursuit of supporting the connection. I mean, when we look long term, the impact of this is so significant. So, how can people get in touch with what you’re teaching and your recent book? What would you like to invite people to connect with?

HarvilleandHelen.com is one place to go. And our most recent book is a book called Doing Imago Therapy in The Space Between is for clinicians, but anybody can read it. It doesn’t have too many big words in it. And then, SafeConversations.com if people want to go into the social movement that we’ve launched.

If people want to learn this dialogue process a little bit more, where would you direct people to learn more about that? Would it be Safe Conversations?

Safe Conversations is the fastest way to get our mini-course in the dialogue process. 

Perfect. Okay. Excellent. Thank you both so much for the work you’re doing in the world and for helping up-level and evolve our relational ways of being and our couplehood and beyond.

Thank you, Jessica. I appreciate you.

It’s so nice to be present with you.

Signing Off

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Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching