As human beings our nature is to socialize and to create deep connections with others. That’s what brings us the most happiness.
Something that people usually think when they hear the word “relationship” is that it means romance, but that’s not the case. We nurture our souls from all types of relationships, like parents, siblings, friends, coworkers, and many others. It’s a myth to think that one person can provide everything that you need emotionally. The connection you have with your husband is not the same as the one you have with your mother or your best friend. This doesn’t mean one is less important than the other. They all add value to your happiness and wellbeing and should be treated with the same care.
Relationships must be nurtured constantly. Just as we crave for connection, we also suffer deeply when that connection is broken. When that happens, anxiety reigns and our overall health can be damaged.
I have a very large family, where everyone is very loud and is always eager to make their voice heard. If you were ever in one of my family’s parties you’d think that communication is king here. Never a silent moment. But that’s not really the case. Lately, I’ve been analyzing the different relationships in my family and I noticed that even though we all talk a lot, many relationships are pretty broken. When I stopped to listen to what was actually being said, I noticed that people were mostly trying to make their point, defend their argument, attack the other or limit the conversation to superficial stories about people who weren’t even in the room just so they wouldn’t talk about the elephant in the room. The reason: there’s too much talk, but too little conversation.
Listening is one of the hardest things to do. But it’s one of the most important things we must learn to build healthy and lasting relationships, as well as care for the ones we’re already in. So that’s how I got very interested in listening techniques, like mindful listening and safe conversations. These techniques are not just to repair relationships that are struggling, but also to prevent a strong one from debilitating.
I hear you and you hear me
For this post I’ll talk about Safe Conversations. I believe this is a wonderful technique because it touches two key aspects of a relationship: the need to have an understanding through conversation and the need to feel safe in each other’s company. As I mentioned above, this is something we should have in all types of relationships.
The technique was created by the founders of Imago Therapy, Harville Hendrix, Ph.D, and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D. The objective is to actively listen to the other in a safe space, free of judgement and without criticizing, in order to understand our differences and similarities, and to see the other’s point of view not from where you stand, but from where he or she stands.
Something very important that they point out is that to create a safe space it’s not just about the verbal communication, but also about the non-verbal. Specifically, they mention eye contact. You don’t have to say anything, but if you’re glaring at the other person, your eyes say that you’re judging and you’re not open to what they have to say. This will either prevent them from saying what’s on their mind, or they’ll say it in a defensive way. So, to get started, turn it into a gaze, so the other person feels you’re open for this.
The creators of this technique consider there are three foundational tools to have a safe conversation. Here are the steps.
Mirroring – This step is where you actually listen to the other person and make an active effort to understand what they are saying, feeling or experiencing. It’s not about what you interpret, but what is actually being said. To do so, after the person talks you follow up with a summary: Let me see if I’ve got it, you said (add info here). Don’t assume you got it right. Go for an accuracy check: Did I get that? Now, dig deeper: Is there more about that?
Validation – After going through what the person has to say, they’ll probably feel vulnerable. This is a moment to reinforce that this is a safe place. So continue with a phrase that implies validation. What they are saying has value, so make sure they know it with something like: That makes sense to me.
Empathy – Now is the moment to process what you’ve heard. Don’t think about how this makes you feel, but how this makes the person you’re talking to feel. Now that you’ve thought about it, start the conversation with this phrase: I imagine you might be feeling (add your information here).
As you can probably imagine, this goes both ways.
Something important to have in mind is that this is a process, and it won’t be easy at first. Relationships require time and dedication, especially when a part of it has been broken. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to trust and to feel safe won’t happen in one conversation, but with time it is possible. Don’t give up if the first time doesn’t go as expected. Try again. Then make it part of your routine and, with time, it’ll even become the normal way to communicate with the people you care about. A conversation has more value when it goes deeper and when what’s being transmitted is more than just words, but also emotions.