Hey, it’s Marie Forleo and you are watching MarieTV, the place to be to create a business and life you love. And speaking of love, if you’re someone who wants to have a relationship that actually works over the long term, this episode is a must watch.
Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt are partners in life and work. Together, they have written over 10 books, including three New York Times Best Sellers, and the mega hit Getting The Love You Want. Harville and Helen co-created Imago Relationship Therapy. Harville is a couple’s therapist, educator, and clinical trainer with over 40 years experience. He’s been on The Oprah Winfrey Show 18 times. Helen was installed in the Women’s Hall Of Fame for her leadership in the global women’s movement. Helen and Harville have been married for over 30 years, have six children, and live in Dallas, Texas.
Harville and Helen, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having us. We’re delighted.
I want to be just really clear about this to everyone watching. These two, they are genius, and I discovered them when Josh and I were having a really challenging time in our relationship, where it was one of those times where both of us were wanting to beat our head against the wall, and we weren’t communicating, and we weren’t listening.
And I discovered their work, wound up doing now two workshops with them, and I can tell you without a doubt we would not still have our relationship if it wasn’t for you two and your work, so thank you so much. I’ve been wanting to have this conversation for so long, so I’m thrilled that you’re here.
I believe that what you have put together, the body of work and the tools that you teach, when I experience the workshop, I’m like, “Why are we not teaching this in schools? Why doesn’t everyone know this?” We had such breakthroughs, and anyone else that I’ve sent and recommended to your workshop has had such tremendous breakthroughs. The times we’re living in right now, they’re challenging. Tell us about your mission about being, and this is a note that I took at one of the workshops, about us being cultural disruptors.
Oh, so you want to start with that?
You’re the one that came up with the mission.
Okay, okay. The mission as cultural disruptors, I think that I need to start with… Our lane in the bowling alley is actually working privately with couples, so therefore we’re either in a workshop, a public workshop, or in an office, and two things have gotten clear to us over the years. One is that what changes couples in the privacy of the office or in a workshop is something that can be extracted from that environment and put in the public domain. The second thing is that we became aware that we are entrepreneurial and we are interested in a new culture, interested in a healthy environment, but you can’t get that by working just in the privacy of the clinic or in workshops.
You actually have to address, I sometimes think assault, the culture itself, because what was clear is that what goes on in the clinic that people bring as problems are culturally-induced, and if you don’t deal with the culture that induces the problem that shows up in the clinic, then the culture will keep sending people to the clinic, to workshops, and so forth. We began to think about moving out of the clinic into the public and doing what we call relationship education, and do it at such a scale that it be called a movement, so we could actually get attention, not for attention’s sake, but so that we begin to rethink the nature of relationship and rethink the kind of environment in which that relationship is possible and can be sustained.
So to do that, you have to change the value system of the culture, and the value system of Western civilization has been the individual, and look inside yourself and look out for yourself, and that is the best thing you can do for yourself. What we’ve discovered is that is not actually right, that we all live in a context, we all live in relationship, we live in an interconnecting universe, and if we just look out for ourselves, then we’re actually going against nature. That when we look out for others, that’s in our best interest, because that sustains the connection.
We want to facilitate, and as much as we could possible and get as many people as we can to join us, because nobody can do this by themselves. We want to move toward creating a relational civilization in which everybody is equal, everybody is safe, and all conversations are safe. That’s sort of what we’re up to.
Let me just add to that, there’s a micro and a macro, so you started off saying, “This stuff should be taught in school. We teach so many other things. What’s important to people is their relationships. Why don’t we teach relationships in school?” And the answer is that, until recently, the relational sciences have been very murky. Like people, there is marriage therapy, people would go to marriage therapy. I did, got a divorce. He did, he got a divorce. It wasn’t always a very precise science.
In the 1990s, there were breakthroughs in neuroscience and a few other things that made it now, the marriage therapists are now much more effective at working with the couples, and so effective that exactly what you’re saying, “It should be taught in school.” It could even be taught in kindergarten, and we have a story about that we can tell you later. But also, the big one Marie, marriage licenses. Shouldn’t it be like driver’s licenses? Oh my goodness, you’re about to make the most important decision in your life. Shouldn’t you read a book and have to pass a test before and show some proficiency before you get your license?
Oh my goodness, people marry and they just have these terrible wrecks, and it’s just heartbreaking, and their hearts break. But we could, before getting a marriage license, there could be some things that are helped that couples can learn to do, and we could easily lower divorce rate. We could really end divorce on the planet if we did school and pre-marriage work.
That’s the micro of what we’re doing, and then I just love that I’m married to this man who just is so cosmic in the vision that it’s also doing couple by couple, it looks like we’re doing couples work or family work, but it’s toward building a relational culture and a new relational civilization.
It’s so inspiring, and again, I’ve experienced it firsthand, which is why we’re having this conversation right now. I remember when I discovered about safe conversations, and about how, because I didn’t understand how your work was broadening out into the culture, and I got so excited. But let’s bring it back just for a moment to the Imago Dialogue Process, because I feel like that tool is so transformative, and when Josh and I learned it and actually started practicing it, and we still use it.
I can think of a few months ago, we were butting heads and I was like, “We need to dialogue. We need to dialogue immediately.” And it took a fight that was at a 9 or a 10 where both of us felt so frustrated, and within three or four minutes, we were hugging and I was crying, and I had softened up. I’m like, “This is magic.” For those who may not have been exposed to your work yet, can you explain just the structure of the Imago Dialogue Process, and why this works like magic?
I’m not sure why it works like magic.
We don’t get it either.
We keep getting that report. It works in our marriage too, so we made up theories about why it works like magic, and part of the theory comes from people who report, as you’re doing, that it does do that. I’ll tell you what it is first, and then my thought about, and your thought about, why does it work so well. It’s a structured conversation. That’s the first thing, and the structure turns out to be important, because most of us think we know how to talk. It’s just like we think we know how to be in a relationship, or we know how to be a parent, or there are lots of things we think just come with nature, and if you have to learn about it, “No, I just want to be free and flow that.”
We discovered that in the clinic, couples come there to talk, but if we allow them to talk, they hurt themselves like they do outside of the clinic, so we created a structured way they could talk, and it’s basically a three step process, which is if you want to talk to Joe, you have to say, “Is now a good time to have a conversation?” That’s the first structure is that you make an appointment, and most of us never do that. I call it movie house crashers. I walk in to your movie house, and you’re running your movie, and you’re really engaged, which is your inner world. I walk in to your theater and throw my movie on your screen and say, “By the way, would you look at my movie and turn yours off?”
That’s the way most conversations start is the collision of two people who are in their own worlds, so if you say, “Is now a good time to talk,” then I can say, “I’d like to finish my movie first,” or “Sure, I’ll be glad to turn off my movie and talk.” And especially if you tell me what you want to talk about, so “Is now a good time to talk about our sex life or where we’re going for dinner or whatever you want to talk about?” Put a topic in there so that I know what I’m turning my movie off to talk about, because otherwise I may turn it off and you’re going to say, “I want to discuss the budget or why you didn’t call me yesterday,” and I may not want to talk about that right now, so I can say no. The first thing of the structure is the appointment.
If you say no, then you say when you are available.
Yeah, which means there has to be a promise and a predictability, which also creates what we think is the non-negotiable quality of any healthy relationship is safety. “I have to know when I’m with you I’m not going to be hurt by you,” and I mean by hurt, not even frowned at or glared at or especially talked to in a bad tone of voice, or even worse, bad words like I’m a jerk or something like that.
Then the second, so when you start talking, what’s important is that Joe or you, whoever is listening, listens, and that they say back, so they do what we call mirroring. The mirror is, “So if I got it, you want to talk about and are talking about what happened last night at the dinner table, or when we want to send our kid to college,” whatever it was. I’m mirroring back with accuracy. Accuracy is a problem, because the brain retains, in a resting state, only about 13 percent of what’s coming into it, because the brain’s running its own movie and it’s very hard to let in other stuff.
You have to say, “Did I get it?” And that’s the checkout. Joe may say, “Well, that was pretty good,” or “Well, I also said,” something like that, and you want to get it as accurate as possible, because the brain wants to be fully mirrored, doesn’t want a partial mirror, and so it’s important if somebody feels they didn’t get fully mirrored, to say, “Well that was a third of what I said or a fourth of what I said, but I also said some other things that I would also like to be sure you heard. Can I send that again?” That’s the accuracy thing.
Then we come to what Helen and I call the magic question, which is, “Is there more about that?” Just even saying it does something, because most people say, “Are you done yet? Can I talk now? I would like to talk now,” or “I’ve heard enough from you, I want to tell you about me.” But if you do that, you activate a defense, and therefore the conversation now has changed, and you’re into some competition for the conversational space instead of in a flow.
And you know when you’re in that and you don’t like it, but you don’t know how to get out of it, and most people don’t know how to get out of it, so if you say, “Is there more about that?” and you say it with interest, the partner’s defenses relaxes, because now instead of knowing that you’re about to take the reins, they know you just handed the reins back and that you’re saying, “I’m interested in you.” It brings up almost tears in my feeling just to talk about the meaning of experiencing interest. Defenses relax, then you access words about your inner state that you have not put into words before, and so you discover you’re saying something new, and your partner is hearing something new.
So that starts to become a creative process, deepening and creative process. The person will listen and mirror all that back with accuracy, and when the person says, “Is there more?” and the partner says, “No, I think I’m done, I got all that, well let me see if I got it all,” and I want to summarize it. If I got it all, “You said A, B, and C,” and so forth, “Did I get it all?” “Yeah, you got it all.”
Then the second step, those are sub-steps within mirroring, but then the second big step is called validation. Validation is a bigger step. I can listen to you, and I can get what you’re saying, and I cannot judge it or criticize it, but now I have to say something like, “You make sense.” And that means, for many people, that I disagree with you, therefore you don’t make sense. If when I say, “You make sense,” I have to be clear and you have to be clear that I’m seeing the sense you’re making, because you have an inner world of your own, that has its own inner logic, and when I listen to it, I will see that you’re a logical person.
I think we first discovered this in working many many years ago in a mental health hospital with a schizophrenic who said he was Jesus, and listening to him long enough, I became clear that he made sense that he was Jesus. When I mirrored that back, he said, “Well, actually my name is John.” He re-compensated, and then after you say, “Well, you make sense,” you say, “And the sense you make is I can do empathy and I can imagine you must feel the emotion with that thought that had, you must feel that.”
You must do mirroring, validating, and empathizing. You want to pick up?
Maybe just to add, there’s a phrase that I love that, “Voice without echo dies,” and you may live in a relationship and maybe you don’t realize your partner’s longing to tell you who they are and tell you what’s really going on in their life, but if you’ve made your partner up and you think you know what’s going on with your partner, you don’t ask, they can’t even tell you how they feel or what they want.
It’s beautiful when couples become echoes for them to help bring both into the voice, into their voice in the relationship, and I love, I don’t hear you often talk about how when you’re being mirrored, often when a person is mirroring you and then they say, “Is there more,” you can then say things that you didn’t know you knew. New ideas come up, and so it’s really learning, it’s really teaching a couple to slow down and become present for each other’s experiencing. Everyone is just longing to feel understood and loved and cared about, but also just be understood. It is a transformational process, as you’ve said.
And we’ve thought for many years that you would do that so you could solve a problem, and then we discovered that doing that solves the problem.
Because the relationship becomes safe.
Because they take turns talking, and it’s not okay just to come in and start talking about something with a tone and a look in the eye that the person feels anxious. It’s no anxiety in the relationship. It’s learning to live with safety in the between.
Yeah, and being present to each other is the solution, not figuring out a solution.
It’s counterintuitive, and it took us what, 20 years of working with couples, trying to help them work things out? That’s even a phrase in the culture, “Work things out.” Well, if you can connect through a safe structure of conversation and be present to each other, as Helen said, with safety, without judgment, that is the solution and you don’t need anything else after that. Most of your complaints was that was missing, and now that that’s there, it’s like, “Well, I don’t care where we go to dinner. I just love being with you.”
Two reflections to share with you: Doing what I do in the world, I have been to many different types of learning experiences and seminars and workshops, and have given some myself, and I found it fascinating… I was actually telling my team about this earlier. I think it was in the first Getting The Love You Want workshop that I did with you guys out at Omega. The way that you ran the workshop, it was fascinating to me, because it was really about teaching us the tools and the structure, and you were so expert, because I could feel sometimes folks maybe wanted to ask questions, and you were amazing at expertly driving people back into the structure of the dialogue.
It felt like everyone’s questions melted away, similar to what you just shared. “Well, I have this problem. I don’t think this is going to work.” But if they’d come back and use the structure, it actually does dissolve whatever was gnawing at them initially, and I’ve also experienced that personally where I’m like, “No, I’ve got to make my point right now.” And then I’m like, “Nope, dialogue,” and I come back to it, and exactly what you said, we wind up, whatever that thing was is so far gone and melted, and what is revealed is this sense of intimacy and joy that I think so many of us are starving for.
I also want to say something else. In this context, because we’re living in such a fast-paced world, where we’re constantly connected to technology and everyone’s constantly looking at their phones, and everyone wants something quick quick quick, and so I’ve developed this gift over the past seven years where I can hear my audience. As I’m having a conversation with you guys, I can also hear people’s like, “But what about, or what about,” and their questions. For anyone listening right now who is going, “Wow, but that sounds like a lot of work,” or “Wow, that sounds so stilted and to talk in this way feels artificial,” and I remember even my own mind threw up those types of concerns when I first was learning this from you.
I just want to say for anyone listening, again as someone who prides myself on being a lifelong learner and the pace of life that we’re in right now, there’s nothing more healing than actually learning this structure and putting it to use on a regular basis. I feel like it’s the perfect antidote for me in my experience of the hectic pace of life, and it brings me back to what I most want, which is not necessarily more external success or notoriety or anything like that, but a sense of feeling safe and loved. And I just want to say that.
Thank you for…
I have to say, I don’t like the structure either. In fact, we invented it and probably didn’t actually use it in a regular way for the first 15 years of our marriage. We’ve experienced the challenge and the collapse.
Yeah, early on. You want to tell her about early on?
Yeah, why don’t you tell her about that?
No. You tell her about that.
About the saying I wrote… is that the quote? That I wrote this book and I teach it, but I don’t do it.
Yeah, no. That was great. Well, that was the other thing that I loved. I don’t want to interrupt the flow, but that was the other thing that I loved about your workshop, was because I’ve again experienced so many different modalities, but oftentimes I feel like people who have something to offer, at least in an old paradigm, it was almost as if they know better and they’re here to kind of share this wisdom from a mountain, and what I loved about being in your presence was that half the workshop was like, “We wrote this book, but then we’re weren’t practicing it, and here was the outcome, and now we do practice it, and it works.” And it was just lovely.
Yeah, you have to get in the trenches and I’m an academic so I could figure it out, and for a long while I was not even interested in doing it.
So, shall I…
Yeah, why don’t you?
Mention something that you were saying just about how artificial it seems. Like, “Oh, this structure,” and many people respond that way at first, and they go, “I want to be authentic. I’m not gonna use this structure,” and in our workshops and working with couples, everyone suddenly realizes after they begin using it that it provides safety, and also I will mention to your viewing audience that men love the structure better than the women. So, hello.
You know, it used to be, “Honey, can we talk?” “Oh, no. No.” The fear of oh no, but if it’s taking turns talking, guys love the fact that when they’re talking, if their partner tends to be more the talker, that they’ve got their time and their partner stops their own conversation, mirrors back, and says, “Is there more?” and then all this stuff that men are slow to bring into the relationship, it’s suddenly safe to bring it, and they’re not interrupted, and they’re not told that they shouldn’t think that way. They have the right to their own feeling and point of view, and…
And I think part of that is that they know what’s coming next.
Oh, yeah. That’s good.
You know, we’ve learned from the neurosciences that the brain needs prediction in order for it to feel safe.
So, if I know that we’re going to have a dialogue, and not just you’re gonna talk, I don’t know what you’re gonna say. But if we’re gonna have a dialogue, I know what’s coming next. I’m gonna mirror or you’re gonna mirror and we’re gonna do this thing, so it creates safety.
I also wanted to follow up on what you said right after Harville explained it, you said, “Now, that sounds like a lot, and in the workshop I thought, ‘Oh,’ but then when you did it in the workshop, when you were saying how you were experiencing it, what happens too, Marie, we believe is you said you had all these points that you wanted to make to Josh.
You know? And he was now stuck all weekend where you could make the points to him, but then you were invited into just becoming present for each other, but then it was so wonderful. And yes, we encourage couples, if I were to summarize what you said, to have a better relationship, it’s really about shifting from judgment to curiosity and wonder. That we’re taught in our world to get things right. We’re taught to predicate, like, speak words and our parents are so proud of our children and we can say words well or our kindergarten teacher gives us gold stars if we can do things before the other kids and if we do book reports in high school we get great grades, we go to a good college, graduate from a good college making speeches and book and analyzing things, we get to get a better job and we’re rewarded for talking and making a case well. But no one rewards us for listening and no one rewards us for being curious.
But what our partner is longing for is for us to be curious about them and wonder what’s going on and I could always throw in then what I was doing wrong in our marriage, since Harville mentioned you want to hear about me and what a jerk I was?
Yeah, but for me, when I proposed and when I heard he wanted to write a book and he told me what was in the book, and we had been dating and I thought, “Oh, I just want to help get this book written,” so I proposed marriage to him, even though we fought a lot on our dating, I thought, “I just gotta help get this book written,” and so I also wanted to help him improve his wardrobe, and his social skills.
I’m from high society. He’s a sharecropper’s son so, I was gonna tell him what he did wrong at dinner. No one was laughing at the jokes. They laugh sometimes now but it wasn’t funny. He thought it was funny. His paring skills needed tweaking and so I … and I’m real good with technical assistance. I’m very succinct and I’m accurate and I wasn’t even gonna charge him. But for some reason, he totally was miserable.
So one day I realized that he just wanted me to ask him how he was feeling every day and that’s… and ask him… So I suddenly realized poor Harville. Other people will tell him if he has spinach between his teeth, right? I don’t have to do that. It’s all about shifting from judgment to curiosity and wonder. If you do that in your relationship, you begin to have the relationship of your dreams.
I want to move on to one of the second lessons that was huge. I want to talk about how toxic negativity is, both from a neuroscience perspective and then maybe we can talk a little bit about the zero negativity challenge.
Yeah. Shall I start off with that or would you like to do it?
We don’t usually tell the story of the fortune cookie. Should I tell this?
Oh the fortune cookie, you tell that one.
Okay. Our marriage was so miserable that we lived in New York City, top therapist in the world, so I said, “Harville, we need to see a therapist.” I dragged him to a therapist so the therapist would fix him and we were smarter than that therapist so we fired that therapist and we went to another therapist and they weren’t very smart either so we fired them and anyway that went on, and the fifth therapist called us the couple from hell and said they didn’t want to see us anymore so they fired us as a client.
We had no choice so we went to the divorce lawyers. They drew up papers and so we announced that to our children and we announced it to the Imago community, the community of therapists that had come together to learn this, and then after a while, it was so sad, such a low point in my life, but then something happened and Harville said, “Look, why don’t we try again? Why don’t we start going on some dates?”
So we went out on a date and what were we gonna do on a date? Go to a bookstore. That’s what we loved to do, so we went to the bookstore instead of going to philosophy and psychology, I said, “Why don’t we go to the occult section? I’d love to learn to read your palm and we can do palm reading and do something that we don’t usually do.” We found a book on relationships.
That’s it. So you take his birthday and my birthday and it gives you a message for any couple, and this couple and so it said… we sat down on the floor and opened it up and it said, “You’re about to decimate your relationship unless you give up with all the scrutiny you give each other.” Oh my goodness. I looked around. I thought, “Who knew?” We were scrutinizing each other just every day. We bought the book, took it home, and then… Oh, I think also we got a fortune cookie that said something about the negativity in our relationship, so I said, “Harville, why don’t at the end of every day, let me get a calendar and let me see if we can make it through one day without negativity.” I wasn’t being negative, I was helping Harville. I wasn’t being negative, but it landed negatively on him, the definition of negativity if you experience something is negative. You can think you’re being funny, you’re telling a funny joke, but if your partner isn’t laughing, you may have said something that was really negative.
So at the end of the day if we made it through a day, we’d get a smiley face and at the end of the day if either of us had negativity, we did a frowny face and we’d just, frowny face, frowny face, frowny face. We were trying so hard not to be negative, but that we practiced, practiced, and eventually it began to change and we learned it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. You should be able to say anything if you’re “giving up negativity,” but our process teaches a couple how to bring up any topic in a way that’s less negative and if it’s less negative, then their partner, there’s more incentive for their partner to hear and take it in.
Because the negative transaction, to give it a definition, is a put down.
And it can be mild put down like, “What?” or a really gross put down like, “I don’t ever want to see you again. You really are…” whatever and call you by names. You were talking about the neurochemistry of that is that it’s really interesting that negativity activates the emotional brain, the amygdala, in the limbic system and just starts squirting cortisol into the system, and cortisol makes you feel wary and alert and like you’re looking for the predator and it’s a very old mechanism in the brain. The emotional brain is the oldest, is the second oldest mechanism in the brain.
Anyway, so when you feel that deluge of cortisol, then you just go into alert and you obviously then insulate yourself with a protective armor and you’re aware of everything so you really can’t connect then. You can’t relate then. You can be tactical and strategic but you can’t be relational, because to be relational you have to be vulnerable and you can’t be vulnerable if you’re defended, so it does that and some people live off of cortisol and because that’s the only stimulant they get and we want to be stimulated, we want to feel alive. You feel really alive when you are looking for the tiger that may be going to pounce on you in a few minutes or in the form of your partner, don’t know what’s gonna happen.
The neurochemistry of that is very… it’s not only powerful and it’s self absorbing. You can’t see another person for who they really are when you’re into that state. It’s powerful, it’s self absorbing, and can become addictive. Many people, I think what we noticed was when we finally began to see our relationship, because we didn’t have so many problems, we just have a tonal problem which was how we talked with each other about the problems, made the problems seem monumental and never solved because we were always into the tone. As we’ve been able to sort that out and talk to couples about that, nearly every couple says, “Yeah, I know that. I get that.” When you go to a connecting process, even though it’s difficult and different and challenging without judgment, then the problem is solvable because you’re not having to deal with the emotional injuries you give each other along the way.
We’ve said it’s just absolutely necessary. For a long time we thought it was like a luxury and could you ask couples to do that, and then finally the logic of the Imago system itself is one day I said, “You know, the logic of the system is zero negativity, because it’s absolute safety.”
And you’re not safe if your partner puts you down.
Or if you put your partner down, they’re not safe and without safety you can’t connect anyway, so you have to take out all of the negativity that triggers the amygdala because if you don’t do that, you will never trigger the endorphins, because you can’t have endorphins and cortisol at the same time. In the endorphins you have a good feeling and with cortisol you have this wary feeling that I’m in danger.
I want to say, and give Helen credit for this, is that Helen came up with this calendar idea, which I hated. It was like, you gotta be kidding. We have to sit here every night and for a while we did markers and we’d have a red marker if we got through a day and a black marker if we didn’t, and the first three, probably three, months, there were maybe two red check marks and all the other…
We were trying our best.
Eighty eight were black. But we got two.
And we’re marriage experts.
So if you’ve got two, you can get three.
You have to keep reminding us of this, but this one thing is that we don’t ask couples to do anything we haven’t done and especially anything that doesn’t work, because we tried it all ourselves. I think Helen says in public that “if you think your marriage is bad, you should see our marriage, and if you think you can’t make it, we made it. You can make it. You can’t get much worse.”
We have the marriage of our dreams now. It just took a while. But every day I’m just the luckiest woman on the planet waking up and I tell him that at least twice a day.
Well, it’s mutual. Just to have a partner, I mean this is the other thing of graciousness and gratitude, just have a working partner. Not somebody who says, “Well, you do the best you can and I’m gonna be myself,” but you both have to agree that you’re going to ride this donkey together and we call that a conscious partnership. It’s not a competition. It’s a partnership and so you have to engage in the same behaviors. You’re gonna blow it, but you have a partner who says, “Well, let’s try it again,” instead of, “I’m outta here,” or whatever.
And the donkey happens to be learning to love, which is like the most important task we’re given as human beings is trying to learn to love someone. In most of the great world religions, the compassion is the highest form of human potential. Any of the world religions and being raised Christian, I think, Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” There were ten commandments. He said, “There are two commandments and they’re equal. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s all about love. I’m married to someone who has learned to help people learn love. Keep the love of romance instead of inevitably the romantic love turns to disillusionment. It’s cute, the donkey image. I think donkey? We’re riding a donkey?
Just a metaphor.
But Jesus was on the donkey.
But I was thinking of Jesus.
Get on the horse, get in the buggy, something. But you got to get in together and close the door and say, “We’re not getting out of this buggy and no matter how bad it gets in here,” and you know what happens when you do that? You say, “Well, if it’s not gonna get… if we’re not… if we can’t get off this train, I think I’m gonna have to change.”
“I don’t want to live the way we’re living, because I’ve always had an exit,” which 50% of couples take, is the divorce. We went actually through the divorce papers. But if you say, “I’m not getting off the train,” then it has to get better. That’s one of the benefits of closing the door to the exit.
Something happens then in your brain, because your brain’s always wanting to get out of the pain too, but if there’s no way off this train except to change and make it safe here, then all of your creativity will begin to move in the direction of the welfare of the brain because the brain wants to be safe, because it knows that’s the only way it will survive, or thrive. It can survive without safety but it can’t thrive without safety. It doesn’t want to just sit there, surviving, because the brain’s got stuff to do, unless it’s scared and then it only has one thing to do, stay alive. If it doesn’t have to stay alive, then it’s got lots of things to do, like creativity and exploration and curiosity and that’s our true nature when it expresses itself, until the negativity comes.
When Harville was doing this a minute ago, when I kept asking him what would he write in his book and da da da, and we kept dating and dating and I said, finally I said, “Oh, Harville. This reminds me of Martin Buber.” He said, “Ah. I don’t like Martin Buber. What does this… what does this remind you of?” I said, “Well, Martin Buber, the Jewish mystic, said that if two people learn to shift from treating each other as an I/It, like you’re an It to make my life happy and maybe you feel the same to an I/Thou, where two people learn to serve each other, Buber says that the universal energies begin to flow through the two people and into the space between. He said, “Oh, that’s gobbledygook,” back then when I first raised it. But then, more and more began to take that idea and really that’s how Harville is understanding that the power isn’t necessarily me getting mentally healthier, fixed by a therapist or Harville fixed by a therapist or his spiritual retreat or psychology retreat or whatever. It’s not either of us getting fixed. If both of us learn to fix the between, the collateral is we get healthier. It’s the between that needs doctoring. Harville is so brilliant at saying simply what is needed to help couples connect. He has now moved the theories matured where it’s really about taking care of the between.
I think that’s a great place to start talking about your work with communities and Safe Conversations 360. I was on the website, which by the way looks fantastic.
It’s doing such a great job. I felt like there was some very sobering stats on the website that I pulled. Just in terms of the state of relationship in our lives and the impact that negativity and having negative relationships chronically over the long term can have on us as individuals and as a society. You have 100% of people in a negative relationship have a greater risk of cardiac death. That’s 100%. So 100% of people in a negative relationship have a greater risk of cardiac death and a 60% drop of productivity as a result of a breakdown in the marriage. There’s also one other thing that the breakdown of relationships leads to the breakdown of family, which leads to the breakdown of our economy, which leads to the breakdown of our culture. Do you want to tell us about your work that you’re doing now to take this again out of the clinic and beyond individuals and more towards society?
Yeah. I’d like to start it by saying that in 1977, we actually began this work in Helen’s living room when we were in one of our meltdowns. Helen said, why don’t we just stop and one of us talk and the other one listen? I’m a therapist and go to my office that day or had just come from it. That was the beginning of the dialogue process. Then we experimented with it and introduced it to couples and couples gave us feedback. We finally got these three steps that I was talking about. That became the therapeutic intervention named Imago. That’s what we became clear is in fact, there was a research project with kindergarten kids actually in Israel. Long ago now. They taught kindergarten kids dialogue. These kids picked it up and began to train their parents in dialogue. They wanted their parents to listen. They would say to their parents, mirror me, mirror me. The parent said, you’ve been given enough information to know other kids were doing it.
These kids were followed all the way through to high school. Nobody else in the school learned this. This was just one class, one researcher who wanted to see this. If they’d known what was gonna happen, they probably would’ve taught the whole school. This one class were the most relationally competent and emotionally resilient class in school. They stood out as being just human beings who knew how to operate with other human beings and to thrive. That was long ago. We didn’t do much about that. We just said, that’s really interesting. Things like that began to help us understand that dialog, which we rebranded as Safe Conversation for the Dallas project and for this project, could become the language of everybody. That talking is the most dangerous thing people do and listening is the most infrequent thing people do. When you talk with judgment, then you will polarize. If you can talk without judgment, you can connect beyond your differences. That difference is the big challenge everybody has.
How am I gonna deal with you if you are African American, if you are Muslim, if you’re evangelical Christian, or Christian, or a Democrat, or Republican? Everybody is different. Everything in the whole universe is different. There’s no particle like another particle. Similar, but not identical. The difference is the nature of nature. There’s a push on the human side of nature that you have to be like me in order for you to be accepted by me. Our group is the group and we see these things. About, what was it? About seven years later.
Why don’t I take over here. About seven or eight years ago, Harville had this vision. He had said earlier, Helen, don’t people get it? The healthy couple is the upriver prevention that prevents downriver cleanup. I thought it was amazing when he said that. That we wouldn’t have to put funding into chemical addiction and teen pregnancy and street gangs if kids liked being at home and they retain what they learn at school and they’d be better students, if their parents weren’t fighting. I just thought that was so awesome, he said that. Then he said it’s gotten so lasered and simple. Let’s get this out of the clinic and into the culture. He suggested we pull together the other top relationship scientists in the culture. We contact John and Julie Gottman, Sue Johnson and her beloved who’s a businessman working with behind her wonderful therapy, Ellyn and Pete Bader, Dan and Caroline Segal, an interpersonal neurobiologist works with couples and his wife. We met about and maybe two or three others. We met.
They said yes, this shouldn’t just be in the therapy offices. Let’s get it out. We met twice a year and they decided that Harville and I should go and experiment in one city and see if we could get it into one city. Maybe after that city, that someone would get a documentary done and it would go to other cities. We went to Dallas about four years ago. We didn’t want to start an organization. We just said, does anyone want this workshop? We have a five hour workshop. We had reduced our 18 hour workshop to five hours. The low income part of Dallas wanted it. They said, let’s take your workshop. We’ll do a Spanish translation of the PowerPoint slides and of the manual. Harville and I made little cartoons. We gave it to 50 couples. They had simultaneous translation there. I didn’t realize. I thought more would be bilingual than there were. Really most of them didn’t speak any English. Several of them couldn’t even read. Out of that 50 couples, they loved it five hours later. It was like, oh wow.
We had provided daycare. They said, you changed our marriage. Our whole community needs this. Please do this again as soon as possible. We’ll bring our friends. A month later, Pinkston High School, the low income part of Dallas. Then it began six months later, the governor heard… I mean, sorry. The mayor heard what we were doing. He said, he invited us to be on the mayor’s poverty task force. They get it that strengthening the family, strengthens the economics of the city. The breakdown that the family exacerbates the downward spiraling of poverty. You want to take over from there? We now have a training program. People are coming to get trained in teaching this in their different ecosystems. In addition to dialogue and teaching a couple to problem solve together called converting your frustration into a wish. You learn to ask for what you want in a healthy relationship. We teach communallogue where people can do this in groups. People are coming from and they’re coming and then they’re taking it to the police stations and to schools and they get training.
And to veterans.
To veterans. All parts of Dallas. There’s a Chinese group in Dallas and an Indian community in Dallas. By popular demand, the transcendent stems that Harville said was the threes steps of dialogue. They’ve now been translated into-
In Hebrew, in Farsi. People have said not only are you fixing the distance between the couple, there’s so much terfism in Dallas. There’s a low income community in Dallas and a wealthy. It’s called the tale of two cities. Dallas doesn’t like that they feel like they are the tale of two cities. People have told us you’re now healing the connection between the different parts of Dallas. It’s just such beautiful work.
The numbers have grown. We started off with 50 and then we got up to about a thousand couples, which was really amazing that you can actually… it was a condensed workshop like the one that you went through. I think it was a six hour workshop in a huge colosseum. Then we streamed it. Discovered streaming. I didn’t know much about streaming. The executive director who was doing that, streamed it. I think now it has been picked up in 175 countries.
By over 500,000 people. What’s exciting about that is what helps a couple in the clinic, will help anybody in any ecosystem. If you improve talking, i.e., without judgment so that you can connect, you actually help satisfy the deepest yearning of the human heart. It’s sad that we human beings don’t know naturally how to do that. We have to learn that just like you have to learn how to be married. You don’t know how to be married because you don’t know how to talk. What works there, and you were giving those statistics, which I’m delighted that you have put out because I don’t carry all those numbers around in my head. I just know that the negativity in relationships that produces stress in marriages, produces stress in kids, is the source of at least nine major social human problems all the way from the divorce to domestic abuse, children’s functioning in school, addictions, violence, crime, just go on down the list that we pour money into the symptom.
You can’t fix this problem by treating symptoms. You can maybe reduce a symptom for a little while. The cause is the stress in primary relationships. That stress shows up in a corporation in the way the bosses and employees relate to each other or the way the bosses relate to each other. There’s a family overlay because everybody comes out of a group called a family and they take that into their workplace, into their worship place, into the learning place, and all kinds of things happen and you wonder what is going on here. What’s going on here is the past is repeating itself in the present. The past doesn’t know how to connect. It doesn’t know how to relate. We lost that early in childhood. The human race has not, generically across generations, known how to be safe. Obviously we wouldn’t have a civilization built on war, which we do have. Although there is now a new theory out that I really love which is that civilization did not progress by war. It progressed by the common people between the wars creating new communities of empathy and stabilize.
The war was a disruption of that. There’s something in us that knows what we need but not in the skills to know how to get what we need and sustain it. Helen and I, we’re older and we won’t say how old. We’ve already run our laps. We don’t really have anything else we have to do because we… I don’t know if we even want to do it. We just decided we’d test this. We tested on whole ecosystems the size of a city. It’s moving through that city. And as a result of the exposure through the streaming, it’s now participating by seven countries, 38 states, and I think about 450 people have decided to be trained leaders to pick it up and start delivering it in their ecosystems and their cities and their states.
It’s really bizarre the work in Dallas has parts that are hard to it. Particularly explaining to people what it is we do. We love you for many reasons. Part of it is you get the importance of this. What is so easy and rhapsodically wondrous is the training program. We had put money into getting a sophisticated training program. It’s agenda we type up the night before and just PowerPoint slides and little money in marketing. I mean, the last workshop a woman I didn’t even know, she came in from Singapore. She flew in. We usually only have about 30, 35, but they fly in. A couple recently flew in from Switzerland into the training program. One of our trainees who flew in from New York, Pollyanne Baldwin, they took it to Africa. They did it where?
Yes. Sorry. I didn’t know the name of the country. Then one woman came from the Chinese community in Dallas. Da, da, da, da, da. Then she took it to China and another had took it to the Indian community in Dallas. Then she went to India and taught it in a school there. This little work we’re doing, it’s the holy spirit flapping her wings just all over the place. It’s how I think about it because it’s all unanticipated. We had no idea that our little effort in Dallas would attract interest so far and wide.
I hope that it continues to. I just want to let you finish. I feel like you have one more thing, Harville. Yes. Go for it.
I was just gonna say that I think we have enough proof now and that end credibility that we’re getting ready to go to scale. We don’t quite know what that means, but it means that we only have nine billion customers on the planet who we have to get to. Everybody talks and hardly anybody listens. What we do and when people want to know what do you do, had some people ask me the other day. What do you do? I said, I help people talk without polarizing. That’s what we do. It’s not complicated, it’s just hard to learn. It’s hard to practice, it’s hard to sustain it. It’s that simple.
Being able to talk to another human being without pissing them off and connecting with them so that you feel safe with that person and they feel safe with you. That is the desire of the human heart. I’m sure that’s what our true nature is. That’s why we work so hard. Everybody works so hard to try to do it, but without the technology, they blow it. This simple technology helps people do something that is our nature to be connected.
It is simple. That’s his gift. We’ve been called the Steve Jobs of relationships. We take something murky and ba, ba, ba, and he gets the credit. I asked him if we could write a book called Making Marriage Simple. That’s for the truck driver.
I’d like it too by the way.
And have cartoons. Like, just simple.
No big theories. It’s hard to internalize. You have to practice. If you practice it, you can do it. It’s not like it comes naturally. You’re really rewiring your brain. Shifting from that lower brain to the upper brain where you can problem solve and collaborate anyway.
I want to thank you guys so much from my heart to yours for the work that you do. Thank you guys. I’m telling you. Everyone who’s watching this right now, we’ll put links to their books. Anything that you guys do Safe Conversations, I know there was one last year around Thanksgiving that we broadcast out.
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I know some people in our audience, actually they wrote to me. They’re like, that was amazing. I’ll continue to support your work.
Just thank you for being you and for the difference that you’re making in the world.
Thank you for having us on and to be with you and to be able to talk about it. We appreciate you.
It’s an honor to be here.
You’re on the journey with us.
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