Conversation Techniques Can Move People Past Conflict to Connection

Dallas-based therapists offer ground rules for the Thanksgiving dinner conversation in a virtual world

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The pandemic will mean fewer people around the table for Thanksgiving and more people gathered 'round a device for a virtual connection.

"Zoom is an effective way to communicate, that people are experiencing emotional connection even when they can't physically touch," said Dr. Harville Hendrix, a relationship expert in Dallas with decades of experience. "Human beings are wired to connect with others."

Yet even the virtual space may require ground rules.

"We will recommend that people do make Zoom calls, set limits on how long you're going to be on it because there's another thing called zoom fatigue but set limits on it, and then talk like we're talking now. Somebody talks, the other person listens, mirror them back. These are all conversational techniques that make it possible to connect," Hendrix said.

Hendrix and wife and partner Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt have written more than 10 books with more than four million copies sold, including Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. The book led Hendrix to 17 appearances on the Oprah Winfrey television show and the nickname, "Oprah's marriage whisperer."

They've since expanded their reach through Safe Conversations, an educational organization that teaches people relationship skills. The program started as a social experiment in Dallas and has now trained over 575,000 people in 24 countries around the world with workshops offered in many places.

"It's a big challenge to have a safe conversation because it means it means you talk to another person without criticizing them. It also means when you're on the listening side that you listen without judging what they're saying and that you instead, listen deeply so that you can connect with that person beyond your differences. And differences are everywhere. Everybody has differences and you want to connect beyond your differences. That's fundamentally the definition of a safe conversation," Harville explained.

"I love our phrase, shift from judgment to curiosity and wonder," Hunt advised. "Instead of slamming the other person or disagreeing, get curious and ask them, tell me about you think that."

Hendrix and Hunt have a history that goes back more than 40 years. A friendship led to marriage but a decade in, both were ready for divorce. They openly share that experience and the pledge that made a difference: zero negativity.

Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt describes how zero negativity saved her marriage to Dr. Harville Hendrix, both are Dallas-based therapists.

"And that is an agreement that you will always say something positive and affirming. And if you want something different from what's happening, you will ask for it rather than criticize about not having it. So zero negativity means you take negative energy out of the conversation. And we have found this has transformed more couples than probably anything else we've done," Hendrix said.

"Zero negativity is not what you say. It's how you say it. You can bring up your difficult issues and things you're mad about but Safe Conversation teaches you to bring it up in a way that's more likely for the other person to engage and address the issues you're frustrated with," Hunt said. "We have the marriage of our dreams. And even the hopeless couple out there or hopeless relationship, do not give up. Don't ever give up."

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