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To break from this insidious cycle, Learn to Look.

• Learn to look at content and conditions.

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• Look for when things become crucial.

• Learn to watch for safety problems.

• Look to see if others are moving toward silence or violence.

• Look for outbreaks of your Style Under Stress.





They had ltved together {or so many years that

they mistook their arguments for conversation.


Make It Safe How to Make It Safe to Talk

about Almost Anything

The last chapter contained a promise: If you spot safety risks as they happen, you can step out of the conversation, build safety,

and then find a way to dialogue about almost anything. In this chapter we’ll fulfill that promise by teaching what it takes to restore safety.

To get started, let’s examine a situation where safety is at risk. We’ll eavesdrop on a couple as they try to discuss one of the most delicate of topics-physical intimacy.

First a little background. Jotham thinks he and Yvonne are inti­ mate with each other far too seldom. Yvonne is satisfied with their physical relationship. For years the two have acted out rather than talked out their concerns. When Jotham wants to be amorous and




Yvonne doesn’t respond, he goes to silence. He pouts, says almost nothing, and avoids Yvonne for the next few days.

Yvonne knows what’s going on with Jotham. Occasionally she’ll go along with him even when she’s not feeling particularly romantic. She does this in hopes of avoiding Jotham’s pouting.

Unfortunately, she then feels resentful toward Jotham, and it’s much longer before she feels genuinely romantic toward him.

So here’s the game. The more Jotham insists and pouts, the less

attractive and interesting he is to Yvonne. The more Yvonne suc­ cumbs and then resents, the less she’s interested in the entire rela­ tionship. The more both of them act out rather than talk out this crucial conversation, the more likely they are to end up going their separate ways. Yvonne has decided to broach the subject with Jotham. Rather than waiting until they’re both upset, she’s picked a time when they’re relaxing on the couch. Here goes.

YVONNE: Jotham, can we talk about what happened last

night-you know, when I told you that I was tired?

JOTHAM: I don’t know if I’m in the mood.

YVONNE: What’s that supposed to mean?

JOTHAM: I’m sick and tired of you deciding when we do what !

YVONNE: (walks out)


Okay, let’s look at Yvonne. She tried to tackle a tough topic.

Good for her. She was already uncomfortable and her partner took a cheap shot at her. Some help he was. Now what should she do? How can she get back to honest and healthy dialogue?

What do you do when you don’t feel like it’s safe to share what’s on your mind?




The key is to step out of the content of the conversation. Don’t

stay stuck in what’s being said. Yvonne exited because she was

focused on what Jotham was saying. If she had been looking at

Jotham’s behavior, she would have spotted his use of sarcasm­

a form of masking. Rather than talking out his concern, he’s tak­

ing a potshot. Why would he do that? Because he doesn ‘t feel

safe using dialogue. But Yvonne missed this point. Now, we’re not suggesting that Jotham’s behavior is acceptable,

or that Yvonne should put up with it. But first things first-Start

with Heart. The first question is: “What do I really want?”

If you really want to have a healthy conversation about a topic

that will make or break your relationship, then for a moment or

two you may have to set aside confronting the current issue­

i.e., Jotham’s sarcasm.

Yvonne’s challenge here is to build safety-enough so that she

can talk about their physical relationship, about the way Jotham

is dealing with it, or about any other concerns. But if she doesn’t

make it safe, all she’s going to get is a continuation of the silence and violence games.

So, what should she do?

In these circumstances, the worst at dialogue do what both

Jotham and Yvonne did. Like Jotham, they totally ignore the cry­ ing need for more safety. They say whatever is on their minds­

with no regard for how it will be received. Or like Yvonne, they

conclude the topic is completely unsafe and move to silence.

The good realize that safety is at risk, but they fix it in exactly

the wrong way. They try to make the subject more palatable by

sugarcoating their message. “Oh, honey, I really want to be with

you but I’m under a lot of pressure at work, and the stress makes

i t hard for me to enjoy our time together. ” They try to make

th ings safer by watering down their content. This strategy, of

l:ourse, avoids the real problem, and it never gets fixed.




The best don’t play games. They know that dialogue is the free flow of meaning-with no pretending, sugarcoating, or faking. So they do something completely different. They step out of the content of the conversation, make it safe, and then step back in.

Once you’ve spotted safety problems, you can talk about the

most challenging of topics by stepping out of the content and

building enough safety that almost anything becomes discussable.

For example: “Can we change gears for a minute? I’d like to talk

about what happens when we’re not romantically in sync. It would

be good if we could both share what’s working and what isn’t. My

goal isn’t to make you feel guilty, and I certainly don’t want to

become defensive. What I’d really love is for us to come up with a

solution that makes us both satisfied in our relationship.”


Now, let’s look at a couple of pieces that help us establish safety­

even when the topic is high risk, controversial, and emotional. The

first step to building more safety is to understand which of the two

conditions of safety is at risk. Each requires a different solution.

Mutual Purpose

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