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Oprah-Endorsed Self Help Guru Brings Couples Workshop To Dallas

Lauren Silverman
Millionaire couple Helen LaKelly and Harville Hendrix lead a "Safe Conversations" workshop in a South Dallas church.

Millionaire couple Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt are on a mission to save marriages in Dallas. Their goal is to bring the tools – in both Spanish and English – to fix broken relationships.

At the second “Safe Conversations” workshop in South Dallas church, hundreds of couples are sitting across from each other, staring into each other’s eyes as they take turns thanking each other, and airing their grievances.

Their guides?

Millionaire couple Helen LaKelly Hunt and Harville Hendrix.

Harville is an Oprah-endorsed self-help guru who’s sold millions of copies of his books dissecting why couples fight. Decades ago, while living in Dallas, he invented something called Imago therapy, which is the foundation of the Safe Conversations workshops he’s holding here with his wife, Helen.

“Harville and I feel like the two of us are sitting on a boat, in the center of the ocean and the boat is full of life jackets, and around us there are hundreds of people who are drowning,” Hunt says, “And they need these life jackets and we don’t know how to get it out to them.”

The majority of the couples here have never been to therapy.

Organizer Deanna McKinley says both the stigma and cost of couples counseling prevents many in Dallas from seeking help. To counter that, this workshop is free, and simulcast in Spanish.

“This is universal stuff, McKinley says. “You don’t have people giving you the tools of how to communicate, period. If you look around you see black, brown, white, all together because we all want to be better for our relationships.”

Sometimes Listening Isn’t Enough

Sitting on stage, a young couple is demonstrating how to use a fundamental tool of Hendrix and Hunt’s safe conversation. It’s called mirroring.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Gaby Palma with her husband Luis Romero at the second relationship workshop in Dallas.

Gaby Palma is telling her partner, Luis Romero one thing she appreciates about him – how he wakes up early every day to go to work. His job is to act like a mirror, repeating to her what he heard. Hendrix says the first step of an intentional dialogue is to mirror your partner and let him be heard without judgment.

It may sound simple, but Gaby Palma says it’s had a big impact on their relationship.

“We jumped into [the relationship] not really thinking, and we were shortly in love, and then out of love,” she says.

As they’re personalities clashed, the relationship became violent.

“We were really scared that my husband would be locked up, my children would be taken away and our family would have been completely destroyed. Just because we didn’t know how to communicate in an effective way,” Palma says.

Determined to stay together, they attended the first “Safe Conversations” workshop in November of 2013. Through learning to mirror, validate and empathize, they began to rebuild their relationship.

“We’ve been practicing it a lot,” Palma says. “And that’s what actually saved our relationship and our family.”

One Of Many Options 

The Imago model is one of many methods to improve communication skills in relationships.

Bill Doherty is Professor and Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in the Department of Family Social Scienceat the University of Minnesota.

“There are a number of options for couples who are interested in enriching their relationship and communicating better,” he says. “Some of those workshops focus on communication skills, some on connecting emotionally, some have a religious orientation.”

Doharty highlights the work of the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), and workshops based on Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), which is a structured approach to couples therapy created in the early '80s.

Cut Down On Divorce, Domestic Violence

Hendrix and Hunt believe their workshops can not only keep couples together, but also cut down on domestic violence.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Kayla and Darrell Young, of Lancaster, have their own marriage ministry and say the "safe conversations" model deepened their relationship.

Cases of domestic violence in Texas, and in Dallas County in particular, are common. In 2012, there were nearly 200,000 family violence incidents reported in the state.

In 2013, Rawlings launched a city initative meant to curb domestic violence.

Can listening, empathizing and mirroring really do that?

Darrell Young thinks it’s possible.

“My first marriage was domestic violence,” Young says, sitting on the couch in his Lancaster home with his wife and their kids.

In his first marriage, Young says communication was terrible.

“We fought every weekend. Grand Prairie police knew us by name, that’s how bad it was. At that time all I knew was be heavy handed, force her to listen to you,” Young says.

And that’s why he was determined to do everything differently in his second marriage. And they have.

After participating at a marriage ministry at their church, the Youngs learned the Safe Conversation technique last year.

“The forum, the mirroring, the role playing, Kayla says “just took it to a different level.”

The model of dialogue, which also focuses on understanding how your family background impacts the way you act in relationships, was eye opening for Kayla.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Magdalena and Gilberto Menjivar have been together 33 years. They came to the workshop to see what skills they could learn to maintain and improve their relationship.

She immediately recognized patterns in her behavior learned from her mother. Habits that were getting in the way of her relationship.

“The first years of our life guess who I was?” Kayla says, “I was momma. Always aggressive, like “I don’t need you!” Because that’s what I saw. A woman married five times equates to I don’t need  a man. It was like a light bulb went off.”

Darrell and Kayla Young use the tools they learned in Safe Conversations in their own marriage ministry, where they council dozens of couples themselves.

The Safe Conversations workshop goes deep, but it stays positive. In addition to the requirement that couples hug for a full minute after sharing, there’s affirmations. Loud affirmations.

“You are amazing!” Hunt and Hendrix scream at each other, before asking everyone in the audience to do the same. Before everyone goes home, after nearly six hours of practicing the art of dialogue, they take a “zero negativity” pledge. Most couples, Hendrix says, won’t make it past a day without turning negative, but it gets easier.

Hunt and Harville want to saturate Dallas with the idea that healthy relationships make for a healthy society. It’s an idea, they say, that could transform the city.

Three steps to Safe Conversation:

  1. Mirroring — “Let me see if I’ve got it.”
  2. Validation — “That makes sense to me.”
  3. Empathy — “Is that what you’re feeling?”

You can find more detailed instructions on how to use the Imago Dialogue here

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.