Heart Talks: Creating a Safe Space for Self-Expression

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What do you do when you are in the grip of a negative feeling? Do you discuss what’s bothering you with other people? Or do you try to suppress it, keeping it to yourself?

We’re often better at telling people what to do than listening to what they have to say. And many of our institutions, like businesses and schools, are structured around talking with little listening. Without an opportunity to express themselves, people may hold their discontent or issues inside. To remedy this, create space for discussions, or “Heart Talks,” where people can share their concerns, wishes, and dreams so they feel heard and can put forth their best effort.

Read more about how to have heart talks and how they can help you.

Heart Talks 101

Heart talks can be used with most kinds of groups, such as work teams, sports teams, or civic groups, and in a variety of situations, including:

  • When there are conflicts between different groups or team members
  • After a merger or other event
  • As part of a meeting, or before it
  • In response to an emotional event, like the death of an employee

Heart Talks can be done regularly or as needed. For example, your team might choose to do a talk at the beginning of every team meeting, while others might do them only if there’s an emotionally challenging situation at hand, like a conflict between two employees.

Follow these steps to host a heart talk:

1. If your group is larger than 10, break it into smaller groups. Having groups smaller than 10 people lets everyone participate more often, and you might finish the activity faster.

2. Have participants sit in a circle, and introduce the six guidelines for the talk:

  1. Speak using “I” statements. This focuses your comments on your thoughts and opinions instead of attempting to speak for the group.
  2. Agree to keep what you hear confidential.
  3. Only the person holding the “heart” or other object of choice is allowed to speak. The heart object can be anything other participants can see, such as a stuffed animal or paperweight.
  4. Refrain from judgment and criticism of what others say.
  5. When you’re done speaking, pass the object to the left. Or, if you don’t have anything to say, say “pass,” and pass it left.
  6. Stay in the circle until everyone has said what they need to say, and the leader says it’s complete.

3. Pass the heart object around the circle at least once so everyone has a turn to speak. Go around as many times as necessary for everyone to say what they need to say. End the conversation when the heart object goes around twice with everyone saying “pass.” Though this is ideal, it takes a lot of time. If you’re on a more limited schedule, you have two options:

  • Agree on a set number of rounds.
  • Choose a time limit for the discussion. For example, set a time limit of 30 minutes, and ensure the heart object makes it around the circle at least once in that time.

Heart Talk Benefits

The benefits of hosting a heart talk include:

  • Creating better communication 
  • Developing trust and cohesion
  • Improving listening skills
  • Resolving conflicts in a constructive way
  • Facilitating understanding and respect 

Saving the Family Business: James’s Story

James ran a business with his wife. Later, the couple’s two sons joined the business, and James hoped it would bring his sons and their growing families prosperity once James was gone. He hosted his sons and their families for dinner once a week to build cohesion, but it wasn’t enough. The sons were competitive, which resulted in withheld resentment, snide comments, anger, and in one instance, a physical fight. 

After the fight, James decided to host a heart talk. At their usual family meal, he had everyone sit in a circle and introduced the rules for the discussion. Then, they started passing the heart object around the circle. At first, no one wanted to participate, but family members soon got the courage to speak and get to the heart of their misgivings. When one of the wives shared that tension in the family had left her at a breaking point, everyone in the family had tears in their eyes. The conversation helped everyone feel heard and their frustration dissipated. James credited the conversation with salvaging the business, as well as his family relationships.

Heart Talks: Creating a Safe Space for Self-Expression

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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