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Curtis Hill, Eastfield College

Curtis Hill.jpgSafe Conversations is an educational program that focuses on dialogue promoting a new way of talking and listening to one another. When applied appropriately, connection and safety occur, which promotes respectful and healthy relationships. Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt (2016) stated, “talking is the most dangerous thing people can do and listening the most infrequent” (p.5).  Anna Mitchell McLeod (2008) discussed using dialogue to improve academic advising and postulated that it was much more than a conversation. She referenced the work of Deborah Flick (1998), who defined dialogue as “intentionally seeking to understand by listening deeply, inquiring and advocating in order to uncover meanings, revealing assumptions...and walking in another person’s shoes” (p. 32).

Safe Conversations, by definition, is a relational technology that creates safety in all conversations, in all ecosystems, and facilitates a sense of connecting (Hendrix & Hunt, 2016). NACADA Executive Director Charlie Nutt (2000) described an ideal academic advising relationship as supportive and interactive between students (or advisees) and advisors. Since academic advising was identified as a helping relationship, listening empathically and focusing on meaning is a crucial part of the process (Carlstrom, 2005). Habley’s (1987) framework drew attention to the importance of communication skills and interpersonal approaches such as listening and rapport-building to influence advisor-advisee interactions. Understanding these skills is essential to establishing strong and positive advising relationships.  

In 2017, NACADA’s Professional Development Committee developed the Academic Advising Core Competencies Model (NACADA, 2017). This model identified foundational principles which serve as a guide for effective advisor training programs. The theoretical underpinnings of this model promulgate these content areas: (a) Conceptual Component, (b) Informational Component, and (c) Relational Component. In this model, advisors must demonstrate competency in each content area, which collectively facilitates guiding students through the advising process. There are a variety of advising strategies and/or theories used to empower this process (i.e. Appreciative Advising, Prescriptive Advising, etc.). According to Crookson (1994), developmental advising gave more attention to the relationship itself—advisee-advisor—resulting in varying degrees of learning by both parties. Although there are various strategies or approaches to advising, how advisors develop competencies in the Relational Component area is paramount.

While informational knowledge and conceptual understanding are necessary, alone they are insufficient to thoroughly provide quality academic advising services (Habley, 1987). The Relational Component serves as a crucible for enabling academic advisors to convey concepts for effectively integrating the other two components in an advisee-advisor relationship. There were several skills highlighted by the Academic Advising Core Competencies Model (NACADA, 2017) which are specific to the Relational Component. This model asserts that advisors must demonstrate the ability to “create rapport and build academic advising relationships.” Another skill described is the ability tocommunicate in an inclusive and respectful manner” (NACADA, 2017), which is invoked through the Safe Conversations dialogue.

Using Safe Conversations Micro Relationship Skills

A Safe Conversations dialogue consists of multiple micro competencies in the form of sentence stems. This relational paradigm of connecting in the “space between” is built on multiple relational skills, which include but are not limited to:

  • Honoring Boundaries by making an appointment: “Is now a good time to talk about…
  • Speaker Responsibility: Using “I” language, such as “I think…” or “I feel…
  • Accuracy Check before responding: “Did I get that…
  • Expressing Gratitude: “Thanks for sharing” and “Thanks for listening.”

These relational skills, when properly integrated through dialogue, have the capability to achieve powerful results.

Safe Conversations dialogue is a dyadic process in which respectful speaking and listening replaces all forms of negativity—shaming, blaming, criticizing or put downs—with mutual respect and cohesiveness. It is a relational technology which uses structured dialogue to create a safe space between two people. Drs. Hendrix and Hunt re-introduced through this educational program the skills of mirroring, validating, and empathizing, which are heavily ingrained within the clinical setting. These skills are essential and must be mastered by counselors, psychologists, social workers, and other licensed helping professionals. Unlike the conventional understanding of relationships between two people, in the Safe Conversations dialogical process a relationship is two people plus the space between them. The conceptual framework of this relational technology advocates forming responsible, non-judgmental talking and accurate, non-judgmental listening that creates a “space between” where both parties feel safe and experience connectedness (Hendrix & Hunt, 2016). Flick (1998) claimed that although engaging in dialogue requires one to suspend their own thoughts and focus on understanding those of the other person, it does not mean they have to give up their own beliefs and agree with the other person. Therefore, the application of this educational program (i.e. Safe Conversations) inherently supports the Relational Component of academic advising. 

Why Do We Need Safe Conversations?

Haley (2017) made a case for quality advising by emphasizing the importance of communication—listening, interviewing, rapport building, self-disclosure—in which the emotional intelligence of the advisor becomes a factor. She stressed that emotional intelligence may mediate the relational component of advising. Safe Conversations dialogue invokes these outcomes using micro relationship skills and values for producing healthy conversations. According to Bloom, Hutson, and He (2008), in the disarm phase of Appreciative Advising, it is essential to make a positive impression with the student, build rapport, and create a safe, welcoming space. What happens in the context of an advising session has broader implications, and use of Safe Conversations relational skills can aid advisors in strengthening this process (i.e. relational competencies). The ongoing challenge for many college students, personal communication or lack thereof, continues to serve as a barrier today. Turkle (2015) stated that We are being silenced by our technologies—in a way—'cured of talking.’ These silences have led to a crisis of empathy that has diminished us at home, at work, and in public life” (p. 9).

Unfortunately, it is the lack of connection that perpetuates many of the communication issues that emerge in all relationships. There is a remedy for this seemingly manufactured crisis of connection that serves as a challenge even within the advisor-advisee relationship. When advisors learn how to talk without judgment and listen without reacting, conversations become safe, which should be the norm for a healthy advisee-advisor relationship. The Safe Conversations educational program is a resource which promotes four of the seven core competencies that undergird the Relational Component area for academic advising: (1) Create rapport and build academic advising relationships; (2) Communicate in an inclusive and respectful manner; (3) Plan and conduct successful advising interactions; and (4) Facilitate problem solving, decision-making, meaning-making, planning, and goal setting. Several themes have emerged which support the relational component of advising that attest to the need for this new relational science or Safe Conversations educational program.

Safe Conversations Dialogue in Academic Advising

Safe Conversations is based on research conducted by Drs. Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, who studied relationships with couples over 30 years (Hendrix & Hunt, 2017). The competencies and concepts that materialized from their research may be referred to as a relational technology which is adaptive to academic advising. The major tenets used in Safe Conversations dialogue with couples is organically transferable to a dyadic advisee-advisor relationship. The foundational tools for Safe Conversations dialogue are mirroring, validating, and empathizing. These relational skills are predominantly utilized in clinical settings. Through this educational program these skills were repurposed using formal sentence stems. For example, the sentence stem, “Let me see if I’ve got it.  You said…” is used as a precursor to mirror what was previously stated.  And it is followed by “Did I get it?” which is an accuracy check.  Then the sentence stem, “Is there more about that?” is used to show curiosity, encouraging the speaker to share, which is another precursor before talking.  A validating sentence stem is “I get what you are saying and that makes sense to me.  And what makes sense is…”  Accuracy checks, expressing validation, expressing curiosity, and mirroring are all Safe Conversations competencies that help promote connection. Conceptually Safe Conversations is not a communication tool, but a connecting process that feeds the exchange of energy (space between) and information. Since advising is grounded in the advisee-advisor relationship, utilizing this transformational process to strengthen the Relational Component of academic advising would bring added value to our practice. Safe Conversations is focused on having a dialogue that promotes emotional safety through a structured process (i.e. sentence stems) which allows the student to feel safe talking, thus promoting connection. 

As previously mentioned, the core relational skills that drive the Safe Conversations educational program are manifested using sentence stems through mirroring, validating, and empathizing. In the learning stage, it is a guided process, but as elements of the process become more concrete, they can be comfortably infused into any academic advising model. In this dialogue, respectful speaking and listening replace negativity with mutual respect and cohesiveness.  When this relational technology is fully utilized, advisors will begin talking without polarization, and curiosity replaces judgement. This is primarily accomplished by honoring boundaries and using “I” language which are micro relationship skills and part of the Safe Conversations competency scale. Also, the negativity commonly demonstrated in the form of shaming, blaming, criticizing, or showing contempt is minimized, if not eliminated, in this process (Hendrix & Hunt, 2017). The applicability of this relational technology can be paired with any academic advising methodology, which is a simple tool that advising professionals can easily integrate and apply in their work with students.

Advisors use a variety of advising strategies to work with students whether it is done formally or informally. What if we became more purposeful in our dialogue with one another—respectful speaking and respectful listening? Imagine the impact if advisors were more intentional with their dialogue, and how this specificity would enhance an advisees’ ability to capture and better process information. 

Curtis Hill
Adjunct Faculty
Social Science Division
Eastfield College
[email protected]


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Nutt, C. (2000). One-to-one advising. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, & Associates (Eds.) Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 220–227). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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Cite this article using APA style as: Hill, C. (2019, June). Safe conversations as a relational tool to augment academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 42(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2019 June 42:2


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