Heart Talk

By Greg Smalley
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Focus on the Family

The best research indicates that healthy marriages are always built around a solid core of open, honest, and empathetic person-to-person conversation.

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know …”

— Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 423

The marriage intensive experts at Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored tell us that the lack of communication is the most commonly mentioned problem among couples who are struggling to keep their relationships alive. Conversely, the best research indicates that healthy marriages are always built around a solid core of open, honest, and empathetic person-to-person conversation. It’s all about both partners becoming transparent enough to know and be known at the most basic level of their being.

What is it that keeps so many husbands and wives from experiencing this kind of connection? Dr. Gary Smalley suggests that, somewhere along the line, they’ve bought into the idea that real communication occurs when they understand one another’s words. That’s unfortunate, because words are actually just the beginning. The process of genuine connection only kicks into gear when we get beyond the words and drill down into the heart of the matter.

Dr. Bob Paul and Dr. Bob Burbee, two of Hope Restored’s most skilled therapists, have devised a method of doing just that. They point out that there are actually two types of communication used by people involved in a close relationship: Work Talk and Heart Talk. Work Talk, they explain, is linear in style. It’s task-oriented. It focuses on problem-solving and the accomplishment of goals. It majors in facts, logic, and the discovery of workable strategies. Heart Talk, by way of contrast, tries to go deeper. It’s concerned with the relationship and driven by feelings and a desire for understanding. Instead of a task or a goal, it aims at cohesion, attachment, and the strengthening of the interpersonal bond.

In order to function successfully, a couple has to engage in both kinds of talk. That should be obvious. Nevertheless, Heart Talk is the key to building a truly thriving marriage [for a deeper dive into communicating effectively with your spouse, we encourage you to check out The Language of Love and Respect: Cracking the Communication Code With Your Mate by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs]. According to Burbee and Paul, the most successful husbands and wives put Heart Talk first. When this is done effectively, about three-quarters of all marital problems can be resolved before a couple even moves into a discussion of the practical issue at hand.

How do you do Heart Talk? It’s primarily a matter of caring about the other person’s feelings and taking turns as speaker and listener. The folks at Hope Restored sum it up with an acronym: ICU. First, Identify (I) your feelings and the feelings of your spouse. Second, decide to Care (C) about those feelings. Third, seek to Understand (U) those feelings with the assistance of your mate. Then keep on talking and listening until both of you are satisfied with the results.

You might be surprised. You’ll also be absolutely amazed at what can happen when you and your spouse make up your minds to practice Heart Talk on a regular basis. Try it and you’ll see what we mean!


Remember, always act like you’re trying to get a second date! Sometimes in marriage we forget that we need to pursue and “woo” our spouse. So dress up a bit. Be polite and open doors. Compliment one another. Be affectionate – hold hands, cuddle and steal kisses. Remember to protect your date night from conflict by cutting off any arguments and agreeing to talk about the issue at a later time.

Step 1: Go someplace different for dinner.

Instead of visiting the same familiar locations and eating the same old food, pick somewhere new or try a different type of cuisine.

Step 2: Each of the following Date Night activities is designed to foster ICU and Heart Talk. Choose one:

  • Do you remember “The Ungame?” It’s a non-competitive learning/communication game of conversation that’s designed to foster self-expression and good listening skills. “The Ungame” is centered around a set of cards on which are printed a number of questions ranging from the light-hearted to the serious and intimate – everything from “What do you like to do in your spare time?” to “If you could live your life over, what would you change?” Players take turns drawing the cards and answering the questions. Several different variations exist, including full-board, pocket-sized, and a specifically Christian version. If you can locate a copy of the game, take it with you to your favorite coffee house or café – someplace where you can spend the evening playing it together. You might be surprised where it takes you. (The first time the inventor of “The Ungame,” Rhea Zakich, played it with her husband, he said, “I’ve learned more about you in in these twenty minutes than in the past five years.”)
  • Each of you should come to dinner prepared with several ideas about how you would like to spend the remainder of the evening: a movie, bowling, window-shopping, roller-skating, dancing, paint-ball game, laser-tag, karaoke – the sky’s the limit. Over your meal, try to settle on a single activity by engaging first in Heart Talk and then moving on to Work Talk. Instead of focusing on the pros and cons of the various choices, begin with “ICU.” Take turns talking, listening, and Identifying your feelings about each option. Make a conscious decision to Care about your spouse’s point of view. Help each other Understand the emotional aspects of your preferences – for example, why you like bowling better than karaoke, or why your spouse finds it more pleasant to spend an evening at the mall than on the dance floor. Once you’ve completed Heart Talk, move on to Work Talk and make a concerted effort to reach a mutually satisfying decision.

Step 3: Relax and unwind.

After your activity, find a quiet place to relax and emotionally connect through good conversation. Answer the following questions. Be sure to keep your responses positive, uplifting and encouraging.

  • What was your favorite part of the evening?
  • What is the one thing you learned tonight that you didn’t know about me before?
  • What are some practical steps we can take to foster more Heart Talk at the center of our marriage? How can we become more intentional about resolving life’s practical problems by means of ICU?

Step 4: Home Sweet Home

As you drive home, spend time planning your next date. Also, think about additional ways you can learn to communicate at a deeper, more feeling-based level in the coming week. Once you get home, however, it’s up to you what happens next. Have a great final adventure!

© 2015 Focus on the Family.

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About the Author

Greg Smalley

Dr. Greg Smalley serves as the Vice President of Marriage at Focus on the Family. In this role, he develops and oversees initiatives that prepare individuals for marriage, strengthen and nurture existing marriages and help couples in marital crises. Prior to joining Focus, Smalley worked for the Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University and as President of the …

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