“Soft eyes” and how to have vulnerable conversations.
Here’s a tool that my partner taught me years ago when we first started dating. How did he come up with it, I do not know. He certainly hasn't read any relationship books, hasn't attended any workshops, but he got this one right (and neuroscience backs him up, but I'll talk about that later).
It's very very simple, and it changes everything.
When he is sharing something vulnerable, or feeling a bit insecure and when he needs me to just hold space and hear him out, and, when I am not in that space - he reminds me to look at him with “soft eyes”.
That's it. He looks at me and gently says "Soft eyes".
And I usually soften. It takes some time, and it takes that reminder - that I need to put my guard down. When I am triggered, it reminds me that it’s not about me, that my job is right now to listen and to GET him, not to FIX him.
I get into a defensive state, into an attack mode, or I get into a “teacher mode” - ready to fight, ready to prove that I'm right and he's wrong.
But it’s not what he needs at the moment. (or ever?)
Soft eyes - is a safe word for him and a reminder for me. I need to slow down. I need to shift my focus. I need to OPEN to him, to receive him, to give him space.
So he can feel free to share, that he can be vulnerable AND safe with me.
One of our biggest fears in being vulnerable is that we are going to get judged, especially by those we love. That we'll be rejected, that we, as we are, are not ok.
Soft eyes create the space of no judgement and pure love. Soft eyes reminds me of my commitment to him and to our relationship.
From this space, we learn to have a connected, successful, vulnerable conversation, making future conversations easier.
I've mentioned neuroscience, so let's geek out for a moment. What happens when I make an effort to soften my gaze? I usually take a deep breath, I relax my gaze, and as my face softens, I might even have a tiny gentle smile. Next the body follows and relaxes a little bit.
Smile signals to the brain that this is safe, deep breath activates parasympathetic nervous system, the body relaxes and shifts from a fight or flight to a calm connected space.
Amygdala (the part of our brain that is always looking for a threat, and is always on guard, can relax a little bit and pre-frontal cortex comes back online - now empathy is available, logic is available, choice is available - I can think clearly and choose how I want to be in the moment, responding how I want to respond rather than reacting to an imaginable threat.
And of course if I'm calm and grounded - that signals safety to him, and his body can relax so he can feel supported, heard, understood, valued and nurtured. ( I see that this is a topic for a bigger discussion another time, as there's so much to talk about. )
It takes commitment from both of us - and it works. Every single time.
Give it a try, use your own code word, your own reminder, and let me know what happens.
In Couples Counselling we practice this in session. It might look completely different for you than it looks for us. Each couple will find their own way. It might be a word, a touch on the shoulder, a look - a signal that calls both partners to come to a space of safety, respect, gentleness, co-regulation. If you think you might use some help in crating this space in your relationship, feel free to book a free consultation here.