Special Time: one very specific safe experiment

Here I will break my own general rule.

I am going to recommend a safe experiment that most folk could use.

Note: I do not say ‘small’, safe experiment on this occasion. It is not a small experiment; it is rather more difficult than first appears. It seems like I am just asking you to talk with one other person. We’ve all been doing that for a good while now!

However. this experiment asks you to organise your way of talking, one with another, in a very particular way. Hence, the name “Special Time”.

Furthermore, I am being very instructional on this page; something I avoid for the most part. However, the experiment is so tricky that only very clear instructions can help it along! There are problems with my approach here:  I have a strong wish to help you create the change you want but:

  1. It is not generally good clinical practice for a therapist to make specific suggestions. It makes me a sitting target. I am not the one having to implement the safe experiment but my approach means I could be open to blame if the ‘instruction’ is faulty!
  2. I cannot know all the complexities in your relationship. A really good experiment must take such complexities into account.
  3. I prefer small, safe experiments. however, if there appears to be a wide gap in your ways of communicating, then small actions may not to hack it.
  4. I can imagine that there is some sense of urgency when communications falter.   Urgency, speed and  trying too hard can have a counter-productive result. When three of us act quickly, with too little time to digest things, then one or more of us can suffer the consequences.

So – that said – what can I still say about designing a safe experiment called Special Time?

First, you will use Special Time to learn and adapt by generating victories and defeats.   I cannot repeat that too much.

  • With victories, you will say to one another: how can we build on that?
  • With defeats you will talk about: what can we do that is just a little bit different when a similar situation arises very soon.

The small defeats are difficult to tolerate but there is no progress if I do not learn from the things that go wrong. For instance,  this webpage will produce a defeat for some readers, somewhere.

The aim of Special Time is to:  encourage complementary transactions.

How to do that?

  1. You are more likely to sustain five or ten minutes’ complementary transactions when you use “I”; the first person, and “now”, the present tense.
  2. If, within a week, and 2/3 shots at Special Time, there is no evident change in your circumstances then I’d advise you to think again. The experiment may not be for you.  You could review your options differently, say, by consulting a therapist. In particular, consider a specialist in couples work. Check out that any therapist  being considered has had additional training in systemic work, It will be better for this research to be undertaken by both of you.
  3. Meet on at least three occasions, for no more than 10 minutes. The time interval is not sacrosanct. It is simply a warning that few of us can concentrate for long when seeking to do things differently. Five minutes may be all that is possible.  That time interval is, indeed, one thing that only the two of you can know. Negotiate it and still be flexible.
  4. Do not clock watch as that will divert your attention, and your energy, from a much more important task.  In the same vein, do not make notes at the time – do that afterwards, in a place where you can reflect.
  5. When you meet, ensure it is at a helpful time of day – not before bed time, or moments before another important appointment, eg. Meal time.
  6. No alcohol before or during the event. That’s not to say you cannot have a ‘safe’ drink.
  7. Have a backup plan for taking time out.  Agree that both of you can take time out in a safe place without having to go too far. Do not follow your partner if they exercise this choice. Let them be.

Therefore, before you start Special Time, ensure you have ‘informed consent’ from any other party you wish to involve. ‘Informed consent means that they have read this material, had time to do their own research and think things through. Also, they will have some involvement in the practical arrangements for Special Time (say, when and where and for how long)  and, crucially, they will have felt consulted about the design of a joint safe experiment.

Confirm each of your own preferred ‘time-out’ place. Agree that either of you can leave without the permission of the other BUT identify an approximate time when normal service is resumed. Agree on this time interval before ‘Special Time’ starts. Do not start up the special time again immediately after ‘time out’. Set up another event later.

Now to the specific ways to talk one with another:

  • DO NOT INTERRUPT the other or, indeed, criticise them for ‘breaking’ a time rule. Just notice what you notice.
  • SHARE THE AIR SPACE: that is, 50% for each of you – without clock watching.
  • WHEN SPEAKING FOR YOURSELF, focus on your feelings, rather than your beliefs or opinions. Therefore, it’s “I am feeling hurt”, not “you hurt me by doing ……”
  • IF YOU WANT TO REFER TO SOMETHING THE OTHER HAS SAID, then paraphrase it as follows: “Am I right in thinking your point is [summarise as briefly as possible, say, in just 3 or 4 words]. I’d like to hear more about that”.
  • Do not use ‘why’ questions during Special Time. You’ may be surprised to find out how, with practise, it can be a superfluous or unhelpful word. Also, there are few answers to ‘why’ in your present situation. If they do exist, they are likely to be buried deep in the past, e.g. childhood. Special Time is not a time for reflecting on the past – your past, or the other person’s past.
  • .INSTEAD: consider things like “tell me more …”; how come did that  arise…. “, “Thanks you for telling me that… “ “I am curious to know more about ….”. Note the “I” is first person and the “am” is present tense”. Could you see a way to put that “did” into the present tense?

THE AIM OF THIS SPECIAL TIME IS TO IMPROVE YOUR ABILITY TO HEAR ANOTHER HUMAN BEING, not to judge them or given them the benefit of your experience and views.  Indeed, afterward, you might like to rate your listening skills on a 1 to 10 scale: where 1 = is not at all good, and  9 = is really good. At that point, look for evidence that backs up your assessment of yourself. Do not assess the other. Do not offer opinions about your assessment to the other. Bring them to a future meeting.

Now these several points  may offer sufficient explanation for my request that you keep it brief.

BUT you will not remember each and every rule. Indeed, trying to implement each and every rule is most likely to fail. You are vulnerable to criticism from the other for “getting it wrong”.  It can even bring about it’s own argument.

DO NOT COMMENT ON THE OTHER’S SKILLS AT THE TIME.  Indeed, that might even include offering any complements about their skills.

WAIT UNTIL THERE IS A MORE SUITABLE SPACE and an agreement set up between the two of you.

So there it is – in a nutshell. Let me know how it works out. Let me know what adaptations you devised to help Special Time work for you. Here is a Feedback sheet:

 Return to:


What is a nudge?

Designing safe experiments

What helps safe experiments along

Obstacles to safe experiments

Categories of safe experiments

When Action is not enough

Reviewing what I achieved.