Once More, With Feeling… Good Communication begins with Empathetic Listening

Once More, With Feeling…  Good Communication begins with Empathetic Listening


Last month I wrote about the fifteen different ways Cognitive-Behavioral expert David Burns suggested that we can communicate badly, beginning with the need to defend our “truth.” Not to worry if you don’t remember more than 2 or 3 of those 15 communication “potholes. “ The details are less important than the idea that we are communicating badly when we fail to listen to the other person or to express our own feelings clearly and respectfully.

Good listening begins with empathy, which requires hearing what the other person says, finding some grain of truth in that, even if what you hear doesn’t sound reasonable, logical or fair, and noticing or guessing the sort of feelings that might be behind what was said. This doesn’t mean lying or “kissing up” to the other person, but instead resisting the urge to defend yourself and to instead find some common ground so you can begin to work as a team.

Finding some truth in what the other person is saying is the basis for what Burns has called the Disarming Technique. Ironically, when we agree with a criticism, we often invalidate it.

The best way to begin to make sense of this paradoxical idea is with an example.

Say your partner tells you, “You’re overreacting! You get way too emotional about things. Why can’t you use a little logic once in a while?”


If you give in to the urge to defend yourself and say something like, “What would YOU know about feelings? You might as well be a robot,” the argument will be off and running. Even if the other person’s criticism seems off base, there’s still something valid about the way he or she feels, and if you acknowledge that, by saying something like, “You’re right. I can overreact and get illogical, and then it turns out later that I wasn’t being realistic,” they will be more willing to listen and less likely to argue or put you down.


The Disarming Technique works only as long as we maintain respect for ourselves and for the person we’re talking to. If someone says “You’re a loser,” and you feel threatened and answer defensively or sarcastically by saying something like, “Oh, sure. I’m a loser! Look who’s talking,” this hostile response will make things deteriorate. On the other hand, if we feel depressed and believe we’re hopeless, we might sigh and sadly say, “yes, I really am a worthless loser.” Instead, if we can manage a little humor and say, “Yes, I’ve suspected that about myself for some time now,” your lack of defensiveness and sense of humor might win over your antagonist and turn a potential battle into a friendly and productive discussion of the real problem. You will have communicated the message that you’re not afraid of criticism and that you’re willing to listen to what the other person has to say.


Finding truth also requires that we listen to both the particular words the other person uses and to the feelings behind those words, and that we communicate our understanding of what has been said. This doesn’t mean parroting back the exact words, but instead getting at the meaning and the feelings behind them, and asking something like “Did I get that right?” or “Is that what you meant?”


And finally, we communicate well by inviting the other person to tell us more about what they’re thinking and feeling.


Don’t despair if you don’t get this right the first or even the thirty-first time you try it. Communicating well takes practice and the courage to make mistakes. We ALL make mistakes…even experienced therapists. The important thing is to keep listening and to give up trying to prove anything to anyone else…because you probably won’t.


Chris Copeland

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