The 5 secrets of Effective Communication

Why focus on communication?

If you've been following me on Facebook you know that in the month of February I delivered five videos in which I shared David Burns' Five Secrets of Effective Communication. I find that many of my clients are interested in ways to improve their relationships with partners, family members, even co-workers through better communication.  I also find that this is actually one of my favorite things to help clients with because I believe in the power of relationships, and I believe that when it comes to communication there is always room for improvement.  That is why I want to share with you my favorite techniques for enhancing communication.

The e.a.r. model 

In a previous blog post: Enhancing Marital Communication: The Power of One I discussed some of the reasons why communication and conflict resolution with significant others can be so challenging.  I also introduced you to Dr. David Burns’ E.A.R. framework of effective communication in which Dr. Burns describes the 3 key elements that must be present in communication for it to be effective .  This is a brief summary of the model.

"E" stands for "empathy", which is all about trying to understand the other person's point of view AND feelings. 

"A" is for "assertiveness," that is, explaining our own thoughts and feelings in a clear and direct manner.

"R" is for "respect,"  which  entails showing genuine care and concern for the other person, and seeing their point of view as valid as our own.  

The five secrets

The five secrets of effective communication are basically techniques that are based on E.A.R. framework that can give you and I specific ways to approach our partner-- or anyone with whom you wish to have better communication-- so as to help create the type of relationship that we want.  The use of E.A.R. and the five secrets is derived from the premise that in order to create change in a relationship we must start by changing  ourselves rather than waiting for the other person to change, which may or may not happen.  So, if you dare to change your approach to create better relationships, here are the five secrets.

  1.  Disarming Technique:  This means finding a grain of truth in what the other person is saying even if it seems unreasonable, inaccurate, or unfair.  What this does is prevent conflict from arising or escalating.   For example, suppose that my husband says: "You always leave a mess when you're done cooking." (By the way this is a true life example).  My natural response in a situation like this might be to get defensive and snap back with something like: "Well, it's not like YOU never make messes in the kitchen!"   However, to disarm my husband's statement I need to find the grain of truth in it.  Is it true that the kitchen is messy?  Can I see how that might be annoying to him?   To disarm my husband's  statement I might respond with "You're right, the kitchen is a mess and I do often leave a mess behind when I cook.  I can see that this is very annoying to you."  By me agreeing with my husband's statement and seeing his point of view in this situation he will likely not feel inclined to keep on complaining, which can help prevent an argument.  It is important, though, to be genuine. It is not about agreeing just to appease the other person.  Disarming is about genuinely finding the truth in what the other person is saying and letting them know that you see it.

  2.   Thought and Feeling Empathy:  Thought empathy means trying understand what the other person is saying, i.e. the content of their message.   Feeling empathy is about connecting with the emotions behind that message.  Example: "I'm bummed out, I failed the exam."  A response that would include both thought and feeling empathy might sound like: "Oh, man, you're bummed because you failed the exam (thought empathy).   I can imagine you might be feeling pretty sad and disappointed right now (feeling empathy)."    Again, it's not about just parroting what the other person is saying but about genuinely trying to connect with them.  

  3. Inquiry: This is about asking questions to: a) clarify that we're understanding what the other person is trying to communicate, such as in: "You're saying that you felt embarrassed when I made that joke in front of your friends. Is that what upset you?" or b) invite the other person to share more, as in: "I really want to know more about how you've been feeling." Inquiry allows us to clarify something when we're feeling confused about what the other person is saying or what they may be upset, or angry, or fearful, or concerned about. It is also a way to invite further discussion so that you can adequately address the issue.

  4. "I feel" statements: This is where we get to express our own thoughts and feelings. Although "I feel" statements do not always necessarily start with the words "I feel" a typical format to use might be "I feel" _______ when _______ or "I feel" ________ when________ because ________. For example, "I feel very loved and cared for when you take the time to look talk to me about how my day went." Or, "I feel irritated when I come home and I find clothes and shoes all over the living room because it's hard for me to relax when my environment is messy. A common error that people make with "I feel" statements is to use "I feel" to express thoughts rather than feelings, or even to criticize the other person. For example: "I feel like you're being stubborn" or "I feel like you're not listening." Those are not feeling statements because there is no actual feeling being expressed. "I feel" statements should include feeling words such as excited, irritated, sad, disappointed, confused, betrayed, nervous, embarrassed, disrespected, etc.

  5. Stroking: In the first place stroking is about conveying to the other person that his or her opinions and feelings are just as valid as our own. This means that, as we're listening to them talk we don't do things like roll our eyes, or sigh, or look away, or make condescending remarks. In the second place stroking is about offering the other person genuine respect, care, concern, and/or admiration. For example: "I really value our friendship and would like for us to work this out together." Stroking can also take the form of affirmations or compliments, such as "thank you for cooking such a lovely meal tonight" or "I really respect how persistent and hard-working you are."

Putting it all together

It is important to know that the five secrets can be most powerful and effective when used together in combination.  Here's an example. Suppose my 13-year-old son has the task of unloading the dishwasher on a daily basis.  On this particular day he has already done this chore once and I have just asked him to do it again.  Now say that, in typical kid fashion, he complains: "But I already emptied the dishwasher once today; it's not fair!" I can respond in typical authoritative mom fashion with: "Well, life isn't fair, now do as you're told."  It's likely my son will begrudgingly do as he is told, which would be fine if all I wanted is for him to do the chore.  But if I am looking to strengthen my relationship with him, the E.A.R. model would tell me that my communication in this instance is not empathic or respectful, even though it is quite assertive.  Thus I am not using effective communication. 

An alternative response using the 5 secrets might sound like this: "You're right, Honey, it isn't fair (disarming) and I can see why you're upset about having to unload the dishwasher a second time today (thought and feeling empathy).   I feel badly to put more stuff on you at the last minute ("I feel" statement) but unfortunately we had more dishes than normal today and I really need and appreciate your help (stroking).  Can I count on you? (inquiry)."   

Now, granted, people don't necessarily speak like this on a daily basis.  However, there are instances, like when emotions and the potential for conflict are high, when it really makes sense to use the five secrets.  It is not always necessary to put in all five secrets, either, it all depends on the situation.  In many cases just doing some simple empathy and stroking can go a long way.   The important piece is to incorporate the techniques in a way that is natural and genuine, in a way that represents the "real" you.  Otherwise the techniques will fail because the other person will see right through them. In fact they may become more upset and think you're invalidating or manipulate them.  The key is to practice skills in various situations and with various people. Gradually you will get better and better.   

As you get back to your daily life I invite you to consider that you have more power to alter the course of your relationships than you may think.  I also invite you to practice these techniques in your relationships.  If you get stuck with the techniques or have questions feel free to connect with me via my Facebook page Joyful Imperfection Counseling LLC.  You may also want to check out the book: "Feeling Good Together: The Key to Making Troubled Relationships Work" by David Burns, M.D.  

I wish you happy relationships!