David, Helen and Fabrice discuss “I Feel” Statements, the fourth of the Five Secrets of Effective Communication. The essence of this technique is to share your thoughts and feelings openly and with respect, rather than hiding your feelings or acting them out aggressively.
The Five Secrets are organized around the acronym, EAR. E = Empathy, A = Assertiveness, and R = Respect. The last three podcasts were on the E = Empathy techniques. This podcast will be on A = Assertiveness.
David, Helen and Fabrice discuss how the Five Secrets differs from assertiveness training, which has been incredibly popular for the past 50 years, with many best-selling books. Assertiveness is all about expressing your own needs and feelings. Although this is incredibly important, David argues that assertiveness alone can come off as somewhat “self”-centered, since your talking about how YOU feel and what YOU need. In contrast, that the most skillful and effective communication involves a more balanced focus on your own and the other person’s feelings, in a spirit of mutual respect and “oneness.”
David tells a funny story of what happened after he read a book on assertiveness training when he was a psychiatric resident. He dutifully and enthusiastically tried to apply the techniques he was reading about in the assertiveness book during a dispute with a gas station attendant in Philadelphia, and the gas station attendant threatened to break his kneecaps!
Although David does not like formulas, they can sometimes help you when you are learning a technique for the first time. The formula for an “I Feel” Statement would be a statement along these lines: “I feel X, Y, and Z,” where X, Y, and Z are words from the Feeling Words list.
David, Helen and Fabrice discuss the importance of this technique, and how to use it in different settings. Although sharing your feelings can be vitally important in conversations with loved ones, as well as interactions and negotiations with colleagues at work, you would use different kinds of feeling words in different settings. For example, you might say, “I feel kind of hurt and put down right now” during an interaction with your spouse or partner, but you probably wouldn’t say that when talking to your boss, because it would sound goofy!
They also discuss common errors people make when trying to use “I Feel” Statements. A common error I saying “I feel that . . . ” followed by something about the other person, such as “I feel that you’re wrong.” This is not the expression of your feelings, but a criticism of the other person.
They also discuss common sources of resistance to using this technique. For example, you may be afraid that if you share your feelings openly, and allow yourself to be vulnerable, something bad will happen, or that people will take advantage of you or use the information to hurt you.
In addition, many human beings, and perhaps most of us, tend to repress our feelings and hide them from others, thinking we “shouldn’t” feel the way we do. For example, if you feel ashamed, you may feel the urge to hide your feelings from others. David describes how he often feels this way if he makes errors during his teaching–he thinks he has to hide his shame from his students, thinking a Stanford professor should not have such feelings!
David emphasizes that even include famous people who claim to be experts in communication have the urge to hide their feelings. David describes an awkward but funny interaction he had recently with a famous communication expert at the recent Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference.
Your homework for the week is to use five “I Feel” Statements every day. They can be positive as well as negative, and it can something as simple as “I feel great because the sun is shining today,” or “I feel sad and disappointed because my talk wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped, and someone in the audience was critical of me.”
David, Helen, and Fabrice emphasize once again that using the Five Secrets one at a time is artificial, like the practice exercises on musical instrument. So the homework exercises are like that. Once you’ve master each of the Five Secrets, and you have a feel for how they work, you can integrate and weave them together masterfully in challenging real life situations that are sensitive and important to you.
And Helen emphasizes the crucial idea that the Five Secrets will only help you if you have a sincere desire to resolve conflicts and to develop more loving and successfully relationships with others.
Fabrice and I hope you enjoy our Podcasts, and also hope you can leave some positive comments for us and some five star ratings if you like what we’re doing!
I recently received two emails from a podcast listener named Angela who had excellent questions about the Five Secrets of Effective Communication. Feel free to send me your emails with questions as well!
If you are having trouble using the Five Secrets, the most powerful way to get great feedback is to think of a specific interaction that did not go well. Then if you will send me an example of exactly what the other person said to you, and exactly what you said next, Fabrice and I can give you some hopefully good feedback on what went wrong and how to correct it!
Anyway, let’s see what’s on Angela’s mind . . . .
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Hi Dr. Burns,
I have two questions based on your recent podcasts on the Five Secrets of Effective Communication.
1. I’m having trouble with “I Feel” Statements. In fact, I really dislike it when someone says to me, “I can see how you must feel ____”. It sounds so clinical to me! How can I use this technique in a more casual way that reflects empathy without sounding artificial.
2. I Just finished listening to podcast 067 on empathy. You mentioned that one of the errors is trying to correct someone’s cognitive distortions when they are upset. I understand that would interfere with the empathy and listening, but at what point in the conversation is it OK to bring solutions to the conversation?
For example, I was teaching a group of youth and they were talking about all the problems in the church. I let them talk for a bit, but then I directed them by asking what they thought they could do to create solutions. I am second guessing myself now, because I wonder if I may have not had the right empathy for that situation.
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Thank you for both excellent questions. It really enhances our podcasts when you ask questions. Brings things to life, and allows us to go into more depth.
Fabrice is out on a much needed break, and won’t return for about six weeks or so. The podcasts will continue each week, however, since we have pre-recorded enough ahead of time. I will address your questions here, so you won’t have to wait.
How can I avoid sounding phony or “clinical”?
Let’s look at your first question. The statement, “I can see how you must feel ____” is one of the many errors people make with Thought and Feeling Empathy. You are right in finding that annoying! If you sound “clinical” or “canned” when you use any of the Five Secrets, it probably won’t be very effective, as you know, and will probably backfire. Thought and Feeling Empathy have to be genuine and come from the heart. Sadly, many people are looking for simple gimmicks or formulas, and they don’t get really great responses from others.
If you give a specific example of something the other person said to you, and what you said next, I would gladly make suggestions for how to improve your response! This type of exchange is exactly what is need to make this a better learning experience.
However, just in general, I can make a few suggestions:
First, what you refer to as an “I Feel” Statement is actually Feeling Empathy. An “I Feel” Statement is where you express your own feelings. Feeling Empathy is where you acknowledge how the other person may be feeling.
When you are acknowledging someone else’s feelings, it is rarely or never wise to say, “You must be feeling X, Y, and Z,” because the person may NOT feel that way. In addition, a statement like this has the danger of sounding like you are some kind of expert, and the other person may even feel judged and then respond defensively. So your annoyance, in my opinion, is entirely justified!
I prefer to say something like this:
“Given what you just said, I wouldn’t be surprised if you might be feeling A, B and C, and for good reason. Can you tell me more about how you are feeling?” (A, B, and C would be words for the Feeling Words chart.)
This response combines Feeling Empathy with Inquiry, and sounds a bit more humble and respectful, at least to my ear.
In addition, I almost always try to include an “I Feel” Statement when I’m using Thought and Feeling Empathy, so I will sound human, and not like a robot or a parrot, simply repeating the other person’s words. Here’s an example:
“It’s painful for me to hear that you’ve been having such a hard time lately because I like you and have a lot of respect for you. (Stroking; “I Feel” Statement) You say you’ve been feeling panicky, depressed and angry about the pressure and lack of support at work. (Feeling Empathy) I’d like to hear more about what’s been going on, and what it’s been like for you. (Inquiry)”
When Should I Help? When Should I Listen?
Now I’ll address your second question about helping vs. listening, and when to do what. When I’m working with patients who feel depressed, anxious, or angry, I do pure empathy until they give me an “A” on empathy. Then I ask if they want help with anything they’ve been talking about, and if this a good time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
If the patient says he or she DOES want help and IS ready to get to work, I ask what he or she wants help with. That’s because patients may discuss a variety of problems during the Empathy phase of the session (or conversation if it is with a friend or family member.)
Once he or she states what problem he or she wants to work on, I go through the five steps of Paradoxical Agenda Setting so as to melt away the patient’s resistance prior to using any methods to help the patient.
The difficulty, potentially, with the approach you took is the high likelihood that the kids you were working with will fell you represent “authority” and that you are trying to sell them on your own thinking and values, rather than honoring their complaints about the church, which were likely valid! They didn’t really ask you to help them find solutions to these problems–that was YOUR agenda. Whenever I impose my own agenda on a group or individual, it tends not to work very well.
Paradoxical Agenda Setting is challenging to learn, but extremely powerful. Here are some suggestions if you want to learn more:
My psychotherapy eBook (entitled Tools, Not Schools, of Therapy) might be helpful to you. You can click here for the order form if you are interested.
If you are in the Bay Area, I offer unlimited weekly free psychotherapy training at Stanford. Click here for more information on times, locations, and individuals to contact for free or paid, in person or online, TEAM-CBT training groups.
I offer workshops on TEAM-CBT around the US and Canada. One of the very best is my summer intensive at the South San Francisco Training Center. Watch my website workshop page for updates of topics and locations.