070: Five Secrets Training — Stroking

070: Five Secrets Training — Stroking

David and Fabrice discuss Stroking, the fifth of the Five Secrets of Effective Communication. The definition of Stroking is to express some warmth or admiration for the person you’re in conflict with, as well as people you’re NOT in conflict with! Essentially, you say something positive or complimentary about the other person, even in the heat of battle. It can make a huge difference in how the other person feels, and how the situation gets resolved.

In the last four podcasts we went over the  E = Empathy and the A = Assertiveness of the EAR acronym. In this podcast, we will concentrate on R = Respect. Stroking is the technique for the R = Respect. The term is crude, but I’ve never found an alternative that worked better.

Philosophically, Stroking goes back to the work of Martin Buber, the 20th century philosopher / theologian who talked about the difference between an “I – It” relationship and an “I – thou” relationship. In an “I – It” relationship, you think of the other person as an object to be manipulated, and not as a human being. You may compete with the other person, and try to beat or defeat them, or you may try to punish, exploit, or hurt them. For many examples, you only have to turn on the evening news and see how some of our politicians talk about their “enemies.” In contrast, in an “I – thou” relationship, you treat the other person with respect and dignity, even if you’re at odds, even if you’re feeling angry.

In the last podcast, we discussed “I Feel” Statements–sharing your own feelings openly. If you have negative feelings you need to express, you can include Stroking at the same time. Sometimes, that’s the sugar that makes the medicine go down.

Here’s an example. Let’s imagine you’re ticked off at a friend named Jim, and you’ve been arguing with each other and getting frustrated. I’ll give you example of how you might use Stroking, and i’ll put the name of the technique I used in parentheses after each sentence so you’ll know exactly what I’m doing.

“Jim, I’m feeling really ticked off at you right now, and I’m having fantasies of strangling you! (“I Feel” Statement) At the same time, it bothers me when we argue like this because I’ve always admired you tremendously and felt you were one of my best friends. (Stroking)  I know there’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying. and I’m sure when work this out, we’ll be even closer. (Disarming Technique) With that in mind, you can tell me more about how you’re thinking and feeling? (Inquiry) “

Hopefully, you can see that this type of statement conveys warmth, respect and openness, while at the same time clearly expressing your anger. Of course, this is just an example, and the way you express yourself will be very different.

Expressing your negative feelings with warmth requires discipline, because most of the time we get defensive and want to lash out at the person we’re mad at. And you can do that if you want–I give in to that urge every now and then, too! But if you express yourself with warmth and caring, and if you share your feelings instead of arguing or attacking the other person, or putting him or her down, you’ll usually get a far more positive response.

David describes how he used Stroking (along with the Disarming Technique) to good effect when he was ruthlessly put down by a hostile examiner during his oral medical board examination when he returned home to California with his family in 1995.

David and Fabrice describe errors people make when trying to use Stroking, such as saying something “canned” or formulaic that does not sound genuine or specific. All of the Five Secrets have to come from the heart or they’ll backfire.

David and Fabrice also describe the intense resistance that people often put up when trying to learn the Five Secrets. For example, you may tell yourself that you “shouldn’t have to” say something nice to the other person because you’re so mad, or because you’re labeling the other person as “a loser” or “a jerk” and you see that person in an entirely (and distorted) negative light, thinking (wrongly) that there ISN’T anything good or positive about him or her.

Your homework for this week will be to practice Stroking. Say five positive things to people every day, and you can do this easily in your day-to-day interactions with anyone, even strangers. You can find something you like or admire about the other person, and say that to them. People, for the most part, will like that and respond positively! We understand that this is a simple and superficial assignment. Once you’ve practiced it over and over, it will be far easier to use it effectively in the heat of battle!

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!


At least one listener has had problems leaving an iTunes review from his i-phone, so Fabrice has created some simple to follow instructions if you need help.


Two Common Five Secrets Errors: Don’t Sound like a Parrot! When to Help and When to Listen.

Two Common Five Secrets Errors: Don’t Sound like a Parrot! When to Help and When to Listen.


Dear colleague,

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 . . . .


* * *

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.


* * * 

Hi Angela,

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. An online TEAM-CBT course could help. I listed two yesterday.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. You could find a mentor for supervision and consultation at the Feeling Good Institute in Mt. View, California. They also have a TEAM-CBT Certification program which is excellent!




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067: Five Secrets Training — Thought and Feeling Empathy

067: Five Secrets Training — Thought and Feeling Empathy

Before discussing the topic for today (Thought and Feeling Empathy), David addresses a question submitted by a listener after he heard the introductory podcasts on the Five Secrets of Effective Communication. He questioned the value of the Disarming Technique, and protested that every time he “turned the other cheek” he simply ended up with two sore cheeks!

A great question, and David and Fabrice share their thinking. Many people, including therapists, are afraid of the Disarming Technique, thinking that something terrible will happen if they agree with someone who is criticizing them.

They emphasize the value of questions submitted by you, the listeners, and also suggest giving specific examples when they are having trouble using the Five Secrets. Specifically, if you write down exactly what the other person said to you, and exactly what you said next, David and Fabrice will gladly analyze the interaction and show you what errors you made that caused a bad outcome, as well as how to correct those errors!

David and Fabrice then discuss Thought and Feeling Empathy, the second of the Five Secrets of Effective Communication. The definition of Thought Empathy is repeating or paraphrasing what the other person is saying, so he or she will see that you listened and got the message. Feeling Empathy, in contrast, involves acknowledging how the other person is likely to be feeling, given what he or she just said. You can often follow this with Inquiry, asking if you got it right, and inviting the other person to tell you more about what he or she is thinking.

Although David does not like formulas, they can sometimes help you get started. So here’s the formula:

  1. Thought Empathy: Let me see if I got what you just said. You told me that A, B, and C. (A, B, and C would be what the person said to you, using his or her words.)
  2. Feeling Empathy: Given what you just said, I can imagine you might be feeling X, Y, and Z. (X, Y, and Z would be words from the Feeling Words list.)
  3. Inquiry: Did I get that right? Can you tell me more about what you’ve been thinking and feeling?

These techniques are invaluable in therapy, and go back to the pioneering work of Karl Rodgers, who argued that therapist empathy is the necessary and sufficient condition for personality change. Although subsequent research did not confirm this idea, there is still little argument that empathy is absolutely necessary for good therapeutic work.

In addition, skillful empathy is for everyone, and can greatly enhance your relationships with family members, friends, and colleagues, and strangers as well. For example, if you have a family member or friend who is feeling anxious, down, angry, or depressed, the skillful use of Thought and Empathy will almost always be far more effective than trying to help, rescue, or “fix” that person.


David brings Thought and Feeling Empathy to life with an example of a patient who criticizes his therapist, and then asks listeners, including you, to pause the podcast briefly so you can write down, from memory, what the patient just said. Most therapists who try this end up “forgetting” or editing out important portions of what the patient said. This irritates the other person, because you clearly did not “get it,” and his or her attack or complaining will usually escalate.

David and Fabrice discuss common errors therapists and general public make when trying to use Thought and Feeling Empathy. The most common error involves using the techniques in a robot-like manner, parroting back the other person’s statements repeatedly, without using “I Feel” Statements. They illustrate this error with a humorous example.

Other common errors when using Thought and Feeling Empathy include:

  • Helping
  • Rescuing
  • Giving advice
  • Correcting distortions
  • Making interpretations
  • Failing to acknowledge the other person’s anger


David encourages listeners (that includes you!) to try using Thought and Feeling Empathy three times each day, even in superficial interactions with people in any setting, such as the grocery store, and give examples of how to do this. Although this will not be the deepest application of these techniques, the practice will give you a clear understanding of how these techniques actually work.

David and Fabrice end this podcast with a powerful example of Thought and Feeling Empathy during an actual therapy session in David’s weekly psychotherapy training group. The “patient” in the therapy is a TEAM-CBT therapist named Rhonda who became depressed and anxious after receiving some critical therapy from a participant in a therapy group she was teaching.

Even if you are not a therapist, you can perhaps identify with the “ouch” we all feel when we are criticized by someone, and it hits a vulnerable spot. This is an almost universal human concern. It is so easy to feel hurt, depressed, ashamed, anxious, inadequate, and perhaps even a bit angry!

David invited one of the therapists in the group to empathize with Rhonda, as a part of his training, but he ended up with a less than stellar grade. David, Fabrice and Rhonda explain the errors he made–which actually made her feel worse.

Making errors is totally okay in a training and learning situation, as well as in real therapy sessions–as long as you get feedback and try to correct your errors with humility. This can actually deepen the therapeutic relationship.

David then asked Dr. Jill Levitt to try to model empathy again, and to address Rhonda’s concerns. Jill hits the ball out of the park and gets an A+ on empathy. David and Fabrice explain why her intervention was so effective, and why the Five Secrets have to come from the heart if they are to be maximally effective.

Jill is a master therapist and co-teaches the weekly TEAM-CBT training group, along with David and Dr. Helen Yeni-Komshian. If you would like to hear more of Jill’s fabulous empathy work, make sure you listen to the live therapy podcasts with Mark, the physician who felt like a failure as a father!

Next week, Helen returns for the remaining Podcasts on the Five Secrets!

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!


At least one listener has had problems leaving an iTunes review from his i-phone, so Fabrice has created some simple to follow instructions if you need help.