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Practicing empathetic communication

Thanks to a recommendation from Benjamin Mitchell I’ve been listening to the Feeling Good Podcast by Dr. David Burns. Dr. Burns has what he calls The Five Secrets Effective Communication. At last week’s London Organizational Learning Meetup we were able to get a bit of practice applying these secrets, in particular those related to empathy.

Dr. Burns divides his five secrets into the three categories of Empathy, Assertiveness and Respect:


  • Disarming Technique: start with the words “you’re right” and find the truth in what the other person is saying
  • Thought Empathy and Feeling Empathy: summarize what the other person has said using their own words (TE), and make a guess as to how they are probably feeling based on what they’ve said (FE)
  • Inquiry: demonstrate interest in learning more about what they are thinking and feeling


  • “I Feel” Statements: share your own feelings using the construction of “I’m feeling” followed by an emotion. “I’m feeling worried” is in keeping with the formula; “I’m feeling you need to try harder” is not.


  • Affirmation: communicate respect and caring

For our practice at the meetup we tried an exercise suggested by Benjamin. Dividing into pairs, person A would attack person B (on a topic suggested by person B) and person B would defend themselves.

A: “You’re always leaving dishes in the sink and I’ve had about enough of it. Why don’t you ever think of other people?”
B: “I was running late as it was. You know how busy I’ve been!”

With this kind of back and forth the volume and energy of the conversation would escalate until we stopped the exchange after 30 seconds or so. Then we would start again on the same topic, with the same people, but this time with person B using the five secrets, and in particular starting off with the Disarming Technique.

A: “You’re always leaving dishes in the sink and I’ve had about enough of it. Why don’t you ever think of other people?”
B: “You’re right, I did leave the dishes in the sink today. I’m hearing that in your mind I’m not thinking of other people. I can see how upsetting that would be.”

Listening to this exercise again and again over the course of the meetup it was almost magical how effective the techniques were. After the empathetic reply the emotional tone of the discussion was entirely different. Person A might be using the same words but they just couldn’t summon the same emotional energy. It was hard to keep ranting when you were getting an empathetic response. I’m very encouraged to find new ways to practice and apply these techniques.

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