Dr. Janet Kinney, Licensed Psychologist


The Art of Communication

Active listening (i.e., showing others that you understand them) is one of the most important steps in effective communication. Generally, during an emotional moment, two people are desperately trying to get their points across to each other that neither is actually listening or one person is speaking and the other is tuning him or her out. If you want to be heard, it helps to listen first.

Active listening tools

 In order to listen, not just hear, you need to clear your mind of your own thoughts and comebacks and put your attention on the other person. Try doing the following:

  Make eye contact, nods of understanding, and listening noises: “Uh huh. . . .   hmm. . . .” People often keep talking until they feel they have been heard. Focusing on the speaker shortens monologues by helping the speaker realize you are listening.

  Rephrase: “Are you saying . . . ?” Retate in other words what has been said. This helps clarify the other person’s point. Ask questions if you don’t fully understand: “What do you mean by . . . ?”  Rephrase until the other person feels understood. This is often signified by a nod.

  Label feelings: “Do you feel . . . ? You seem to feel. . . .” Until emotions are recognized, people tend to hang on to them. Once feelings are identified, people can let them go. Highly accurate responses can draw out tears. Releasing such emotions deepens the connection between two people and takes communication to an intimate level. When people are mad, identify any hurt their anger may be masking. It is generally better to overstate distress than to minimize it.

  Validate feelings: “It makes sense that you feel . . . because. . . .”  The more irrational an emotion seems, the more fascinating it is to discover the cause. When you understand the “emotional logic” behind a feeling, it starts to make sense.  Feelings are not right or wrong, but are the result of helpful or harmful beliefs. Validating shows that you are not making judgments and helps others be less defensive or attacking.

It is far easier to make judgments and sneak in your own viewpoint than to listen. The examples in the following table show that in an emotional moment either person can turn conflict into true communication:




Active Listening Responses



Speaker’s Comment






Label Feelings






1.  How can I ever trust you to work out our problems when you left for two days?



     You think if things get tense again, I won’t be able to handle it and I’ll leave.



     The idea of trusting me seems to make you feel more wor­ried and anxious.



     I can see why you would not trust me until I show you that I can be different.



2.  I left because our argument was so bad, I thought it would get physical.



     You thought the wisest thing to do was leave and not chance the possi­bility of a fight.



     The idea that we might physically fight must have been really scary for you.



     It makes sense that when I pushed you, you were afraid you might strike back.



3.  If you think I’m going to do my homework now, you’re nuts.



     You think that this is a very poor time to do your assign-ment.



     Are you resentful that I’m asking you to do homework when we have company?



     I can see why you would feel left out when everyone else is having a good time.



4.  You never listen to me—You just try to fix me.



     What do you mean when you say I try to “fix” you?



     You get frustrated when I think for you and give you solutions.



     It makes sense that you want me to hear your ideas in­stead of giving you mine.



5.  I have to do some­thing to help you when you complain so much!



     You think that if you don’t help me, I’ll never feel better.



     You must feel a lot of pressure when I get upset.



     People have always counted on you, so I can see why you take over.


  Active listening sounds artificial! This is true. Feeding back, labeling feelings, and validating are learned responses. Reassuring, explaining, and insulting come naturally and do not have to be taught, but hey are generally the worst thing to do during an emotional moment.

   You do not have to use active listening every time someone talks to you. Disagreeing and advising can make everyday banter fun and challenging. It is only during emotional moments, when you notice tension, that it is essential to switch gears and become an active listener.

   When you carefully listen without inserting your views, other people will often respond accordingly. However, your concerns may diminish when you thoroughly understand others.

Trying to get your point across without thoroughly understanding other people is like venturing into enemy territory without first doing reconnaissance work. Your power comes from understanding others—not from being understood!



Communication That Cures Problems

Reassuring, explaining, and insulting leads to a pattern of defensiveness and self-protection. A gulf develops as partners repel each other and differences become extreme. The first step to bridging this chasm is to become aware of the communication patterns that feed it. You can start by identifying what your partner does that bothers you. However, immediately examine how you react. For example, if your partner is sloppy, have you become the critic? If your partner is critical, do you find yourself on the defensive or withdrawing? Whenever a problem occurs, the variety of responses to it is endless. Yet, most people get stuck in defense or tune-out reactions.


Directions: Do you use automatic defend-withdraw-attack communication patterns that are oriented toward winning and losing, or learned responses that offer a way to resolve problems by which both parties win? Mark habit reactions on the left or thoughtful responses on the right that are typical for you.

    Change Habit Reactions       . . .           Into Thoughtful Responses



Instead of defending or withdrawing:




     Use active listening:1



      Apologizing: “I’m sorry I...”

      Reassuring: “I really do...”

      Explaining: “The reason is...”

      Justifying: “I was just ... ”

      Tuning out




      Clarify/rephrase: “What do you mean by . . . ?” “Are you saying . . . ?”

        Label feelings: “You must feel . . .” “You seem . . .”

        Validate feelings: “It makes sense that  . . .” “It must be hard when ...”








Instead of controlling:



Use effective expression:2



        Convincing: “You have to understand . . .”

        Disagreeing: “You’re wrong about . . .”

        Advising/lecturing: “Why don’t you . . . ?”

      Ordering: “You have to...”

        Threatening: “ . . . or else”




        State your feelings: “I feel . . . when you . . .”

        Make requests: “Would you . . . ?”

        Set limits: “I’m willing/ not willing to . . .”








Instead of condemning:




Use deflecting and defusing:3



        Complaining: “You don’t . . .” “Nothing
ever . . .”

        Blaming: “You never ...”

        Criticizing: “You should/shouldn’t . . .”

        Comparing: “Why can’t you be more like ...”

        Predicting the worst: “You’ll never . . .”

        Accusing: “I know you’re . . .”

        Insulting, name-calling, making slurs

        Taunting, teasing, rejecting

        Using sarcastic, mocking, patronizing tones




        Turn killer words into kindness: Agree in fact or theory, take or give compliments; find golden nuggets, dramatize, twist the tone; use reverse psychology.

        Understand causes and effects of intimi­dation; label feelings, sympathize, ask questions; express feelings, wants, and limits.

        Use “power words”: try, dare, but; un­related comments and general humor.



1See Getting the Love You Wantby Harville Hendrex (Henry Holt, 1988).

2See Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venusby John Gray (HarperCollins, 1992).

3See How to Handle Bullies, Teasers and Other Meaniesby Kate Cohen-Posey (Rainbow Books, 1995).


The most important communication response to use when either you or your partner is upset is to show understanding. It does not help to understand unless you demonstrate your understanding by rephrasing thoughts, labeling feelings, and validating factors that contribute to emotions. Using all three active listening responses can produce powerful results.

Advantages of first showing understanding

Many people believe understooding, resolution of feelings, and needs can only be accomplished through talk. When the art of listening is understood, it makes sense why the opposite is true:

  You can reduce the intensity of your own reactions by understanding the hurt that underlies your partner’s undesirable behavior. Assume that when your partner does not treat you well, there is an old resentment or fear behind that behavior.

  Your partner will have less need to defend, withdraw, attack, or give long-winded speeches: It may take several statements of understanding before your partner realizes that you simply want to understand without trying to force changes.

  The best way to obtain understanding is by giving it: As your partner’s defenses come down, he or she will want to understand how things have been for you. Your persistent efforts to show understanding will serve as a model that can teach your partner to rephrase, identify feelings, validate, and sympathize.

  Long-lasting solutions come from active listening and understanding.  Demonstrate approval and appreciation of the little things your partner does to meet your needs.  Avoid criticizm.

These steps are to change are simple, but they are not easy. It can be extremely difficult to put your own need for understanding aside to focus on your partner. However, once you are freed of the need to attack, defend, and withdraw, the rigid divisions in the relationship will begin to fall apart. Your mind will open to a vast array of tactics that can change the way you and your partner deal with problems.4


4 See The SevenPrinciples for Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman (Crown Publishers, 1999) for more information on the dangers of attacking, defending, and withdrawing.

See cmhamj.com/pamphlets/Relationship/0302.pdf for complete pamphlet