Boundaries and Bridges


Difficult Conversations

Difficult Conversations

Sympathy vs Empathy

Sympathy has become a sort of bad word these days. Empathy has become the end-all-be-all form of caring. The differences between the two concepts can be quite confusing. Worse still, there is no common accepted definition for the two words. Depending on the source, the definition for sympathy can be the same as that for empathy. Sometimes the definitions will flip-flop depending on the source.

We make the distinction between the two terms for an important reason. Empathy, according to modern convention, is a more genuine form of caring. In empathy, the person demonstrates caring by feeling what the other person feels.

This Article Contains:

What is empathy? Brene Brown Short
What is the process of caring?
What are hidden messages in communication?
What is the hidden message of empathy?
What are the hidden messages of sympathy?
How to be more clear in your messaging.
Managing conflicting emotions
The limits of empathy

What is empathy?

See the short video below:

The process of caring

I like to keep things as simple as possible. But we have to break it down.

When someone expresses hurt, the other person will feel something. Compassion (or simply caring) is the common emotion. Compassion is the feeling we get when we internalize the other person’s pain. We bring their sadness or suffering inside us. We sample it inside our minds. We don’t have control over this process of compassion. We either feel compassion for the other person or we don’t. We don’t control the degree. We don’t control other feelings also competing for our attention. None of these things are within our control, at least not at first. They all operate within the processes of our subconscious. Over time, we can influence how we feel, but we still don’t control it.

Our instinctive response to feeling compassion, the sampling of someone else’s pain, is to send a return message back to the other person. “I hear you and I care about you.” When they receive this message, they will feel something in response. If they receive the message clearly, they will feel heard and cared for.

So, what’s going on with sympathy and empathy?

Empathy and sympathy are behaviors of communication. They are different ways of communicating back the message: “I hear you and I care about you.” Empathy and sympathy are both bridging behaviors. They are intended to communicate connection to the other person.

But they do more than that. Even though they are also intended to communicate, “I care about you,” they end up communicating something more. There is a hidden message.

Hidden messages in communication

Communication is never as simple as the words we express. Nonverbal communication includes all kinds of hidden messages from our subconscious.

Part of being genuine is eliminating hidden messages. Or at least making sure that hidden messages and intended messages are congruent with one another. Being genuine is all about being upfront about what you truly intend to communicate. Empathy is genuine. Sympathy is not. Sympathy contains mixed, conflicting messages. Worse, the person expressing sympathy lacks awareness of these hidden messages. Let’s take a look.

The hidden message of empathy

Here is the intended message of empathy: “I hear you and I care about you.”

Here is the hidden message of empathy: “I am open to receiving your feelings and feeling what you feel.”

This hidden message is straightforward and implied. It is congruent with intended message, which is why empathy is considered genuine.

The hidden messages of sympathy

Now let’s look at sympathy. There are many possible hidden messages that people inadvertently attach when communicating using sympathy. These messages ride alongside the intended message. They are carried by a person’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues. Wording also matters, as we saw in the video above.

The intended message of sympathy is the same: “I hear you and I care about you.”

Here are some possible hidden messages that ride alongside the intended message. Let’s first look at communicating lack of availability:

  • “I don’t have enough time to meet your needs right now.”
  • “I can only give you part of my attention right now.”
  • “I only have so much of myself to can give you right now.”
  • “I don’t want to feel what you’re feeling right now.” or “I’m glad I’m not the one feeling that way.”

Next, let’s look at communicating dismissal:

  • “I would like to dismiss your problem with a quick-fix.” or “I would like to dismiss your problem with a few token words.”
  • “Your problem really isn’t that important.” or “You’re overreacting.”
  • “You’re bothering me with this right now. I don’t like it. Please stop.”

Next, let’s look at communicating arrogance:

  • “I know exactly how to solve your problem. You should do this. In fact, I’m surprised you didn’t already think of that.”

Finally, let’s look at communicating that one lacks the ability to make the other person feel heard and cared for. In other words, a hidden message of incompetency.

  • I am not a good listener.
  • “I lack the personal abilities to meet your needs right now.” or “I do not know how to adequately express my feelings of caring through my behavior.” or “I don’t know how to make you feel cared for.”
  • “I lack the ability to make you feel better.”
  • “I don’t know how to solve your problem.” Paradoxically, the very act of trying to solve the person’s problem directly through fixing is actually communicating the hidden message, “I don’t know how to solve your problem.”
  • “I don’t understand your issue.”

Instead of sympathy, try being more clear in your messaging

Here we see that sympathy can communicate one of these things: lack of availability, dismissal, arrogance, or personal incompetency. To be genuine, I would recommend practicing the following.

  • If you lack availability to help at that moment, simply communicate that directly and clearly. For example, “I can see that you’re hurting. I’m really stressed out at the moment also. I can’t help you right now, and I’m sorry about that. Can we talk about this later tonight?”
  • If you lack competency, please also communicate that clearly. “I can tell that you’re suffering. I don’t know how I can help. Please tell me what I can do. If you can’t think of anything, then please just tell me more about what happened. Or if you prefer, we can just sit here and be sad together for a bit.” The hidden message here is one of humility, which goes a long way to making someone feel heard and cared for.
  • If you are feeling arrogant or feeling like dismissing the other person’s issue, instead of communicating this, consider looking inward at yourself. Why are you feeling this way? What do you value about the relationship?

Conflicting emotions

It is very common to insert hidden messages in communication. So far, I have only provided common examples, not an exhaustive list of possible hidden messages. The number of different types of hidden messages is only limited by a person’s imagination.

It is human to have different emotions compete to be the one that drives our behavioral response. For instance, a person could be feeling compassion. But they could also, at the same time, be feeling angry, anxious, happy, or something else. When we experience these conflicting emotions, we are forced to make a choice. Our behavior–the message we send back–will reflect the emotions we insert into it. Consider verbalizing these competing emotions to the other person:

“I feel sorry for you getting hurt. I care for you. But I’m also angry.” It is at this point that the speaker has a genuine choice. They can focus on the caring and listening, they can focus on expressing their anger, or they can pause and create space for more self-reflection.

The limits of empathy

All values can become weaponized. Empathy is no exception. There are many ways to weaponize empathy. The most straightforward way is by attacking another person’s identity by saying that they lack it. However, most of the time, empathy is weaponized in a more underhanded type of way.

The most common way to misuse empathy is to wield it, bluntly, as a weapon to attack another competing, legitimate value. For instance, consider the exchange:

“Can’t you see that I need your empathy in this moment?” Partner’s response: “Can’t you see that I’m paralyzed by my own panic attack right now?”

In this exchange, one person is demanding empathy. The other person is experiencing anxiety, which is causing them to go into a self-protective mode, which makes it very difficult to express empathy. Or try this one:

“You don’t care about me.” Response: “Yeah, well you don’t respect me.”

Here both people are attacking each other with their weaponized values: respect and empathy.

A demand for excess, unfettered empathy is highly problematic. Empathy must be balanced by other important values. Because it is a bridging value, it typically needs an effective boundary. People in health care fields who express strong empathic behavior and lack appropriate personal boundaries will inevitably cycle towards burnout. Burnout is a process of negative cycling. In essence, they care too much about others and lack the ability to care for themselves.

Next: expressing empathy through Active Listening.

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Difficult Conversations

Do we fit together?

Do we fit?

Where do I fit?

These are the ultimate identity questions. We all want to know if we fit in our jobs, in our families, in our relationships. How do we begin to answer these questions?

Like everything else, we must trust our feelings. Our feelings have purpose. One of the biggest reasons we have such strong feelings is to help us determine where we fit. As fit improves, we become happier. When fit remains stable over time (whether for good or bad), we may become content. When fit worsens, we develop negative feelings like anxiety, sadness, or anger.

What does it mean to fit in a place?

Fit is really a question of value. What do we value? How do we arrange different aspects of our lives in terms of value? What is most important: family, career, lifestyle, hobbies, etc.?

Follow these steps to determine if you fit

Step 1. Start by taking each of the important aspects of your life and arranging them by value. Put them in categories of Most Important, Moderately Important, and Less Important. Be honest. Put things where they belong.

Step 2. Next, create three circles. Have a small circle, then a larger one, then a largest one.

Step 3. Now start filling in the three circles. The center circle, being the smallest, can only fit 2-5 words. Generally, these words are critical people in your life, the closest members of your family. Imagine the people you might donate a kidney to or run into a burning building to rescue. For some people, career/job would go in the center circle, but take care. There isn’t a lot of room in the center for both career/job and multiple family members. As you move out from the center, people and things get less important. Your willingness to sacrifice on their behalf becomes less.

Most people have a hard time being truly honest with themselves in filling in the value hierarchy. To keep yourself honest, look to past behavior to find out what you truly value. Where do people land? If you live far away from someone, they don’t belong in the center. Which jobs or family members would you relocate for? Where do you put your material goods? What about your favorite hobbies? Your best friend?

If you have an addition to alcohol or making money, put those things in the center where they belong. Keep in mind, there’s not a lot of room in the center. If things start to get crowded, draw another smaller circle. What/who would you sacrifice for what/who? Look to past behavior to make that determination. How do you allocate your time? Be brutally honest.

Step 4. Next, we want to determine if there is a good fit. To do that, we have to draw another value hierarchy. If you are evaluating your fit at a job, ask yourself where you are situated in that job’s value hierarchy. Sketch it out. Use employer’s behavior as a guide. How easily are you replaceable? Does the employer put its employees or customers / making money first? Again, the center of the circle doesn’t have much room.

Good Fit

This is an example of a good fit. Both the employee and the employer value each other to the same degree. The job isn’t the most important thing in the employee’s life (immediate family belongs there), but there is still a considerable amount of loyalty. From the employer’s standpoint, the employees are valued to a moderate degree, but the employer isn’t willing to sacrifice its own long-term well-being for its employees. Overall, this is a healthy situation for everyone.

One could easily imagine a job where the relationship is less important to both parties. Consider a fast-food job or something temporary. One could also imagine a job where the relationship is more important to both. Consider a professional athlete who spends 12-16 hours a day on their craft. This career probably belongs in the center. There may or may not be room for anyone else. Other spouses and family members may belong just outside in their own dedicated circle. There may not be anything wrong with this so long as everyone is honest with themselves.

Not a good fit

Here is an example of a poor fit. In this case, the employee values the employer far more than the employer values its employee. The employee exists in the employer’s outer value circle and is essentially replaceable. On the other hand, the employee is expected to value the job to a considerable degree.

Remember that a value is different from a feeling. Feelings are innate to the individual and outside our immediately control. Conversely, we value things through our actions. In the value hierarchy, it makes no difference what the parties say about each other. Words are meaningless here. Nor does it matter how they feel about each other. The employee may hate their job. But if their actions show that they value the job to a considerable degree, it makes no difference what they say they feel.

A poor fit, like what is shown, is extremely damaging to both parties. The relationship is psychologically perverse. It creates moral injury and a toxic environment. One side feels “used” while the other side naturally manufactures a culture of dishonesty as it fights against the reality that it is abusing its employees.

The same thing occurs in personal relationships when one person values the other more highly. Unless the distortion is resolved, the relationship is destined to become more toxic over time.

There are many other types of distortions in value hierarchy. A person’s marriage can become cold over time. Both parties may agree that they no longer value each other much, and so the relationship may appear to be balanced. However, one person or both may be acting in unhealthy ways because the situation is far from what they want out of life. They may be depressed or anxious, and their actions will likely reflect this alteration in mood. They may constantly pick fights with their spouse or refuse to speak cordially with them. All of these actions are signs of tremendous distortion.

Keep in mind that just because something or someone is on the outside circle, that doesn’t mean they aren’t important or that you can’t develop excellent relationships with that person or endeavor. One should strive to have healthy, satisfying relationships with everyone. We only use the value hierarchy to determine order of importance. When push comes to shove, who or what takes priority?

Suffocation: A person may be suffocating their partner. When this happens, other aspects of the partner’s life may be pushed way to the fringes. There may not be much room for other parts of the person’s identity. This is not healthy as it naturally leads to co-dependency.


Aim to achieve balance with your value hierarchy. Each circle should remain free of distortion. All relationships inside the circles are proportional. How you value your friends corresponds to how they value you. The same thing can be said for your job and other aspects of your life.

If two people don’t value each other equally, then they don’t fit together. Unfortunately, this then requires a reevaluation of the relationship before they begin to resent each other.

Next, we will look at how to evaluate Identity.

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Difficult Conversations

Difficult Conversations: Telling your story

“Words create the bridges between us.  Without them we would be lost islands.  Affection, recognition and understanding travel across these fragile bridges and enable us to discover each other and awaken friendship and intimacy.”

John O’Donohue, Beauty

We are going to discuss how to have a difficult conversation with someone whom you disagree.

In any difficult conversation, you must be able to advocate for yourself.  You have a story to tell.  It is your story–your perspective on events.  Mutual understanding cannot occur if your story is not expressed.  To be effective, per Douglas Stone, author of Difficult Conversations, you must learn to “speak with clarity and power.” 

Telling your story is best accomplished after you have effectively listened to the other person’s story.  You now understand their point of view.  You can see the impact of events on them.  You should have a clear understanding of their intent: their goals and values.  You understand their thought processes and feelings involved.  Where did they start from and where did they intend to end up?

You have an advantage in going second. You can tailor your story to address key moments that were brought up during the telling of the other person’s story. You are not going to try to undermine their story, but you can start to close the gap between what you both know. They might have observed that you appeared to be feeling one way, for instance. However, your feelings may have been far more complex. You can help clarify for them which observations they made about you were true and which weren’t.

Remind them that their beliefs regarding your own feelings and intentions are merely hypotheses needing to be tested.

Remember, emotional intelligence experts need not apply. Give the other person credit if they’ve observed you feeling certain feelings. Kindly correct them when your feelings, thoughts, and intentions are different than what they imagined. Remind them that their beliefs regarding your own feelings and intentions are merely hypotheses needing to be tested.

This Article Contains:

Before starting… sort out your own story in your head
How to understand three perspectives in any difficult conversation
How to begin from the “third story”
How to roll into your story: Start with a feeling and an identity anchor
Do’s of telling your story
Things to avoid when telling your story:
How to turn blame into contribution
How to be genuine
How to manage nonverbal communication
How to balance honesty in storytelling
How to exercise discretion – you are not an open book
The back-and-forth rhythm of storytelling
Bookshelf: advanced reading on difficult conversations

Before starting… sort out your own conversation in your head

Your goal is to create a learning conversation.  Understanding is key.  To do this, you must first exercise some humility yourself.  You are not here to dole out blame and punishments, whether to yourself or the other person.  You are not going to prescribe “fixes” for the issue.  You do not have all the answers and solutions.  Solutions will blossom organically only after mutual understanding is achieved.  Let connection be the cure

Let connection be the cure. 

To be effective, you must be able to sort out your own story in your head.  It’s ok if your story is still confusing, but you must have a good chunk of it arranged first.  Saying, “I don’t know” is a very effective signal of humility that invites curiosity from the listener.

Chances are you are confused by your own conflicting feelings.  Having heard the other person’s story, there are parts of you that can now empathize with their point-of-view.  That is expected. If you can’t do this yet, go back and try active listening again until you can.

You should also expect to have other parts of you now rebelling against some things they said.  That is normal and natural. After all, your point-of-view matters, too! Do your best to map out these feelings ahead of time.  You can then get them out there.  In fact, this is often a great place to begin, by stating out-loud the internal conflict that you have.  “I have mixed feelings about this situation. On the one hand, I am very appreciative when you… On the other hand, it also makes me quite angry…”

Understand three perspectives in any difficult conversation

Before you begin, you must also have a good understanding of perspective.  There are three perspectives at stake in any difficulty conversation.  Each person has their own perspective—their own story.  This includes the personal feelings, thoughts, values, and mental processes that the person experienced.  It also includes their intentions, their observations, and the impact of unfolding events on them.  

The “third story”

This chart shows three perspectives. The first perspective is shown in orange, which represents one person’s story. That person felt the impact of events and circumstances and then took some action. The second perspective is shown in blue, which represents the second person’s story. They also felt the impact of events and circumstances and then took some action.

The “third story” occurs when we take a step back and see the impact of everyone’s actions altogether. Here we see the basic outline of a behavior cycle. One person’s actions have an impact on the other person, who responds in turn. The third story is an outsider’s perspective, the type of perspective that would be assumed by a mediator or relationship counselor.

The goal here is not to judge who is right. Instead, the mediator’s job is to allow both stories to be heard. Only then will imaginative solutions reveal themselves. Both sides must see the true impact of their actions. How does that impact then feed into the cycle in a type of rhythm. A person who feeds negative energy into the system should fully expect that negative energy to return to them–to bounce back. It may bounce back amplified or diminished, depending on how much work the second person puts in to affect it. But nevertheless, it will return.

Begin from the “third story”

It is most effective to begin your story from the position of the “third story.” You now have both stories in your mind. Look at the whole of everything that has happened. How did their behavior affect yours? How did your behavior affect theirs? Most likely, both of you contributed to the cycle, at least in some way. Start by saying things like:

  • “I don’t like the way things have gone between us. After hearing you, I can see now that we both contributed to the problem…”
  • “I can see now how we’ve both been attacking each other, each in our own different ways, and that this hasn’t been healthy for our relationship…”
  • “After hearing you, I can see how the connection between us has frayed and finally come to a head here…”

The third story is an admission of humility. It puts aside the discussion about right-vs-wrong–blame and guilt. These concepts are generally toxic to understanding. We are not seeking to punish. Instead, we look to concepts of safety, values, perspective, accountability, connection, and understanding. Each of these concepts can only be seen fully from the “third story.” It is here in this space that we can establish safe boundaries and build bridges of connection.

Start with a feeling and an identity anchor

After giving brief statement acknowledging the existence of the “third story,” feel free to roll into your story. If this is particularly difficult conversation, consider starting with an identity anchor and a feeling that you might attach to that anchor. Typically, the identity anchor is the main subject at hand. It could be the relationship between the two individuals or another important relationship that forms the focus of discussion. Then say plainly how you’ve been feeling about that subject.

For example:

  • I worry about our son
  • I really like my job, but I feel things haven’t been working out for me lately…
  • I’ve been feeling somewhat disconnected from you these past few months…
  • I’ve had a lot of anger recently. I’m not sure what it’s about, but it’s got something to do with stress at work. I know that it’s made me feel disconnected from you
  • I’ve got a lot of mixed feelings about spending Christmas with your parents

In each case, you’ve clarified what you think is the primary subject for discussion. You make it plain that this subject is important to you just by bringing it up. Then you give a feeling. Remember that feelings are energy. This important feeling (or small group of mixed feelings) will drive your story forward.

From here, you may not know exactly how your story will go from the outset. Engage with your listener. Let them ask curious questions. Give them some freedom to play around in your world. Give as much control to the listener as possible. You have important points make, certainly. But the order in which you tell them isn’t necessarily as important.

Do’s of telling your story

  • Start with what matters most.  The listener’s energy tanks are highest at the beginning.  Don’t work up to the most important subject by easing them into it.  This will only heighten everybody’s anxiety or surprise them at the end after they’re starting to feel exhausted.
  • Speak for yourself with power. This is your story. These are your feelings and values. This is your perspective–how you see things. There is no need to beat around the bush. But if you are confused or your feelings are mixed, make sure to state this also. Feelings and values are sacrosanct. They are personal to you and not to be questioned.
  • Present your thoughts and conclusions as hypotheses needing to be tested. Everything is experimental at this point. You do not have all the answers. Your judgment is not the final word. Let the listener hear your thoughts but leave wiggle room for changing your mind. You need to know the difference between feelings, values, thoughts and conclusions. Here are some examples:
    • I felt abandoned when I saw you flirting with that other girl (feeling).
    • I value family over workplace responsibilities (value).
    • I observed that you appeared uncomfortable around my ex (an observation / thought).
    • I thought that you cared more about your job than mine (thought).
    • I believe that we made a mistake when we let our daughter go to that party (conclusion).
  • Tell the process behind your conclusions. Recognize how past experiences may have created biases in your mind:
    • “I grounded our kids for a week because that’s what my parents would have done if I’d skipped school. That’s what worked for me when I was a child. I understand the same strategy may not also work for our children…”
  • Talk about your conflicting feelings.  You don’t have to fully understand them.
    • “I’ve had these feelings of shame lately. I don’t know where they come from. I know I’m worried about our finances…”
  • Give examples of ways the other person might have communicated better for you. Present these as suggestions, not as absolute ways in which something ought to be done.
    • “When you said that to me, it really didn’t sit well. I know I exploded. Now that I’ve seen your side of things, I think it would’ve been helpful for me if you had said… instead. That’s a message that would’ve resonated with me and not rubbed me the wrong way.”
    • “When you said you were bored last year at the lake cabin, what I heard was that you don’t like spending time with my family and that they drive you nuts. I think I would have responded better if you had said that you would prefer to do a canoe trip with my family rather than sit around fishing.”
  • Call out their behavior.  Help them understand the impact their behavior had on you.  However, you must be careful not to make definitive judgments on right vs wrong.
    • “I don’t think it’s appropriate for your daughter to be wearing those clothes. I think they will attract the wrong kind of attention from the boys at school.”
    • “You are staying out until 2AM with your buddies and coming home drunk. Maybe that’s ok on occasion, but I don’t think that’s appropriate behavior for a married man.”
    • “I think you were too hard on the kids today. You really blew up at them.”
    • “I feel like I can’t talk to you. It seems that when things get difficult, you retreat to your office and spend hours there with the door shut.”
    • “I feel like lately you’ve been dismissing my concerns about our son’s bullying at school.”
  • Be sure not to attack their identity (directly). You are not accusing them of being a bad spouse, parent, worker, etc. You are only calling out behavior or patterns of behavior. Take care with accusatory language that calls out who they are. In fact, even as you’re calling out their behavior, you should be building up their identity at the same time. Here are examples of what not to do:
    • “No boyfriend has ever treated me like that before.”
    • “None of my friends would’ve found that acceptable…”
    • “Why can’t you be more like her?”
    • “You’ve let yourself go.”
  • Avoid making them feel like you’re attacking their identity (implicitly). In the process of calling out behavior, you may establish a pattern that paints the picture of a bad person. Your goal is not to lay out a prosecutor’s case for jail time. Make it clear that you still respect and appreciate their identity.
    • “I’m not saying you’re a bad father. I just think you could’ve handled that fight with our daughter better. Here are some things I would have done differently…”
    • “I want to make clear that even though I felt abandoned when you didn’t support me changing careers, that was uncharacteristic of how you had helped me so many times before. It was surprising because of all the other things you supported me with over the years… I still appreciate you for all of that.”
  • Pause to check in with how they are feeling periodically. Make sure you still have permission to continue the conversation.
    • “That was a lot. I appreciate you. Do you need a break?”
  • Recognize when they begin feeling defensive. Rather than accuse them of defensiveness, realize that you are probably saying too much too quickly. Slow down and let them speak, too.
    • “It seems your anxiety meter going through the roof right now. I understand this is a lot. I’m uncomfortable, too. But I appreciate you listening. Can you tell me more about what you’re thinking right now?”
  • Speak from a place of empathy.  Your caring is directed towards the relationship, which you must regard as important.  Connection is cure.  Your goal is to always build connection and understanding, not destroy the other person or prove one side right or wrong. Keep supporting the listener in their role. You want to build them up.
  • Kindly remind them if they switch to fix-it mode. Tell them you need them to be a good listener now. Fix-it mode is what we do to hurry up and dismiss the other person’s feelings. It is usually a sign the listener is running low on energy. Ask them to be patient and keep listening, if they are able. Or suggest a break.
  • Be accountable for your mistakes and contributions. Point out that you have room to grow. Hopefully you learned something from listening to their side of the story. Point that out. It will give them hopeful energy that you’re on the right track.
  • Discuss openly areas of fit.
    • “I’m not sure you’re the right person for this job.”
    • “I question if we’re right for each other and if we share the same values.”
    • “I can’t tell if you’re fully committed to the relationship the way I am.”

Things to avoid when telling your story:

  • Avoid easing-in, prefacing, or beating around the bush. Instead, just get right to the point. For example, don’t says something like:
    • “There’s something I need to tell you and I don’t think you’re going to like it. I want you to know, before I say it, that I still think you’re a good person…”
  • Presenting your conclusions as “the truth”
  • Absolutes: “always,” “never”
  • Avoid insults.
  • Emotional Intelligence experts need not apply. Avoid assuming you know the other person’s mind, thoughts or feelings. You may score very high on emotional intelligence tests and think you’re an expert on reading people. This mistaken belief will probably hurt you during the discussion. It’s best to speak from a position of humility.
  • Avoid destroying their identity, even if you do question their fit within a group. Even if they did something terrible, it does not make them a bad person. Keep the focus on their behavior (actions and impact). Do not assume their intentions. Remember, their identity is not defined by a single action or pattern of behavior. For conflict resolution to be successful, both individuals’ identities should be strengthened over time.
    • Also keep in mind, identity is not the same as ego. Ego relates to one’s belief in one’s own abilities compared to others. A healthy dose of humility (a reality check) is needed from time to time to balance out ego. Identity relates to a person’s role within a group. There is no person-to-person comparison. Instead, in regard to identity, we measure group cohesion, or fit. For instance, a person’s ego may be too high. However, a group can never be too cohesive. A person can never fit too well within a group. A family can never be too close.
    • Another example of questioning fit without attacking a person’s identity: “I don’t think you’re a bad partner, I just question whether the two of us are a good fit.”

Turn blame into contribution

Blame is toxic to a relationship. Blame often exists as a poor proxy for a discussion about feelings and impact. To move forward, each person must understand their contributions to past problems. This needs to be done without blaming.

Blame also muddles important issues of intent, behavior, identity, feelings, thoughts, and values. These elements need to be separated out, processed, and understood. People who throw around blame are cheating themselves and others. To put it bluntly, blaming is lazy. It is short-cutting the difficult work of separating these key elements, seeing multiple conflicting perspectives, and then seeing the overall evolution of what has been happening.

The toxic nature of blaming can be understood as a type of vicious cycle. Overall blaming tends to contract personal growth for all parties involved. Parties take turns assuming postures of attack and defensiveness. Their ability to appreciate multiple perspectives diminishes. It leads to inflexibility in values and behavior. Blaming also generates feelings of cynicism. Finally, cynicism destroys connection, which completes the cycle of toxicity. We call this negative cycling when a person or group gets caught in a trap of blaming and cynicism.

Escaping the trap involves transforming a discussion about blame into a discussion about contribution. Here is a table showing examples of this transformation:

Questions intent.Questions fit.
Who is the cause?  (This question assumes finite perspective inside a finite time frame).Assume multiple causes witnessed across multiple perspectives over an expansive timeframe.
Judge actions against a “standard” (for example: “my friends all do things this way…”).Evaluate value system fit.
Assign roles to individuals in the story: “the accused,” “the victim,” “the enabler,” “the ally”.Start with a neutral discussion of roles. Assume everyone is a “contributor” to problems that have arisen.
“blame” is a poor (lazy) proxy for feelings.Feelings are discussed openly.
Define a person by their behavior (diminish and attack a person’s identity).Separate intent, behavior, identity, feelings and values (i.e. separate behavior from the person).
Use cynicism as an instrument of attack. Alternate attack and defensive postures. Question cynicism? Where does it come from? Refocus energy towards understanding and growth.
Focus on one perspective.All perspectives respected and explored.

Be genuine

Being genuine is about being aware of oneself and taking steps to align one’s beliefs, values, and actions. Being genuine is harder than it sounds. There are many pieces involved. Here are a few key, basic steps:

  • Have awareness of one’s own feelings, beliefs, and values. How does one element influence the other?
  • Have awareness of raw spots, areas of past personal trauma and injury.  How does your past influence present feelings and values?
  • Have awareness of how your values and feelings work together to drive your behavior.
  • Take active steps to change behavior so that beliefs, values, and actions become better aligned over time.
  • Recognize the impact of your own actions on others and on yourself.
  • Being genuine has little to do with the specific words and phrases you choose. Instead, being genuine is about reflecting your true feelings and values. Communicate your true feelings to the other person. Don’t pretend to feel one way, when in fact you feel something else. Be sure that you stay consistent to your values.

Managing nonverbal communication

Be aware of the nonverbal communication you are using. Remember that what you communicate is the summation of your words and emotions. In your message, emotions overshadow words by a tremendous amount. A message completely changes when delivered with compassion vs with anger, disgust, or contempt.

Practice delivering your message with compassion rather than using other emotions.  If the other person is listening, they will be doing so with empathy. It’s best to match their caring with your own.

Rather than focusing on the right message with the right words, instead practice using the correct emotions to deliver your message. This doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice being genuine. State out loud what emotions you are feeling, but then take steps to keep them from steamrolling the listener. Let them exist, but also hold them back.

Balancing honesty

Honesty is a key value in communicating. However, honesty needs to be balanced by compassion and listening. You cannot just bulldoze the other person with your unbridled opinions. If you want to be understood, follow a few final steps:

  • Pick and choose pieces of your story, when to deliver them and how.
  • Be patient.  Pause and check-in.  Be curious about how they are receiving your story.  Give them breaks when needed.
  • Tailor your message to your audience. Be cognizant of their emotional response. The message you rehearse is not necessarily the one you will give. 
  • Avoid ulterior motives (agendas) other than mutual understanding.  All additional motives must be set aside. You are not trying to convince your listener of anything apart from making them understand your story.
  • Edit! Edit! Edit! Behind every good story is a good editor. Rarely would a deleted scene ever add to a movie. Likewise, you do not have to subject your listener to your every fleeting thought, detail, idea, and impulse. You can edit out much of it while still remaining true to your story. Keep the core pieces that build to understanding. Leave the extraneous behind which may otherwise throw off the listener and detract from your message.

Exercise discretion. You are not an open book.

There are details in your life that you would rather not share. The listener doesn’t have a right to learn things that ought to be kept private. But you don’t have lie by omission. Simply let them know that you don’t feel comfortable answering certain types of questions. Say, “This is as much as I’m willing to share right now on that subject.”

This is an often-overlooked point. Someone who is willing to share EVERYTHING will lose respect from their listener. They think they’re communicating openness and vulnerability. In fact, they’re communicating that they can’t maintain adequate boundaries and thus lack emotional self-control.

For instance, consider someone who is willing to tell you EVERYTHING about themselves, without discretion. Would you truly feel comfortable sharing your own vulnerabilities with that person? Would you trust them, when they might turn around and use that same open-book policy to later share your secrets with someone else?

By not being an open book, you are protecting your listener. You are giving them select details of your story a little at a time. You may be open to sharing deeper layers, eventually, as mutual trust builds.

Remember that being genuine is about conveying your true feelings and values, not about sharing every detail and secret. For instance, instead of vomiting out every sin or dirty thought you’ve ever had, you can very easily say, “I’ve done some things I’m not proud of. I’m not ready to talk about them, but I am sorry for the people I’ve hurt.”

Obviously, if you’d done something terrible to the listener, you shouldn’t hide that for long or else that quickly becomes a lie of omission, which is no different from any other terrible lie. And so, we see that discretion should be balanced against honesty. If you did something that had a direct impact on the listener, they probably have the right to know. If you did something to someone else, especially something in the distant past, use appropriate discretion. Find the right time to convey such information.

The back-and-forth rhythm of storytelling

The process of having a difficult conversation is much like climbing a mountain. At the bottom, you are never quite sure how things will go or how you’ll get there, you just know you need to get to the top. It’s a winding, twisting journey. It takes both strength and flexibility to succeed.

As you climb through your conversation, you’ll notice frequent switchbacks. Each person must switch roles from being listener to speaker, often many times.

The conversation is also like a dance. One person needs to take the lead on this. It’s typically best if the leader assumes the listening role first. Listen as much as possible until your own strong feelings start to bubble up, and then insist on a switch. Flip the conversation and insert your own story. The leader thus takes the initiative in switching roles, while gently encouraging their partner to then become the listener. Take care not to have both people speaking their stories at the same time, like penguins talking over each other.

As the leader speaks, the leader should notice when their partner becomes exhausted as listener. The listener’s anxiety starts to heighten, and they will appear increasingly uncomfortable. The leader will switch back into listening mode at that point. They will signal the switch with a caring, curious open-ended question. They may also change posture, appearing themselves more relaxed and ready to tackle something difficult.

The partner who is speaking generally is unloading a weight off their shoulders. They are venting frustration and pend-up negative energy. The process is cathartic as long as the speaker feels listened to. The speaker gains positive energy with which they can use to later be the listener. If things go well, the weight being passed back-and-forth between partners will grow lighter over time.

If this process is done correctly, we call this positive cycling. It forms a type of virtuous cycle. Understanding is the result. Each person’s imagination opens to new possibilities of cooperation (bridge building). Each partner also becomes more aware of the other person’s raw spots and boundaries. Respect builds, and with that comes trust. There also comes a more honest evaluation of fit. How well is the situation working for both people? Where can it be improved?

Next: Evaluating Fit


Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
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Difficult Conversations

Comprehensive Guide to Active listening

“Every experience is open to countless readings and interpretations.  We never see a thing completely.  In sure anticipation, our eyes have always already altered what awaits our gaze.  The search for truth is difficult and uncomfortable.”

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Active listening is a critical skill for the health of any relationship. Active listening involves observing what verbal and nonverbal communication is being sent. The goal is to help the speaker tell their story. With attention, curiosity, and empathy, the listener conveys mutual understanding and validates their perspective.

Active listening helps to build trust, connection, and perspective. It strengthens values that are often ignored when individuals are in conflict: caring, patience, and imagination. It can lead to transformative change for both the listener and the speaker.

This article will focus on listening to others. To learn the complementary practice of listening to oneself, see my article How to Build Self-Awareness. To learn to listen to one’s inner characters for purposes of trauma healing, see We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind.

Here we will learn to build effective communication skills set the groundwork for having difficult conversations at home, at work, and elsewhere. Ultimately the goal of any conversation is understanding. Conflict resolution doesn’t occur without it. Active listening is one key piece that builds to understanding. The second half of having a difficult conversation is asserting one’s own feelings and perspective; see Telling Your Story.

This Article Contains:

What is empathy? Brene Brown Short
What are the 5 key aspects to active listening?
(Part 1) Prologue – setting the conditions for effective listening in 11 steps
(Part 2) Storytelling – 22 key points to remember when listening to someone’s story
(Part 3) Conclusion – How to transition to telling your story!
Bookshelf: 2 books on active listening

What is empathy?

Active listening builds genuine caring, otherwise known as empathy. See the video below which describes the difference between empathy and less genuine forms of caring.

The ladder process of active listing: 6 key aspects

There is a ladder process to listening. This involves hearing, piecing together a story, feeling the other person, understanding what they have to say, and finally validation.

  • Set the stage for listening
  • Hearing (the words).
  • Piecing together the facts into a story.
  • Feeling what the speaker feels emotionally as you travel through the story. Being present with them.
  • Understanding the choices the speaker made during the story (and imagining yourself make similar choices in similar circumstances).
  • Validating their feelings and perspective

This six-step process is not easily done. There are many potential missteps along the way. Even knowing the skills, it may take years to really master them. Next, we will break down this process into 3 parts: Prologue, Storytelling, and Conclusion.

Part 1: Prologue – setting the conditions for active listening in 11 steps

“Our culture has little respect for privacy; we no longer recognize the sacred zone around each person.  We feel we have a right to blunder unannounced into any area we wish.  Because we have lost reverence of approach, we should not be too surprised at the lack of quality and beauty in our experience.”

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Active listening is about one person telling a story, and the other person becoming immersed in that story. Like all stories, we need to first set the stage. Here are eleven key steps to setting the stage.

  1. Look inward first to find calm. Before we begin, we need to first do a personal self-check. Where are we right now? What emotional baggage are we bringing to the table? What agenda are we bringing? How emotionally reactive are we at this moment? Ideally, we would come into the conversation with a place of inner calm. To explore self-awareness, see How to build self-awareness.
  2. Be genuine. Even if we can find calm, we need to recognize our own thoughts, emotions, and our own story related to the subject. Recognize how much energy we have available to share with the other person right now. Recognize that we may not have as much energy to give as they are expecting to receive. Be up front about this. “I have 30 minutes to talk about this. We don’t have to finish in that time, but wherever we’re at we’ll need to pause at that time. We can always come back.” Call out negative emotions, “I’m feeling defensive when you say…” Self-monitor for your own thoughts and judgments that may come up. Recognize your mixed feelings on the subject. Do we have the energy right now to give our speaker undivided attention?
  3. Create psychological safety. Honest conversations cannot happen when one person feels like they are trapped in an interrogation cell. Start by finding an appropriate time and place for your conversation. Make sure everyone involved has enough energy to have the conversation. Make sure everyone is feeling safe. Nothing that is said should have repercussions afterwards. No one should be walking on eggshells for fear of being punished for saying the wrong thing.
  4. Establish, from the outset, unconditional positive regard. Acceptance and connection are key. Even if the personal connection between speaker and listener is frayed somewhat, work to establish the connection that still exists. That connection will be our foundation upon which the conversation can be built. Make clear that no matter what is said, we can always go back to that foundation and trust it will still be intact. We will not allow what is said to threaten that preexisting foundation. Both speaker and listener will check-in periodically to ensure that as the conversation flows, this unconditional positive regard has not suffered. If it does, we will agree to take breaks to recharge.
  5. Set out clear goals for the conversation. Now is the time for the listener to quickly and concisely be clear about the purpose of the conversation. “I don’t feel good about what happened yesterday. I’m hoping to learn more about your perspective…” The goals may require some negotiation. “I would like to learn more about how things are going with you at work right now. I know that you also want to talk about my mother, but let’s agree to hold that conversation for now…”
  6. Acknowledge preexisting feelings, including distrust and disconnection. If the purpose is to resolve a previous disagreement, be clear about what negative feelings that disagreement has generated in the past. we will use those feelings as energy to drive our resolve towards understanding. However, once we get started with the process of listening, those negative feelings that we have will need be put aside. We are only going to acknowledge and label those feelings at this stage. We are not going to justify or explain them. There will be time for telling our story later.
  7. Ask permission. Ask if the speaker is willing to talk. Let them know exactly what we’re hoping to learn from them. If there is preexisting distrust, the speaker may only intend to share parts of their story. Make clear that we are OK with that. As trust builds, they are likely to open up more.
  8. Find compassion.  Sometimes two people get stuck in a difficult situation. This becomes a type of trap or negative cycle. Recognize that no one person is to blame for the negative cycle, but that everyone has become unwittingly trapped.  We must have compassion for each participant.  No one wants to be trapped. Compassion is the key first step.  We care about the person, the speaker. We are not afraid of what they have to say.
  9. Pause our own thoughts, feelings and storytelling. Our story must be set aside for now. For effective listening to occur, we must completely pause, in our mind, our own version of events. Right now, they do not exist. We have dissociated from them. We will revisit them later. We have no agenda right now except to put on the shoes of the speaker. Our preexisting feelings and thoughts must be suspended.
  10. Extend benefit of the doubt (extend unearned trust). If we’re having this conversation because of a prior conflict, resolving that conflict requires both sides to extend some measure of trust that didn’t exist before. We must find some trust–generosity of spirit–within ourselves that we can extend to the other person, whether we regard that trust to be earned or not. We must have faith that their actions, whether we believe them to be good or bad, were the result of some legitimate purpose that we can eventually find common cause with. We don’t have to agree in the end. The purpose isn’t agreement, it is understanding. Trust is the glue that will hold the conversation together. Without it, we shouldn’t expect a positive result.
  11. Exercise humility. No one person has the answer.  Everyone will need to work together to answer critical questions and resolve the issue at hand. 

Part 2 of Active Listening: Storytelling – 22 key points to remember when listening to someone’s story

“A great journey needs plenty of time.  It should not be rushed.”

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Now is the time to dive into the story. We will do this primarily by asking open-ended questions and giving space for the speaker to answer. The quality of the conversation will be determined by the quality of questions that we ask. Here the speaker will build their narrative. They may not always follow a linear timeline. We will use our skills to piece together their feelings, facts, motives, and observations. Along the way, we will convey interest by demonstrating understanding and validating their perspective.

  1. Find your curiosity.  We begin to ask difficult questions.  What is the speaker feeling?  Why are they feeling this way?  Where did these feelings come from? 
  2. Ask open-ended questions that leave room for a narrative response rather than closed questions that forcing a yes-no response. Yes-no questions are agenda-driven questions that pressure the speaker into conforming to the questioner’s agenda. Yes-no questions undermine the complex experience of the speaker.
  3. Be brave. As the listener, it takes courage to find our own vulnerabilities. Our speaker is sharing their vulnerability with us. To truly hear them, we need to be equally vulnerable. They are opening up to us, and in turn we must reciprocate by opening up to receive what they have to say.
  4. Give encouraging verbal cues. Use small replies like: “Yes, I see,” “Mmhmm,” “I get it,” “I hear you,” “Right,” “So…” “Oh?” These are done to encourage and covey interest. They are used alongside gestures and expressions, such as smiling or nodding. Practice this. This begins the process of making the speaker feel validated.
  5. Their truth. Their perspective. What is being said is a type of truth that belongs to the speaker. It is not The Truth–the final word on the subject. But it is a truth. Avoid dismissing it. Avoid looking for cracks and plot holes. The thoughts and feelings being expressed must be believed, supported, and respected. They should not be challenged. Avoid logical arguing. Avoid diverting the conversation away from uncomfortable topics, unless we had already agreed not to discuss those topics at this time.
  6. Withhold judgments. As we listen, our own stories will try to seep in. Our preexisting beliefs and feelings are like pesky critters trying to find their way back into the forefront of our thoughts. They may manifest through analysis and judgment. They undermine our ability to be present with the speaker. We must actively work to avoid this. Avoid criticism, blaming, threatening, directing, lecturing, shaming, analyzing, interrogating, humoring, and distracting. Doing any of these things undermines psychological safety for the speaker.
  7. Logical analysis should only be done for the expressed purpose of understanding the speaker’s story. Our goal is to gather the facts as the speaker sees them. This is critical. Here we should recreate the speaker’s timeline. We will immerse ourselves in the speaker’s story. Part of doing so is understanding the facts, timeline, and logical thinking that are part of the story. We will probe with curiosity and caring as our instruments. We will avoid allowing our own preexisting negative feelings to drive our analysis.
  8. Do not interrogate the speaker. Interrogation is pressuring. We are not pressuring the speaker into doing anything. Instead, we are letting them come to us with honest narration. There are two types of interrogation to be mindful of. The first is bending the speaker’s story in a particular direction (towards agreeing with us or being congruent with our story). The second is pressuring the speaker to divulge information prior to them being ready. The speaker must feel safe before they can give up deeper, more intimate parts of their story.
  9. Recognize the speaker’s emotions. Respond to them. Label and call them out in a curious, caring way. This will help the speaker know that we are truly listening and remaining engaged. Keep in mind that this is our impression of their feelings. Leave plenty of room for their feelings to be different or more complex than what we are observing.
    • Be sure not to diagnose their problem or stamp a definitive label on it. Labeling at this stage is still phrased as a curious question meant to clarify what they are actually feeling and close any knowledge gaps. We are filling in the gaps of your ignorance, not trying to bend their feelings in a particular direction. In other words, labeling an emotion is offering a hypothesis to be tested. The speaker will help correct or clarify the hypothesis.
    • Remember also that by labeling an emotion, we are shaping it. We are defining it through language, which does in fact change the emotion. This is another reason why we must be careful to exercise curiosity and respect at this stage for what they might be feeling. Ultimately the speaker will pick the words that best describe what they are feeling. The speaker may discard other labels that we offer.
  10. Share new feelings generated by their story with care and intention. We have already put our preexisting feelings aside. Yet, there is an experience to hearing someone else’s story. New feelings are like new plants growing in the wild. We may acknowledge them as they began to grow and take shape. Likely they will be similar to but slightly different from the feelings the speaker has. These differences in feelings and experience may be OK to share. We need to be intentional about sharing them.
    • Some of our feelings may exist harmoniously with the speaker’s feelings. These may be OK to share in small doses. Watch for feedback from the speaker to see if they are feeling validated by our sharing.
    • Some of our feelings may not be harmonious with the speaker’s feelings. We should acknowledge them internally, to ourselves, and then set them aside for now.
    • If the reason we’re listening right now has to do with resolving a disagreement, chances are we are now feeling something different from what we may have felt originally. Try not to resolve these differences right now. Keep our preexisting feelings away so they don’t interfere with the new feelings that are germinating.
    • Do not overuse “I” statements. We are the listener. The occasional comment about us will show that we are remaining attentive and demonstrate how the speaker’s story is affecting us. Avoid flipping the switch and suddenly start telling your story while being the listener. Avoid letting “I” statements disrupt the speaker’s story.
  11. Let silence sit. There will be moments where silence is called for and necessary. Especially moments of confusion, times when big emotions get dropped, or times where new layers get opened up. If we feel compelled to break the silence, say something like: “Maybe we should just sit with the silence for a few seconds.” Wait until they indicate they are ready before proceeding.
  12. Key Skill: Reframing. Translate the essence of what the other person says into more constructive language. If there was past conflict, there may have been mistranslation and miscommunication. To resolve this conflict, someone will need to act as translator. Work on acting with dual roles: listener and translator. Watch for certain things below which commonly need to be translated. Check out the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most that goes through this process in detail.
    • Translate: Truth → Different stories. The speaker is speaking their truth, as we noted before. It is not The Truth. Remind them that there may be different stories. They should not be using language that disrespects our story (our version of events).
    • Translate: Accusations → Intentions and Impact. The speaker should not be making accusations towards us or others. Instead, refocus their efforts towards their feelings. For instance, they may feel abandoned, but that does not mean that we abandoned them. The difference may seem small, but it is critical. Discuss the impact that events have had on them. Encourage them to discuss their own intentions as well. Why did they do what they did? We will hold off on discussing our intentions and the impact on us until we are ready to share our own story.
    • Translate: Blame → Contributions. When they start into blaming, ask them instead to share how they think others contributed to the outcome. What actions did they observe and what was the impact of those actions? Ask them how they think they contributed to what happened.
    • Translate: Judgments → Feelings. When they start to judge, again refocus them into saying how they felt. Here we are winding back their thought process to discover the underlying feelings. Their feelings will be held as sacrosanct, while their thought processes will be recognized as hypotheses that need further scrutiny. Avoid scrutinizing their thought processes here during the stage of active listening.
    • Translate: What’s wrong with us → What’s going on for them? This is another type of accusation that must be redirected. Bring it back to them. We’re not here to be put on the defensive. We only want to exercise curiosity and caring to understand their story.
  13. Key skill: Focus on the behavior, not the person. In an argument, the speaker may accuse us or someone else of something. This is likely to be phrased as a personal attack against that person’s identity. This needs to be translated and refocused into a discussion about behavior. Leave the person’s identity intact. Focus on the choices that the person has made, including the impact of those choices. Talk about why those behaviors matter so much. “There seems to be a pattern developing here…”
  14. Key skill: Help keep the speaker on track. Listener and speaker previously agreed to what subjects would be discussed and which ones would be put aside for now. If the speaker veers off into a different subject, feel free to nudge them back on track. “Let’s get back to talking about…”
  15. Key Skill: Paraphrasing. In paraphrasing, the goal is to close any ignorance gaps that might arise. We will restate things that spoken by the speaker. As we hear them, we are processing their words. We are translating them in a way that we can understand. Mirroring their story back is one way to check the accuracy of your translation. It can also help make the speaker feel validated.
    • Clarify. Double check facts, timelines, feelings, experiences, intent and impact. The last two pieces are the most difficult. Work to understand their intent. What values drove their decision-making? What was the impact on them? Prior to their decisions, what did they think the impact would be? After the decisions were made, what did they observe the impact to be on us? We will close the gap between their observed impact and the actual impact later during the telling of our story.
    • Move from “either-or” → “and”. Many arguments involve individuals unwittingly setting either-or traps for one another, then watching as people fall into those same traps. We escape the traps by remembering that two things can be correct at the same time. For instance, change, “You didn’t care about me” into “I do care about you, and I was also trying to protect myself.” Remember, when two people argue, they are bringing two sets of feelings, experiences, perspectives and values. Both sets are important and needing to be validated and respected.
    • Summarize and repeat back key words. Catch small things that the speaker might hint at which may be incredibly important. These tip-of-the-iceberg statements require more exploration. These often include feelings that stand out.
  16. Key Skill: Escaping Traps. Speaker and listener may get stuck somewhere in the conversation. Often this occurs when one person refuses to back down from leveling their insults and accusations. To escape a stalemate, try one of the following:
    • Don’t get insulted when they call out our behaviors. Take accountability for the contributions we made to the problem being discussed and the resulting impact on the other person. This isn’t yet the time to discuss our intent. That comes during the telling of our story.
    • Keep our focus on behavior; avoid attacking the person. Remember that they have every right to call out our behavior in the way that they see fit. But they do not have the right to insult us as a person.
    • Invite the other person to persuade us. “I’m still not sure that was the right thing to do. Can you tell me more?” Remember to leave the invitation open-ended so as to avoid making the speaker feel pressured.
    • Ask their advice: “What would you do if you were me?”
    • Explain our listening strategy. We may annoy the speaker with reframing and paraphrasing. Carefully explain why we are using these techniques as a means to understand them.
    • Give them an opportunity to try again. This is especially useful if they say something that really rubs us the wrong way. Tell them, “What you just said was insulting. Would you mind trying to explain that again?” Again, we’re not trying to bend their story, only to eliminate the unnecessary insult from it.
    • Be prepared to walk away. We should always be prepared to conclude that understanding isn’t possible at this time. Keep the door open for the future. “I have to pause this conversation right now. I will leave the door open to resume at a later date.”
  17. Avoid non-validating responses. Don’t minimize the uniqueness of what the other person has said. Avoid pretending to know something about something that we don’t.
  18. Do not problem-solve. Avoid fixing the problem right now. Fixing the problem for the speaker is another way of dismissing their issue and quickly wrapping things up. There is time for resolution later.
    • When the speaker feels sufficiently listened to, they may ask for advice: “What would you have done differently if you were me?” Be careful in answering this question. They may genuinely want your advice. Or they may be testing you to see if you’re still listening (without even knowing they are testing you). In many cases, they have an idea in mind about what they would do differently next time, and they are looking to see if you are thinking the same thing. Try answering their question with another curious question rather than a definitive answer: “What do you think would’ve happened if you had done this instead?”
    • Ultimately, even if we have the perfect solution to the speaker’s problem, we don’t want to just give it up. Help the speaker arrive at that solution for themselves, through careful questioning, only after they’ve been appropriately listened to. Even our perfect solution may not be perfect for them.
    • Follow the 80:20 rule. When we are the listener, make sure we’re not doing more than 20% of the talking. If we’re doing more, then we’ve probably switched over to fix-it mode.
  19. Be patient. The speaker will tell their story at their own pace. Give them time to feel things again before they answer.
  20. Accept that we will make mistakes. Listening is an art that times time and practice. Ask forgiveness if we do not get it right at first and the speaker gets upset.
  21. Connection is cure. Avoid trying to make things better. This can be seen as dismissive. Instead say: “I don’t know what to do right now. I’m just so glad you told me.” Always work on connecting to the emotions that underpin the experience.
  22. Recognize when we’ve heard enough. Take a break. When we feel our own emotions start to boil over, insist on pausing. If they have still more to say, let them know it is only a temporary break. We will come back. Give them a rough estimate on when we can resume. For instance, if our spouse wants to discuss a thorny issue right before bed, we can say, “I know this is important to you. Because I love you, this is important to me, too. Right now, I need to get some sleep. I would like to discuss this tomorrow after dinner when I have more time and energy to listen.”

Part 3: Conclusion (now for the sequel: Your story!)

We have a story to tell!

If this conversation started because a friend came to us looking for advice, then now is finally the time when we can begin to offer our advice up! Again, we don’t want to just tell our friend what to do. Give them a story from our past experiences. Tell them what we did and how it worked out or didn’t work out for us. Then let our friend make up their own mind on what they should do. Leave room for our suggestions and methods to not be what your friend ultimately decides to do. “I don’t know if this would work for you, but last year I found myself in a similar situation. Here’s what happened… Here’s what I did…” Ultimately, we want to empower the speaker to solve their own problems. Even if we’re the expert on the subject, maintain humility and leave room for further learning. Try our best to follow the 80:20 rule through the entirety of the conversation. Pretend someone is transcribing the whole thing, and afterwards we will count the number of words spoken to verify an 80:20 ratio. All of our talking, including your curious questions and your stories, should not exceed 20% of the total conversation.

If the conversation is the result of a disagreement, then now is the time for our feelings, perspective, and intent to be shared. If we exercised good listening, chances are the speaker’s trust in us has gone up exponentially. This opens the speaker up to being willing to listen to our story. They may even start to model some of the listening techniques that we’ve used. They may also need some gentle guidance in how to listen effectively. “I’m asking for your patience as I try and explain why I did what I did…”

Ask the speaker, “Did you feel listened to?” If not, remind them that we are trying our best to listen. We may not have gotten it perfectly right this time. Ask if you can try again another day.

Check out this active listening worksheet for more ways to practice.

Difficult conversations are best handled like table tennis, where the ball is being bounced back and forth. There is a rhythm to the process where each side takes turns being listener and speaker. No one person monopolizes one role. Rarely does one person tell their entire complex story all at once before allowing the other to speak. Instead, the onion is peeled back in layers. With each layer, both sides get to speak parts of their story while the other takes a turn listening. However, for this to work effectively, at least one person needs to become an extremely effective listener. Practicing these techniques and mastering the listening role can go a long way towards relationship success. As we get better, we can model effective listening for our partner. Over time, both individuals share in the rewards, building trust and confidence in the process. This rhythmic approach with back-and-forth switching of roles is called positive cycling. For more on this, see Guide to Positive Cycling. Positive cycling is a type of virtuous cycle. It is not a straight-line walk towards a preexisting agenda. Instead, it is a winding journey full of twists, bumps, and missteps. Always we are moving towards understanding.

Next: Telling Your Story


Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model
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