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Dec 18, 2017

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!