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Jul 12, 2021

#250: How to Tell Someone, “You Suck!”

Featuring special guests, Dr. Matthew May and the always exciting but pedantic Dr. Rutherford Knows, plus our podcast regulars, Rhonda and David

Rhonda begins the podcast with a wonderful email from a woman who asked how you might use the Five Secrets of Effective Communication when you have to deliver give negative feedback to someone.

Hi David and Rhonda,

I’m an avid listener of the podcast and reader of Dr. Burns’ material. I’ve been working my way backwards listening to all the podcasts, and I now own all of Dr. Burns’ books and am working my way through those, too!

I’ve especially found the live therapy on the podcast and role-play using the Five Secrets incredibly useful.

The Five Secrets of Effective Communication are like a cheat code for life. As I’ve been applying it in my own life, every conflict has had a phenomenal outcome and I end up closer with the other person. It’s incredible.

You’ve given many useful examples of using the Five Secrets on the podcast to respond to someone, for example, who is attacking you and you use the disarming technique and inquiry to hear more about how it’s been for them.

My question is, how would you use the Five Secrets to initiate a conversation where you have to be the one to bring up something that the other person doesn’t want to hear, or that it may be painful for them to hear?

I started to think about this when consulting for a CEO who needed to fire someone, but needed to keep the relationship amicable, as well as consulting with another business owner whose employee had been deceitful and she needed to have a "come-to-Jesus" talk with him.

Similarly, I’ve always struggled to bring up something that's bothering me to a spouse or loved one, because I didn't know how to initiate the conversation, and keep it from devolving into an argument (my greatest fear!).

Could you perhaps do a role play on the podcast to demonstrate using the Five Secrets of Effective Communication to initiate a difficult conversation, such as:

    • Firing or correcting an employee?
    • Telling a spouse (or loved one) when you’ve felt hurt or angry because of something they did?

Obviously you would still use all the same techniques (Stroking, I Feel statements, Inquiry, etc.), but I would love to hear an example. I find the role plays especially useful and would love to hear your expert wording for how you would approach this.

Thank you to both of you for all your tremendous work!


We loved this request, and model how to deliver the bad news to someone using the Five Secrets.

David mentioned that when he was in clinical practice, several women he treated were reluctant to give clear negative signals to men who were chasing them, for fear of hurting their feelings. So, out of excessive “niceness,” they ended up leading the man on, sometimes for months, and hurting him even more. It is probably far more merciful and caring to be honest with someone in a kindly way, so he or she can let go and move forward with his or her life.

Rhonda, Matt, and David illustrate David’s “Intimacy Drill.” In this exercise, the person delivering the bad news is Person A, and the person receiving the bad news is Person B. The drill involves four steps.

  1. First, Person A delivers the bad news to Person B, trying to use the Five Secrets of Effective Communication (link). The bad news might be telling Person B that she or he has been fired, or that you’re angry with Person B, for example.
  2. Then Person A gives himself or herself a letter grade on how well she or he did. Was it an A,  B,  C,  D, or an F? Then Person B and the observers give a letter grades to Person A as well..
  3. Next, everyone points out what Person A did that was effective, and what was ineffective, using Five Secrets terms. For example, you might say that the Feeling Empathy and Stroking were great, but there was no “I Feel” Statement or Inquiry at the end.
  4. Then you can do a role-reversal, and try to model an improved response.

This is, by far, the best way to learn the Five Secrets of Effective Communication. However, it requires non-defensiveness on the part of all who participate, and the philosophy of “joyous failure.” This means that you view your errors as opportunities for learning and growth instead of shame and defensiveness!

If you want to master the Five Secrets for use in ANY situation, the “Intimacy Exercise” is a fantastic way to practice. However, remember to check your ego at the door, because you’ll probably gets some low grades and make plenty of errors, especially if you’re a beginner. But if you work at it, and keep practicing—which very few people do—you can develop some fantastic communication skills that can help you in personal and professional relationships.

Today, we also introduced, in a small way, the very shy and erudite, and somewhat pompous, Dr. Rutherford Knows, who makes an occasional comment. He may agree to participate in future podcasts as well.

Dr. Knows could be a really great podcast enhancement, since he (hopefully) makes the rest of us look really good! Let us know what you think!

Rhonda and I are really pleased to work with Dr. May again. He is a dear friend and colleague, and, according to David and Rhonda, Matt is one of the finest therapists and teachers on planet earth!

I strongly agree with this assessment of Dr. May. If you wish to contact him, you can reach him at: Matt added that people interested in treatment can schedule a free 15-minute phone call there, my schedule permitting.


Rhonda and David

Rhonda, Matt, and David (with Dr. Rutherford Knows)