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Jun 13, 2022

Podcast 296: Forced Empathy: A Master Class--Part 2 of 2

Last week you heard part ! of our work witt Zeina, a young professional woman struggling with a conflict with her mom. Zeina feels like her mother is too critical of her, and she finds the criticisms devastating. In today's podcast, you will hear my co therapist, Dr. Jill Levitt, and I, doing Forced Empathy with Zeina, and you will hear the exciting conclusion of the session. I am including the entiere show notes from last week, in case you have not yet reviewed them.

Show notes from last week commence here.

Today Dr. Jill Levitt and I do live work with Zeina Halim who has been experiencing some intense negative feelings because of her mother’s criticisms of her. Zeina is a member of my weekly training group at Stanford and has appeared on the podcast on several previous occasions (Please provide numbers plus link to podcast page on website.)

Zeina is one of our small group leaders in our Tuesday training group.  She works with teens and adults in-person in her office in Menlo Park and also provides tele-health sessions for clients living anywhere in California.

Dr. Jill Levitt is the co-leader of my Tuesday training group at Stanford and will be my co-therapist today. We hope for some more of the “magic” that frequently appears when we do therapy together. Today’s podcast will illustrate a number of teaching points, including these:

  1. Forced Empathy: We illustrate exactly how to use this powerful and sophisticated technique. When I first created this technique many years ago, I thought there would be little interest in it, so I rarely taught it in my workshops or training groups. In the past several years, an intense interest in this technique has emerged, so you will get to see exactly how it works.
  2. Five Secrets Resistance: There has been great interest in the Five Secrets of Effective Communication that are featured in my book, Feeling Good Together. When used skillfully, they can have a phenomenal effect on any troubled relationship. I am even aware of a case of a woman who was kidnapped at gunpoint by a violent serial rapist who planned to kill her. Out of desperation, she used the Five Secrets I had presented at a workshop he had just attended, and he let her go and turned himself in to the police. The Five Secrets literally saved her life.

And yet, many of us stubbornly refuse to use the Five Secrets with family, friends and loved ones. Why do we fight against the very tools that would rapidly bring us peace, love and joy? And what can we do about our own internal “resistance”?

  1. The “inner” and “outer” solutions: Whenever you are involved in a conflict with someone, there are two battles raging at the same time. One is the “inner battle” with your own negative thoughts, telling you that you’re no good, or that the other person is to blame, and the voice that powerfully urges you to do battle.

We approach the “inner battle” with the familiar Daily Mood Log, that helps you pinpoint the distorted messages you are giving yourself. You will see that those messages—the way you talk to yourself when you’re upset—are loaded with distortions; such as All-or-Nothing Thinking, Overgeneralizations, Mental Filtering, Discounting the Positive, Mind-Reading, Labeling, Should Statements and Hidden Should Statements, Emotional Reasoning, Other-Blame, and more.In today’s session, we do battle with Zeina’s distorted thoughts with the Externalization of Voices, arguably one of the most powerful psychotherapy tools ever created.

  1. The EAR Checklist / Relationship Journal. The “outer battle” involves the words you use when you respond to the other person’s criticisms of you. Here we use the Relationship Journal, another super powerful tools that allows you to analyze your own statements with the EAR Checklist and see the shocking reality that you are creating the very conflict that you are complaining about so vigorously. This involves one of the “Great Death” of the self, which can be profoundly painful, but it also leads to liberation from your self-created misery and the chance for renewed love and connection with the person you feel so alienated from.
  2. Two-hour sessions. You can do far more in a single, two-hour session than in many 50 minute sessions scheduled at weekly intervals. I have often said that this is how I always do therapy, and if you have some therapy skills, this model is vastly more effective and cost-effective as well. It puts you under pressure to accomplish something today, right now, and not in the vague or distant future.
  3. Uncovering Techniques. You will see how you can use the Man from Mars Technique to uncover more of your patient’s negative thoughts and core beliefs. This is just another way of doing the classical “Individual Downward Arrow Technique” that I developed way back in the 1970s.
  4. The Acceptance Paradoxes. There is a great deal of talk these days about Acceptance is being an important key in many schools of psychotherapy. But what is acceptance, and how do we teach it to our patients and colleagues? Today’s session with Zeina, who has a great interest in Buddhist philosophy and practices, illustrates one of more than 20 paths to acceptance, and this one in particular will teach you the steps in accepting others, especially when you are desperately trying to change them and you are insisting that they “shouldn’t” be the way they are!

Self-acceptance is always about grasping a gigantic paradox—and that’s why I’ve always called it the Acceptance Paradox, which states: Accepting yourself as you are, warts and all, is actually the greatest change a human being can make.

Can you see why this is a paradox? It’s because the very moment you accept yourself, everything about you and your world will appear to change. Now here’s another acceptance paradox we will explore today. The very moment when you accept another person exactly as she or he is, that person will suddenly change.

Of course, that is the exact opposite of what we usually do when we desperately keep trying to “change” them, a strategy that actually forces them to be the very monster you are trying so hard to destroy. By the way, do you know what the plural form of paradox is, when you combine Self- and Other-Acceptance? The plural form is called the Acceptance Paradise.

  1. T = Testing is crucial! You cannot do truly effective therapy without the T = Testing. You will find out EXACTLY how effective—or ineffective—you are in every session with every patient. When you listen to the podcasts, you can ask yourself questions like these: How effective are Jill and David being? Will they get good empathy and helpfulness ratings from Zeina? Will we see any reductions in Zeina’s powerful negative feelings at the start of the session? Will she make a breakthrough in her relationship with her mother?

At the end of the session, you will see the answers to these questions. And if you’re a therapist, that kind of powerful and precise information will allow you to grow and learn as a therapist, especially if you approach the information with humility and respect for yourself and your patients.

There is almost no limit to the evolution of your therapist skills if you use the T = Testing model I have developed. There is almost no chance for personal growth if you do not use these or similar assessment tools.

However, the price of growth is steep. You have to be willing to see your own failures and errors at every session with every patient, and this will often be painful. But this is the pain that can lead to your own personal transformation along with the blossoming of your own superb therapy skills.

Today, in Part 1 of the Zeina session, you will hear the T = Testing and E = Empathy parts of the session. Next week, in Part 2, you will hear the very brief A = Assessment of Resistance, which really only included the “Miracle Cure Question: ”What, really, are you, Zeina, hoping for in tonight’s session?” You will also hear the amazing M = Methods portion, which will start with Forced Empathy, followed by Externalization of Voices and Five Secrets Practice, along with the final T = Testing and homework assignments for Zeina following the session.

Rhonda, Jill, Zeina and I hope you enjoy the podcasts and learn a great deal from them. And we all want to thank you, Zeina for your courageous and brilliant work, sharing your inner self so openly and generously. I believe that sessions like the one our fans will witness today and next week have the potential to provide hope and healing to people around the world, not only today, but for decades to come. At least, that is my hope!

I also want to thank you, Jill, for your extraordinary teaching and clinical skills, and for your brilliance and warmth.

Thank you for tuning in!

Rhonda, Zeina, and David

Here is a follow-up note from Zeina

Hello David, Jill, and the Tuesday group,

Boy, do I have an update for you all! So, at first, I struggled, and I was very worried to have to potentially send an update to the group that may have been disappointing.

On Saturday, I saw my mom, and I shared with her the insights that I had in our session. She was appreciative, but I didn't feel very connected to her. I had talked with her about this while she and I were on a walk, and I wondered if maybe walking while talking was taking away some of the intimacy or connection that might have happened if we had been looking at each other while talking.

I also noticed that while I was externally behaving somewhat better if my mom criticized me, internally, I still hadn't progressed very far. I would still feel very distant from her; and I still wasn't doing the five secrets.

Today, on Sunday, I saw my mom again. While she did not criticize me, we still got into a little bit of an argument.

I was a bit angry, but as I let myself cool off, I noticed myself feeling incredibly sad inside--like a sadness that had been building and building over the past few weeks. I tried to talk with my mom about it, but she resisted at first.

We had a project that we were working on together today and she thought it would be better if we talked on another day and got back to our project; I insisted, however, and asked that we please talk today. I did not realize it at the time, but I think I had some major hidden emotion stuff happening with my mom (more on this later, perhaps some hidden sadness that was masquerading as anger).

I shared with her that I had felt incredibly sad and genuinely worried about our relationship. I recently moved in order to live closer to her and see her more often, but I had noticed that almost every time she came over to visit me at my new place, we would get into an argument at least once.

I shared that these arguments had really been weighing on me and worrying me. I also told her that I noticed that we would get into arguments when we were at my place, but not as much when I visited her at her place, maybe because I am so particular about how I like things to be at my place.

She, then, said in a very gentle and loving way, "I think ‘particular’ about your space is the operative word here."

I realized that she was totally right, and I was so pleasantly surprised by how gentle and loving she was when she said it.

Feeling encouraged by how the conversation was going, I shared more and said that I had noticed that I had become more sensitive around our arguments lately and that I was feeling very disconnected from her, and I didn't know how to get reconnected with her. I also shared that I had been feeling lonely in my life in general lately and made a guess that maybe my loneliness was making me expect more from our relationship.

Additionally, I also guessed that I might be feeling more drained emotionally because I am doing more hours of therapy per week than I have ever done in my life, and maybe I had yet to find the right balance of how to recreate and regenerate my energy in my off-hours.

I shed many tears all throughout this whole conversation. I checked in with myself and noticed that I was feeling more connected to my mom, but there felt like there was still more, particularly about my loneliness.

This next paragraph might seem like a major tangent, but hang in there!--I promise it is all connected :)

Then, I switched gears a little bit to share with her a different conversation and insight I had had in the past week or so about my recent feelings of loneliness. I had been having a conversation with my very dear friend, James, about how I had been feeling lonely, but was not feeling as drawn to connecting with most of my girlfriends, but only really drawn to my guy friends.

Initially, I thought it was a male-female difference, but then I noticed that I was feeling drawn to my new friend Leigh Harrington, who is female. I realized that maybe the difference had more to do with the fact that almost all my male friends and Leigh were quite funny and playful people, whereas most of my girlfriends were more serious people.

As for myself, I tend to be a more serious person and am not as funny or playful as many people. I realized that I was relying on other people for my laughter, playfulness and fun, rather than learning how to create that myself.

Having just done some flirting training with Matthew May earlier that week, I saw that humor, like flirting, can be a learned skill and might have more to do with a willingness to take risks than an innate quality that people either have or don't have.

I was feeling excited that I could learn to be funnier and flirtier and create more laughter in my life, instead of relying on other funny people for this.

I shared all of this with my mom. She then went on to make a further connection that really blew me away. She said, "I bet if you start to be funnier and create more laughter for yourself and others, you will also start to feel less lonely." It felt so true!

The times I feel most connected to people are when I am laughing with them. THIS is the kind of relationship and connection with my mom that I had been missing lately--when I share deeply with her and, because she knows me so well, she is able to further my insight and understanding of myself and help me to grow.

I feel so connected to her now. I realize now that I think part of my resistance to using the 5 secrets with my mom was maybe a hidden emotion component--I had these deep feelings and worries about our relationship; I was confused if moving closer to her had actually helped our relationship or if it was harming it, and I was genuinely missing these kinds of deep, connecting conversations with her, which we had not had in a while.

My mom has been hanging out at my place all day today and now I notice myself being easily loving and patient with her and my being "particular" about my things and my space has vanished--at least temporarily!

There are a lot of take-aways for me from this whole thing, but one of the biggest ones is that I think I was trying to do five secrets without really fully going into my "I feel" statements as much as I needed to--I feel statements are often the secret that I neglect the most as a person and as a therapist.

So, to connect to what we are doing this week in class, I think I would make a guess that when I ignore the five secret that I need to do the most and struggle with, it can hamper my ability to do the rest of the five secrets effectively and genuinely.

I could write a lot more about all of this, but I think I will stop here for now. I hope this wasn't too confusing as I know I touched on a lot of different things. Thank you all for your time and attention. I'm open to comments or questions.



Here is a reply to Zeina from one of the Stanford Tuesday group members

Gosh! Zeina, this is beautiful and so straight from the heart. Takes immense courage to do a deep dive in exploring oneself. I have been marveling at how meticulously you‘ve sifted through and worked towards addressing the different dimensions of the relationship between you and your mum. You are also an amazing raconteur, you’ve brought out the subtle nuances so beautifully!

Your mail took me on an emotional roller coaster ride. It was such a compelling read and had me as a captive co-traveler, holding my breath, and crossing my fingers!

I loved your insights on the “I feel”. Reading that was a personal breakthrough for me, where my relationship with my mum is concerned. That’s exactly what is missing in our relationship too … whoaaaaa! I just don’t share my feelings with her! I love how you were able to do that though, because I can feel this huge wave of resistance engulfing me, despite my insight. I know I’m not yet ready to take the next step! Funny, how tough it can be to be vulnerable before one’s own mom!

More power to you Zeina for ‘daring greatly’ and taking the next step after the Tuesday class. Also, for keeping us posted and for sharing with us in such a detailed manner, and in the process, helping us all learn and grow. Deep regards for your mum as well. She comes across as a tenacious mother of a tenacious daughter … if I may say so.



Here is a second follow-up from Zeina.

Hello David, Jill and Tuesday group,

I just wanted to send another update as my relationship with my mom has continued to evolve in quite beautiful and magical ways since I sent this last email.  It seems to me that maybe she has stopped criticizing me entirely--I'm not quite sure.  Maybe I need to pay more attention.  Perhaps if she does criticize me, she does it in a gentler way or maybe I am less sensitive to it.  All I know is that she has been wonderfully supportive of me in these past few weeks and we have not gotten into a single argument.  Our relationship suddenly seems easy in a way that I have never experienced before.  I am so profoundly grateful.  I know that we will probably relapse at some point and this may not last forever, but, now I know this is possible.  Now, I know my way back here.  I have always wanted a relationship like this with my mother, and I always thought it wasn't possible because of who she was as a person. Little did I know that to have the mother I always wanted, I needed to do the changing. I knew that the 5 secrets were powerful, but I had thought that their power was more confined to a single interaction or the moment when you use them.  I don't know that I have been especially good at practicing the 5 secrets with my mom lately, yet the effect seems to keep lasting and lasting. I am truly speechless at the profound transformation that has happened.  Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I would love any responses!


Here is some of the feedback from the training group in the section, “What did you like the best about today’s training session?”

  • Jill’s thoughtfulness in selecting the Forced Empathy technique over the Relationship Journal. Jill looked at what had worked in the past for Zeina and saw it as a potential strategy for her current concerns and the result was tremendously positive.
  • I loved the training! I loved watching forced empathy and I began to empathize with a close relative simply by watching Zeina empathize with her mom. I was crying throughout. It is hard to describe how touched I was
  • Zeina's honesty and her responses to forced empathy was amazing!
  • Amazing personal work. Entire session was great learning experience for me. How Forced Empathy brought the shift in Zeina’s way of thinking.
  • I really enjoy witnessing the live sessions including this one with Zeina. Seeing how the totality of the model comes together in real time with the clinician's judgment and intuition guiding the specific process is really enlightening and seeing someone's beliefs shift in real time is very inspiring and moving. It was a really nice way to re-join the larger group and I'm glad to hear that went into David's thinking in scheduling it.
  • I really like the Forced Empathy. Zeina had a lot of resistance at the beginning. However, She shed tears during doing the Forced Empathy. I also like the role reversal when doing the Externalization voices. I can always learn how to deal with the difficulties of life from David and Jill's wisdom.
  • The whole thing was so great. I was really moved by the forced empathy.
  • I always LOVE seeing forced empathy modeled to get better at this complex skill, and I am also, like many others, almost always blown away with how powerful it is. I also thought this was a great example of multiple paths (individual mood and relationship work) and multiple methods being all used in one two-hour session so skillful and masterful.
  • I loved the open ended approach and the ongoing exploration until the goal was formed/explored/ discovered. For me, it was a demonstration of trust in the process. I especially liked David's "The Man From Mars" that seemed to me an amazing tool with sorting out the mess of relationship work. I also loved Forced Empathy especially here with the work on mother daughter's relationship. I am really intrigued to explore it for myself in regard to my relationship with my parents and my daughter.
  • Seeing the whole encounter with Zeina and seeing how Jill and David thought through it together, it was all so organic and incredible to witness
  • Very helpful to see the progression of the session.
  • Zeina's session has been a gift not only to us, but also to our mothers. Forced empathy felt like a pivot point in treatment and I loved that Z was able to go deep and connect with her mother's feelings. I have plans to travel and visit my mother next month and have been feeling anxious about it. I was reminded of the unconditional love of a mother that is beautiful and spiritual. David and Jill did amazing and transformational work. This is so inspiring!
  • I liked everything and how the methods and techniques were woven together very skillfully.
  • Personal work is really the best and so gratifying to see. David made a comment at the end about how it would help with motivation to use the skills and work more on them after seeing them in action and I do agree with his comment even if I'm totally not paraphrasing correctly. I LOVE personal work because it bring these skills to life in a way that role plays don't. and of course, it's all the better that someone gets a personal benefit, that's all good too.
  • David and Jill did an amazing job again! However, Zeina’s honesty and vulnerability was the greatest gift during this session. I could relate to her struggle as well, so I was extra impressed about her determination to work on this issue.
  • It was amazing personal work for me. I feel so grateful for this experience.
  • This was another example of the "magic" of TEAM, especially when the therapists are the incredibly skilled Jill and David. What a great, vulnerable and poignant example of relationship issues with a parent. I was very impressed and moved by the power of the Forced Empathy technique. By Zeina's ability to feel into the point of view of her mother, and her insights and connections, especially around how the times of criticism can be seen as opportunities for greater acceptance and love. Moving and really beautiful personal work!!!
  • I was moved to tears when Zeina cried her mother's tears during the Forced Empathy exercise and said "I need her to accept me as I am." Wow--that was so powerful! And as for so many others, this experience felt super relevant and helpful to me for one of my own important relationships, and I'm feeling excited to try out Sergio's approach on my own loved one.
  • Forced Empathy: I loved all of it! So helpful and informative to witness live work.
  • I immediately got why the “what’s my grade?” question was skipped (since the use of the Forced empathy technique had yielded such powerful results). I am eager to try this with a particular client who is having similar issues with their mom. On a more personal level, I felt extremely close to Zeina and seeing how vulnerable and open she was willing to be. This has melted away a lot of my resistance in using the 5 secrets with my own mom. Thank you Zeina!
  • I liked seeing the "visitor from Mars" used to uncover Zeina's thoughts when David was having trouble understanding what the issue was. It was great to see David feeling a little "lost" and see how he worked through that.
  • Watching the Forced Empathy technique was amazing! I also appreciated when Jill offered several options for which direction to go and explained her rationale. I found it to be a helpful learning moment and also liked the warmth that came across.
  • I saw my mom's critical behavior as coming from love-brought tears. Same for my Dad
  • Zeina did really powerful and enlightening work! It was also a great learning experience to observe David & Jill.
  • I have enjoyed listening to and learning wonderful techniques from Jill and David. I can definitely relate to parent's/child criticism conflict myself, so I have learned some methods of effective communication, empathy skills, especially the opposite empathy (where you step into the shoes of a person you have a conflict with) and learn to empathize strongly vs feeling frustrated and having blame thoughts
  • I love every time we do personal work. I always learn and grow so much personally and professionally. Thank you, Zeina for this amazing gift, and thank you, David and Jill for your masterful work. I loved every moment of it!
  • Amazing personal work!
  • I enjoyed the entire process. I appreciated the partnership between David and Jill. I so appreciated Zeina's work and vulnerability. I like David's creative way of doing the Ind. Downward arrow using "man from Mars" perspective. I liked getting to see, again, the power of Forced Empathy, as it illuminated how we create the very behavior in the other, that we then complain about. I loved how Zeina surrendered to doing the Forced Empathy exercise with such wonderful openness.
  • I loved the seamless way Dr Burns and Jill moved between the methods. And Zeina’s courage to be vulnerable. Had an aha moment myself - of course her mother will criticize her because the last thing she wants is for Zeina to have disastrous finances like her own. It shows deep love and caring
  • Another Master Class! I loved watching David and Jill working with Zeina. Change the Focus is just an amazing Method. I appreciate Zeina's vulnerable disclosures. Such generosity is much appreciated. This is an amazing group, and I feel privileged to learn from such sophisticated practitioners, who are so generous with their insights and decades’ worth experiences. Some days I just can't believe my luck to be with such heartfelt, dedicated, compassionate and wise folks!
  • I very specifically like seeing a long personal work session...the big picture seeing the whole session. Thank you! I learned so very much and how things smooth into each other as session progresses.
  • It was great seeing Forced Empathy demonstrated as I've never seen it before and learned so much from the overall training with Zeina, David and Jill. So glad Zeina was willing to be so vulnerable; really appreciated at the end when she said she felt pressure to empathize with her mom if she was vulnerable with her and mom laid it on thick, was wondering the same exact thing in that very moment! Loved how David diffused that for her and put less pressure on how she would handle it! So grateful to be part of this awesome group where I am growing and learning every moment!
  • The hi quality demonstration of Five Secrets empathy by David and Jill
  • Jill’s patience. David waiting for AHA MOMENTS and pointing them out and best of all ZEINA!
  • Personal work is always insightful. I really like the forced empathy technique. I also enjoyed the display of creativity and flexibility of the team model. Amy would regularly explain that it was a model to be used creatively and it's exciting to know there is so much to learn. It can be adapted to each individual. Viewing therapy as a series of skills to learn rather than a step-by-step instructional book is what makes me really love TEAM.
  • Loved how Dr Burns used the individual downward arrow so seamlessly during the empathy phase. Dr Burns empathy too was spot on when he said to Zeina that "she could not lean on her Mom." This one line was really powerful for me and resonated deeply.

Loved Jill's internal solution as well as the forced empathy option along with the option of working on the good reasons not to do the 5 secrets. Jill was on a roll with her empathy ... "feels like you're walking on eggshells and don't know what will hurt her." I also liked Jill's disclosure about the times she gets critical with her boys are times when she is most concerned about them. Also liked Jill highlighting how Zeina practicing the Five Secrets was not working at a point because she was not using enough feeling empathy unlike as when doing the Forced Empathy