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Improving Responding Communications Skills

Chapter 4: Improving Responding Communications Skills
Tools for Communications
By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.

What are effective responses for healthy communication?

Effective responses for healthy communication are those perceived as being empathetic, caring, warm, and thoughtful. The eight responses listed in the order of most effective to least effective. Remember, however, that each of these responses could be effective depending on the context in which it was used.


Study each response, including the examples. Which responses would be most likely to create healthy interpersonal relationships? Repair damaged relationships?



An understanding response is most likely to create a climate where honest, frank communication can occur. It is a feelings–oriented response which conveys sensitivity and understanding. Strong negative feelings can become a barrier to communication; this response can diminish those feelings. Understanding is empathy, i.e., accurately tuning in to what the other person is feeling at the time. It implies listening beyond the words and reflecting the feelings.

Examples of Understanding responses:

  • You're feeling discouraged and wonder what's the use.
  • You're offended and angry.
  • You're excited over your new assignment.
  • You seem pleased to have been selected.

By focusing on others' feelings you are recognizing them as individuals, persons worthy of your concern. This type of response can reduce hostile feelings in normal persons. It can also be used with persons when they are over–emotional, crying, fearful, etc., to get beyond those feelings, or reactions. Understanding or empathy can repair a damaged relationship.



The clarification response indicates your intent to comprehend what the other is saying or to identify the most significant feelings that are emerging. It indicates that what others are saying is important and you are checking it out to ensure your perceptions. This can be done in several ways: echoing the last few words spoken, summarizing the points that seem most relevant, or paraphrasing. A response of this nature can be followed profitably by a period of silence. This gives the others a chance to draw thoughts together or to correct your impression. Clarification responses reinforce your desire to see from the other's point of view.

Examples of Clarification responses:

  • I gather that you were able to manage your married life before your baby was born.
  • You seem to be saying that you were happier in California and that you would like to go back there.
  • Let's see, what you want to do is find a more challenging job?
  • If I hear you correctly, you are saying that you could devise a better way of doing this.

This response is useful in reducing hostility. It not only encourages the others to explain more fully, but also serves to focus the discussion, especially when followed by silence on your part. It gives the others a chance to draw their thoughts together and to take responsibility for coming up with their own ideas. Another use for clarification responses is to stall for time to think of a more appropriate response.



Self–disclosure shows your attempts to give others insight into who you are. It is sharing something about yourself that relates directly to the conversation: your personal beliefs, attitudes, values, or an event from your past. Self–disclosure can reduce anxiety by reassuring others that they are not alone in their feelings or fears.

Examples of Self-disclosure responses:

  • When we had our son the doctor treated us that way, too!
  • I have always believed that it was better to keep my mouth shut when my parents were fighting.
  • Like you, I never felt as if anyone accepted me for the way I was.
  • When I was younger kids always made fun of my weight, the clothes I wore; I know what it is like to stand out in a crowd.

Self–disclosure is useful in connecting with another person who has similar problems or life concerns. In peer support groups this lets newcomers know that they have come to the right place, that there are people here who have experienced similar problems. Over–use of this response is not helpful because it focuses attention on the wrong person. It can be viewed as an attention–getting device. Use sparingly for the best effect.



Like it sounds, the question response seeks to elicit information. It allows others to develop a point. Open questions focus on the others' general situation, thoughts, reactions, and feelings. They tend to promote communication. Closed questions focus on specific facts or aspects of the others situation, generally evoking yes or no answers.

Examples of Questioning responses:

  • Do you get along well with your boss? (closed)
  • Can you tell me about your boss? (open)
  • Do you like the new house? (closed)
  • What do you like about the new house? (open)
  • Is this confusing you? (closed)
  • What is it that's confusing you? (open)

Open questions are recommended for exploring a broad topic. Closed questions can be interspersed to get to specific facts or can be used to cut off long, irrelevant explanations. In either case, listening to the answer, both what is said and what is left unsaid, is vital to the questioning process. Caution is needed with questions beginning with why. They pressure the other for an explanation and can cause resentment. Why questions can seem to express disapproval, being perceived as a cut–down or criticism.


Information giving

Information giving involves relating facts in an objective manner without judgment or evaluation. It leaves the other person free to accept or reject the facts. It allows the other to take responsibility for using the information. This response is useful in giving both positive and negative feedback (confrontation). The others relate only to what has actually occurred and the effect that this has had. Words such as always, never, should, ought, are only used in setting limits. (The facts about what must or must not be done, time frames, and limitations.)

Examples of Information giving responses:

  • This project has a time frame of six weeks and should not exceed a budget of $850.
  • Children at every level need touching and nurturing to develop self–worth.
  • The support group can be used to meet others dealing with similar problems.

Responding to others' feelings with an information response increases the chances of their respecting and following the limits suggested.



Reassurance responses reduce anxiety, diffuse intense feelings, and express confidence. They provide a pat on the back, but imply that certain feelings or thoughts should be dismissed as being normal or common. This response does not foster a relationship because it tends to discount people's problems. Clichés fall into this category. Reassurance is often used by people who come upon a situation that is out of their realm of experience; they don't know what to do or say, and they may be embarrassed.?

Examples or Reassurance responses:

  • Don't worry. Other people have made it; so will you.
  • Things may look bad now, but it will be OK in the morning.
  • You are not really fat.
  • Welcome to the "new normal" post distaster lifesyle
  • Hang in there. Disappointment is a normal feeling.

This response could be reworded into an understanding, clarifying or information–giving response and be more effective. Used as an expression of sympathy in conjunction with other responses can be helpful. For example, instead of You will manage, substitute You have handled this situation before. Relax and use your best judgment. Do what you feel is right for you (information giving) and I have confidence in you (reassurance).



The intent of the analytical response is to analyze, explain, or interpret the other person's behavior and feelings. It goes beyond whatever the other has said to explain or connect ideas and events. Unlike clarification, this response adds something from your own thoughts, feelings, values, etc. It implies that you are wise, you know more than the other person. Under most circumstances the analytical response leads to resentment in others.

Examples of Analytic responses:

  • The reason you are having so much trouble with him is that he reminds you of your father whom you hate.
  • You often come to our group late because you really don't feel comfortable here.
  • You see her as an authority figure; that is why you can't relate to her.
  • You are lonely because you are afraid to risk getting involved with people.

The analytical response is more appropriate for therapists where there is an ongoing counseling relationship and where the patient needs to become aware of certain behavior or reaction patterns. Even then it sometimes works better to use an information–giving response. Interpretation is a poor response to use in confronting a person with behavior of which you disapprove.



Advice giving is usually unproductive. It implies that you are in a position to know the reasons for the other person's problems, and what they ought, must, or should do about them. You are, thus, judging the goodness, appropriateness, effectiveness, or correctness of the other's actions. Others are being measured by your personal value system and are found somehow lacking. This is a process of blaming others for their own problems.

Examples of Advice-giving responses:

  • If I were you, I'd write to him and ask him to send you something for the kids. You should get a divorce, it's the only answer to your marital problems.
  • Instead of arguing, you should try to see the other person's viewpoint.
  • You shouldn't say things like that.

Telling people what to do takes away their responsibility for decisions and problem solving. Advice often arouses resistance and resentment, even when there is outward compliance. Giving advice, even when requested can, foster dependency. Reword advice into an information–giving response or a question. 

How can empathy be conveyed?
Responding in a healthy manner means conveying understanding, referred to as empathy. One effective technique used to convey empathy is reflection, which acts as a mirror to provide feedback. It conveys understanding to both the emotional content of what is said and the environmental components (events having an impact on the emotions expressed). Being in tune with others provides valuable feedback, which is useful in improving the effectiveness of your communication. When others see that what they say and feel is important enough to be listened to, a warm, respectful kindred feeling evolves. This affinity contributes to unity in the relationship and increases task abilities and motivation. Also, since you become more sensitive to the others' needs you can respond accordingly. Reflection of empathy means responding with intense interest using different words to convey the original meaning.


For example:
Other: I'm really not with this stuff today. All these medical terms you're throwing out are mumbo–jumbo to me, and I couldn't give a damn about them. I know I've gotten a bum deal, and my child has problems.
You: Having new words to learn is pretty frustrating and nerve racking, especially when you did not ask for any of this.
Other: Yeah, so please help me to understand what I need to do to help him.

It is important that reflective responses be nonjudgmental. A judgmental response adds a new conclusion, interprets the other persons' behavior as good or bad, or distorts the person's words.

For example:
I don't know … having a baby just isn't what I expected. I thought it would make life more exciting, that it would really turn me on. But it seems that my family life is a dead end. My husband and I end up sitting around doing nothing. Our marriage is so different now that we have a child.
Poor judgmental reflection: It's too bad you feel stagnated. It could be exciting if you didn't just sit around. (This does not indicate that you heard the speaker; it contradicts the speaker, and is judgmental).
Good nonjudgmental reflection: You're saying that having the baby hasn't given you what you expected: something new and exciting in your marriage.

Tips for responding to others to create a supportive relationship:

  1. Respond in a way that focuses attention on the issues and concerns: clarify inconsistencies and gather facts quickly and unobtrusively.
  2. Let the other person know that you are listening and following what is being said. Give an occasional Yes, I see, or Uh–huh.
  3. Probe with open–ended statements to gain more information. Use Tell me more about …, Let's talk about that, or I'm wondering about … Responding in this manner is usually more effective than using specific who, what, when, where, and why questions.
  4. Ask for clarification, e.g., I'm having trouble understanding what you're saying. Is it that …? or Could you go over that again, please?
  5. Use understandable words. Listen to the vocabulary of the other person to get a clue to their level of understanding.
  6. Try not to preach, blame, or be demanding.
  7. Try to avoid straying from the topic.
  8. Show understanding and sincerity in your responses, so the other person will feel comfortable discussing additional information.
  9. Try not to talk excessively about yourself. Keep self– disclosure to a minimum.
  10. Give responses appropriate for the age, sex, and emotional state of the other person.
  11. Avoid responses that put you on the defensive. I'm sorry, I really didn't mean that is a bad approach.
  12. Be comfortable with silence. Don't feel that silence needs to be filled with talk. Don't do all the talking.
  13. Try to remain neutral and nonjudgmental in your response to actions, comments, or conditions you find antagonizing, shocking, or hostile.
  14. If you become tangential (straying from the topic) try to refocus the discussion.
  15. If people become emotional and cry, allow them to cry. Show respect. Don't stop them, but try to make them feel as comfortable as possible while they are crying.
  16. Use responsive body language: make eye contact, lean forward.

Issues to focus on when responding to a friend in a supportive relationship include:


If your friend is displaying anxiety:

  • What is your friend anxious about?
  • What situations bother your friend?
  • Is this a reaction your friend has been having for a while, or is it a new one?
  • Did some particular incident set these feelings off?
  • Can your friend remember having felt this way before?
  • What other feelings accompany the anxiety?
  • Does your friend have any idea why the anxious feelings have occurred?
  • How does the anxiety get in the way now?
  • What purpose does the anxiety serve?
  • In what ways does it protect your friend?
  • Is the anxiety related to you or to the support group? Is it related to the subject matter? All of the above?
  • Is your friend scared of being scared? Is your friend frightened by the anxiety?
  • What does your friend imagine would happen if the feelings were let go?
  • If your friend gave the anxiety a voice, what would it say?

If your friend is hurt:

  • What situations cause your friend to end up being hurt?
  • Does this happen with specific people?
  • Is it an angry or a sad hurt?
  • When your friend is hurt, what is the typical response?
  • How do others get the power to hurt your friend?
  • How does your friend want others to respond?
  • When your friend responds inappropriately, how does it feel?
  • Did your friend anticipate being hurt before he entered the relationship?
  • Are there ways he contributed or set up being hurt?
  • How does your friend let others know that he has been hurt?
  • Has your friend been hurt badly in the past?
  • Does one incident stick out in your friend's mind as being particularly painful?
  • If so, what were the consequences for your friend then?
  • What needs of your friend are not being met?


If your friend is experiencing guilt:

  • What does your friend feel guilty about?
  • Is it one particular thing that happened or a lot of things?
  • Is your friend afraid somebody will find out?
  • What does your friend think would happen if someone found out?
  • How would your friend react?
  • When your friend felt guilt before, how was it handled?
  • Who taught your friend to feel guilty in this kind of situation?


Does it seem that your friend gave others the power to make her feel guilty?

  • What does it mean, in terms of how your friend sees herself, when she feels guilty?
  • What would your friend really like to say or do when responding with guilt?
  • What consequences does your friend anticipate?
  • Is your friend's guilt relevant, or is it carried over from an earlier period?


If your friend is discussing affection:

  • What fears does your friend have about being close to others?
  • Is the difficulty in giving affection, receiving it, or both?
  • How has your friend handled the need for affection in the past? How has loneliness be handled?
  • How would your friend like people to show their affection?
  • Have there been times in your friend's life when affection was really needed and it didn't come?
  • In retrospect, can your friend see any reason why he didn't get affection? Was part of it his inability to respond?
  • Does your friend makes it difficult for others to respond warmly and affectionately to him?
  • Does your friend see parts of himself as being unlovable?
  • If so, how did your friend learn that?
  • How does your friend let others know that he needs them to care?
  • Does your friend experience the ambivalence of being afraid of affection and wanting it at the same time?


If your friend is angry:

  • Does your friend feel angry all the time, or just in specific situations?
    What is it that makes your friend angry?
  • How does your friend express anger—physically, verbally, or by holding it inside?
  • What value judgment does your friend put on being angry?
  • Does the anger get displaced to relatively unimportant situations?
    With whom is your friend angry? Why?
  • How does your friend deal with other people's anger?
  • What have been the consequences of your friend's anger in the past?
  • When people important in your friend's life fight with each other angrily, what does your friend imagine would happen?
  • Is your friend afraid the anger will destroy, or is your friend afraid the anger will have no impact?

Learning to recognize the different types of Communication Responses

This exercise is designed to help you improve your responses to people. After you have finished reading each example write down in your journal the type of response which has been used in it and each of the 34 examples given. 


Eight responses with a high probability of creating healthy communication are presented. These responses are highly rated because they are perceived as empathic, caring, warm, and person–centered.


The eight facilitating responses are listed from the least (1) to the most facilitating (8):
1. Advice or evaluation indicates your judgment of relative goodness, appropriateness, effectiveness, or correctness.
2. Analytical or interpretation shows your intent to teach, to impart insight, to show meaning.
3. Reassuring or supportive implies your intent to reduce the anxiety or intense feelings in the other person.
4. Information giving signals your desire to share basic, needed information with the other person.
5. Probe or question reveals an intent to seek additional information, provide further discussion, to query.
6. Self–disclosure exhibits your intent to share the fact that you have experienced what the other person has.
7. Summary or clarification denotes your intent to understand what the other person is saying, or to identify the most significant ideas or feelings that seem to be emerging.
8. Understanding or reflection conveys your understanding or ability to read others' feelings.


In the following examples, a person's comment is followed by a response. You are to identify in your journal the type of response being used. Identify the response using the eight responses listed above. Once you have marked the response type for all the examples in your journal then check your answers with the answer key at the end of this exercise.

1. Person: It just seems like year after year goes by without my being able to get pregnant.
Response: You feel discouraged because we can't seem to have children.
Type of response:


2. Person: My parents are getting a divorce, and I wish they wouldn't.
Response: You feel upset because your parents are splitting up.
Type of response:


3. Person: I am caught in the middle. I am unable to handle both my job and the household chores. I need help. Either I need to stay home more, or I need assistance with the work around my house.
Response: You should hire a maid.
Type of response:


4. Person: It has been hard for me to adjust since I had my son. The days seem so busy, and I need help with him.
Response: Do you know about the programs available at the child development center for children with his problems? There are many children like him who go there for school and therapy on a daily basis.
Type of response:


5. Person: I am always picking on my kids. Sometimes I think I am too hard on them.
Response: You are worried about the way you discipline the children because it brings up the horrible memories of the abuse your father inflicted on you.
Type of response:


6. Person: I am bored at home all day long. There is nothing for me to do but clean the house and take care of the kids.
Response: Before I went back to work, I felt the same way.
Type of response:


7. Person: I just hate it. The house is a mess.
Response: Maybe this experience will remind you to help your wife more with the chores.
Type of response:


8. Person: Just facing my mother tomorrow has me frightened to death.
Response: What about your mom has you so upset?
Type of response:


9. Person: It is frightening to consider moving after all these years. But I know I have to accept the transfer if I am ever to get ahead.
Response: The prospect of moving is unpleasant, but you want to advance your career.
Type of response:


10. Person: It is frightening to consider moving after all these years. They may have been full of misery and pain, but still, this was home.
Response: It's natural to feel that way at a time like this.
Type of response:


11. Person: (Silence)
Response: That last comment of mine must have struck home. I can see by your reaction you still feel some guilt about the way you have treated your children.
Type of response:


12. Person: I wish I had never gotten involved with those bastards.
Response: You seem to be really upset right now.
Type of response:


13. Person: How do you know how I feel; you never had a child with a handicap.
Response: How does it feel, then, to have a child with a handicap?
Type of response:


14. Person: So I finally had to place him in the home. Since then, I have had nothing but trouble with the other kids.
Response: The problems became so unbearable that you had to place your child in a group home, but your problems have not ended after getting help for him.
Type of response:


15. Person: I feel so stressed every time she visits our house.
Response: What have you done so far to take care of yourself?
Type of response:


16. Person: The way they all look at him bothers me.
Response: They way others look at your child is upsetting.
Type of response:


17. Person: I am very anxious around my father's new girl friend.
Response: You probably have this anxiety because of an unresolved Oedipal conflict.
Type of response:


18. Person: (Silence – tears)
Response: I know that it is hard for you to talk about this now. Just begin when you want to.
Type of response:


19. Person: You can imagine how I felt when I discovered she was disabled. What was I supposed to do, just stand there and watch their abusive behavior? I let them know how I felt!
Response: You really were angry and upset.
Type of response:


20. Person: There are times when I wish my husband wasn't so busy, that our son could have a father to grow up with.
Response: He might benefit from the father's program. It was begun just this past year for dad's with disabled kids.
Type of response:


21. Person: There are times when I could just kill them.
Response: You get so rattled with your relatives; you are totally frustrated.
Type of response:


22. Person: I know that drinking doesn't really help me in the long run, and it sure doesn't help our family. She keeps threatening to leave. I know all this, but it is hard to stay away from the booze.
Response: You are aware of some of the ways that drinking is harmful, and yet you can't leave it alone.
Type of response:


23. Person: I am really discouraged since his last operation. I feel that since he has come home from the hospital, the other kids stay farther and farther away from him.
Response: This would be a good thing to bring up in your next family meeting: How the kids are reacting to his latest operation and how it affects you.
Type of response:


24. Person: Arriving one hour late: Sorry I am late; the bus was delayed.
Response: This makes the fifth time you have been late to group. It gives me the feeling that you are not too interested
Type of response:


25. Person: I don't want you to tell my parents what I am telling you. They will be annoyed with me again.
Response: Don't worry about me telling them; what you share with me stays with me
Type of response


26. Person: When the doctor told me that the baby was retarded and that we should put him away in some institution, I blew up and ran out of his office.
Response: His lack of sensitivity was acute
Type of response


27. Person: His parents have been out to get me from the first time I met them.
Response: What gives you that feeling?
Type of response:


28. Person: He is always telling me what to do, what to think, what to like. What a jerk!
Response: What did he say to you this time
Type of response


29. Person: I get so nervous when I have to go to the doctor.
Response: The last time I went to your doctor he was uncaring and impersonal. It makes it hard to feel comfortable as his patient
Type of response


30. Person: Please help me figure out how to get help for my son.
Response: Call the County Information Hotline for the numbers of the clinic closest to you
Type of response


31. Person: Please help me figure out how to get help for my son.
Response: I can see that you are really confused about this

Type of response


32. Person: (Silence – tears)
Response: You are upset about your son's developmental problems because of guilt over the way you have treated retarded kids in the past
Type of response


33. Person: You have to help me with this. I am so lost and frustrated.
Response: I know just how you feel
Type of Response


34. Person: Why does this have to happen to me?
Response: The situation seems so unfair
Type of response

Answer Key

1. Understanding

2. Understanding

3. Advice

4. Information giving

5. Analytical

6. Self–disclosure

7. Advice

8. Probe (open question)

9. Understanding

10. Reassuring/supportive

11. Analytical

12. Understanding

13. Probe (open question)

14. Summary/clarification

15. Probe (open question)

16. Understanding

17. Analytical

18. Understanding

19. Understanding
Information giving

21. Understanding

22. Clarification/summary

23. Advice

24. Analytical

25. Supportive/Information Giving

26. Understanding

27. Probe (open question)

28. Probe (open question)

29. Self–disclosure

30. Supportive/Information Giving

31. Understanding

32. Analytical

33. Supportive, reassuring

34. Understanding

Responding  role–play activity

You and a friend can practice effective responding using the ten role–play topics in this activity.

Step 1: One person takes a turn as the speaker with the concern, the other is the responder. For 5 minutes the speaker shares concerns about one of the ten role–play situations. The responder uses effective responding skills with the speaker to evoke helpful resolutions to the concern.

Step 2: After the 5–minute role play is completed, the speaker spends 2 minutes giving feedback on the effectiveness on the responses.

Step 3: After the first role–play and feedback session, switch roles until you have each role–played speaker and responder for all ten topics. Use the material on responding as a tool to make improvements in your responses and feedback.

Ten responding role–play topics


You are concerned:

  1. About your inability to control your drinking (or drugs or gambling or eating or spending or sex or smoking or working behavior.
  2. Because you feel you are being unfairly judged by others.
  3. Because you do not sense a full commitment of your spouse to your marriage and to caring for your children.
  4. Because you feel like you are in a dead–end career.
  5. Because you are finding it increasingly difficult to control your temper both at home and at work.
  6. About the way you solve problems.
  7. About how much time and energy is required to get the support you need to work on your problems.
  8. About your health.
  9. About the behavior of your children both at home and at school.
  10. About your sense of loneliness and abandonment after you have had a fight with someone for whom you care.