Challenging unacceptable behaviour: the 4 part I-message

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 19) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful.

Challenging unacceptable behaviour: the 4 part I-message

When others people behave in ways that interfere with us or we don’t like, it is time to own the problem and stand up for our own rights and needs in an assertive way. Being successful in challenging someone who is interfering with your needs requires the development of the skills of self-disclosure. The first step is to make sure that the person interfering with your needs is fully aware of the fact.

It is useful to try and understand the motivation for the unacceptable behaviour.  Often the individual is unaware that his/her behaviour is unacceptable, and the behaviour is usually engaged in to meet his/her own needs.

Informing them that their behaviour has an unfavourable impact on those around them may be enough to bring about a change in their behaviour.  If not, it will initiate the chance to discuss how to solve the problem.  In challenging in the way described below we are in fact stating the problem and asking for help or co-operation in solving it.

In essence this means we are asking for help in having our needs met by the removal of the behaviour that was an obstacle to this objective in the first place.

 The aims of challenging

In challenging someone about their behaviour, bear in mind everything that you are actually trying to achieve.

You want to:-

  1.  Bring about a change in the behaviour … You want somehow to change the situation you find  unacceptable, so what you do needs to be effective.
  1. Avoid bad feelings … You want to avoid getting into fights and power tussles as you challenge the behaviour.
  1. Maintain everyone’s self-esteem … Each challenge can be an opportunity for those involved to develop good feelings about themselves, by treating each other respectfully. Labelling behaviour is one way to ensure that feelings are hurt, and that everyone ends up feeling less good about themselves.
  1. Encourage growth and development … Each time we challenge unacceptable behaviour, we create an opportunity for growth and development, by fostering positive communication, encouraging flexibility in ourselves and others, and improving relationships. We are also providing a potential learning experience for all concerned, because when the situation is resolved comfortably, it is possible that the method may be used by others, simply because ‘it works’.

Expressing yourself congruently

When others are interfering with us getting our needs met we need to be able to express ourselves in a congruent manner if we want to bring about some change in the situation.  The ability to honestly express the level of your feelings is very important in sending I-messages.

To do this, we need to be clear about the answers to the following questions.  We shall use Mary’s problem as our illustration.  Mary is fed up with picking up her children’s clothes from all over the house.

What is going on that is interfering with her needs?

We need a factual description of the behaviour, so we have to stick to what you see and hear and avoid interpretations. Mary could describe the children as messy or inconsiderate; in fact what they are doing is leaving their clothes about the house instead of in their rooms.

What effect is their behaviour having on her?

How is it interfering with Mary getting her needs met?  Because Mary cannot stand having clothes lying around the house she picks them up whenever she finds them, thus creating more work for herself.

How does she feel about the effect that it is having on her?

Here we need to get in touch with the feelings and how to describe them. The clearer we are about what we are feeling the more congruent our expression will be. Mary wasn’t unduly bothered for a while. Now it feels as though half her time is spent picking up clothes and she has reached a point where she feels used by her children and that makes her resentful.

Include a request for help.

Say something like: “I don’t like what is happening and need your help,” or “I have a problem, will you help me with it …?”  By doing this you are giving the other person a chance to realise that you are not attacking them; you are trusting them to be helpful and co-operative.

Behaving Congruently


How do you confront the person?  Armed with this information, how you confront someone is of vital importance.  You need to inform the other person of all these things.  The more supporting information you can provide, the more likely they are to accept your case and so change the behaviour you find unacceptable.  The form of your confronting message will thus include:-

  • a description of the behaviour
  • the effect of that behaviour;
  • how you feel;
  • a request for help in solving your problem.

Mary’s challenge might go something like this:-

“When you leave your clothing around the house I end up picking it up and I really resent the extra work Please can you help work out what we can change so that it doesn’t happen any more!”

There is no set order for the parts of the challenging message.  It is important to include all four elements and they can be switched round as feels most comfortable.

Mary’s challenge could equally have been:-

“I’ve got a problem I’d appreciate help with: I feel really resentful when l have to pick up the clothes you leave around the house.  It makes more work for me and I feel like I’m a slave!”

More on challenging

When it is our needs that are not being met – when the problem belongs firmly to us rather than to someone else – it is time to be assertive and bring about change.

There will be times when we are suffering because of something we have not said or done.


Another example from Mary:- 

Mary was upset because her birthday had passed without any major celebration. Her husband had given her a present, yet she would have liked the chance to go out and celebrate in style.  When talking through her unmet needs with a friend she realised she had never told him about wanting a celebration. Her needs were not being met because she hadn’t voiced them!


There will be other times when our needs are being interfered with by something that other people are saying or doing.

Mary was late for evening class at the college two evenings running because her husband was not home on time from work.  He knew that she had to go out and yet was giving more weight to his own need to stay late at the office.

Mary needs to challenge her husband’s behaviour.  On the rare occasions in the past when she had confronted him it was more of a head-on attack than an assertive challenge.  She would wait until she was so angry that she could barely control her temper and so it was hardly surprising that she ended up being vicious.  The inevitable result was that her husband became very defensive and attacked her in return, to save himself.  Bad feelings were all that could possibly result.

In the above example, Mary was not being assertive at all; she was being aggressive.  The important difference is that in being assertive you take the other person’s feelings and needs into account even as you firmly stick to your guns and insist on your rights to get your needs met.

Mary’s new assertive challenge went like this:-

“I’m really fed up and I need your help!  You have come home half an hour later than agreed two Tuesdays running with the result that I have been late for my class.  That course is very important to me and I feel as if you are not taking me or it seriously by being late.”

By challenging him before she loses control of her temper she is valuing herself and protecting her interests, ending up feeling stronger and more worthwhile.

By challenging him in a loving and non-labelling way she is complaining about his behaviour without attacking him – and so not damaging his self-esteem.  She is therefore far less likely to experience defensiveness on his part and more likely to get him to change the offending behaviour; and by asking for his help she is giving him the chance to realise that he should take her needs more seriously and consider her in all he does – a process that will encourage him to develop his awareness of himself as a person and as her partner.

In this way, Mary is satisfying all the important points of a useful challenging I-Message.

Examples of challenging

Sam’s two sons, aged three and four, used to fight to get to his knee first when he came home from work.  Sam himself was usually exhausted and grumpy after a day’s hard work and the long journey home, so the last thing he wanted was to be jumped on and squabbled over the minute he walked through the front door.

In the past he had struggled to put up with it because of feelings of guilt at having to spend so much time away from the family, working the long hours his job demanded.  Finally, unable to cope with stress at work, and the daily onslaught at the front door, he discussed the problem with his partner, who suggested he give the 4-part-I message.  To his pleasant surprise both boys willingly backed off and agreed to give him the short space he wanted to himself on arriving home.

The following day, when he arrived home, they dashed up as usual, the older one in the lead.  Then they stopped in their tracks and the older one turned to the younger one and said: “Remember we agreed to wait until Dad is ready, and then you go first for a cuddle”.

In challenging the boys in a firm and gentle way he managed successfully to bring about a change in the unacceptable behaviour.  He also gave them the opportunity to work out how to get their own needs met without interfering with his unduly.  In this way he presented them with an important opportunity to become more caring and responsible.


Another example:-

Joan shared a computer station with Avril, and found Avril’s habit of leaving her empty dispenser coffee cups wherever she happened to be quite infuriating.  At first she had disposed of the cups without complaining, but now felt that ‘something had to be done’.

The challenge went like this:-

“I’ve got a problem that I need you to help me with.  I know you love your coffee, and accept that it’s not always possible to stop what you’re doing and take your empty cups to the recycle bin.  When I get to the computer station, there is always at least one empty cup, but usually more than that cluttering up the desk.  If they get knocked over there’s a real danger that the dregs left in the bottom could damage my papers.  I don’t mind dealing with the odd cup, but I’m starting to find it difficult not to get angry or annoyed with you”.

Avril was apologetic, and seemed genuinely surprised that her forgetfulness was a problem for Joan.  She promised to be more attentive, and to deal with her coffee cups more efficiently.

Of course, it is not always the case that challenges work at the first try. Sometimes it is necessary to raise the matter more than once, or to find a way to help everyone remember what they undertook to do.  It is too easy sometimes to think that people are being deliberately unco-operative when they do things that we find unacceptable, especially things which we have challenged them about before.  There are many reasons for non-compliance with our requests or the contracted behaviour.  It may be useful to consider some reasons for apparent ‘failure’.

There is more on challenging in the next posting …

There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”. Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at:

Sharing feelings – truth and lies

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 18) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful.

Saying what you would like

This is about sharing feelings – truth and lies.  When you tell others clearly what you would or would not like, they know what to expect and can act accordingly.  Unfortunately many of us have been taught to keep what we want to ourselves or that it was impolite to be direct, so we must express our wants in devious or roundabout ways.

We have this beautiful double-bind in our society which is summed up in the two following statements: “If you ask, you don’t get” and “I want doesn’t get”.  Between the two it is very difficult to sort out what to do in order to get what you want!

Have a go at making “I would like” statements out of the following:-

  • You don’t cuddle me like you used to”.
  •  “That sounds like a really interesting play”.
  •  “My friends get to go out with their husbands once a week.”.

Openness, honesty and truth

It’s good to examine the words and meanings of both truth and lies.

  • What does telling the truth mean?
  • How do we decide to tell the truth or not?
  • Why do we fear telling the truth in some situations and not others?

All these are questions that we ask ourselves at some time or another and finding the answers can at times be very difficult for us.

  • Do I tell my best friend that her husband is having an affair?
  • Do I tell my boyfriend that I don’t like the earrings he bought me?
  • Do I tell my little daughter what strangers could do to her?
  • Do I tell my wife when I am attracted to somebody else?
  • Do I tell my little boy that I don’t like his best friend?

Truth is not something unchangeable that stands forever: it changes all the time, as does the degree to which we as individuals feel able to speak our truths.

Perhaps we all have private places inside where no one is allowed to go. We also have less private places where people who are very close to us are allowed, then we have a sort of open space where lots of people are allowed to go.  And we have the ability to close ourselves off almost completely when confronted with someone we feel is a threat to us.

So, the amount of truth about ourselves that we show varies with the type of relationship we are in.

We may also have inner truths that we hide even from ourselves, though others may often recognise them.  These hidden truths may be painful ones (for instance, that we believe we are unlovable) or they may be positive ones that we can’t allow ourselves to accept, like how valuable we are.  We cannot cope with the knowledge of them, and won’t, until we are ready to.

You cannot force anyone to accept their hidden truths.


Not telling the truth

Regarding truth and lies, not telling the truth is usually called “lying” and lying is generally regarded as not a very good thing to do.  We teach our children that lying is wrong and that teaching is backed up in our schools.

There are two problems with this oversimplified view of lying.  The first is that, if you want to teach children to believe that lying is wrong, you must not lie in their presence – ever.  You cannot allow yourself “white” lies, such as saying on the phone to someone who wants to visit that you are going out.  Working out when a lie is not a lie can be quite a complicated question for adults but for children it is very simple – a lie is a lie whether it be large or small.

The second problem is that we lie for a reason.  If we just regard lying as wrong and take a dogmatic or moralistic attitude on the matter, we can miss the needs underlying the lies that are told.  For instance, we sometimes lie:-

  •  To avoid what we perceive as being worse consequences if we told a truth.
  • To get something we want.
  • To avoid pain, our own or other people’s.
  • To present ourselves in a good light.

Lying takes energy because it means suppressing the truth and energy is needed  in  order  to  suppress anything.  This is why  people  often feel great relief and a weight off their shoulders when they tell a truth they have been witholding.  Lying also complicates matters.



Generally, the more safe and secure we feel with ourselves the more open and honest we allow ourselves to be. Being open and honest allows people to trust us and to get closer to us.


 Being open and honest with children is no different than with adults.  In fact, if we want our children to be open and honest and have integrity, our complete honesty with them is very important.  If they are brought up in an atmosphere that is safe enough to allow honesty they are far more likely to develop these qualities.

We often try to “save” children from various truths that we regard as in some way “awful” or too difficult for them to take. When we do this, we are taking it upon ourselves to judge the child’s ability to deal with something that we ourselves are finding difficult.


We are allowing an experience that we have labelled negatively to influence our openness with our child.  Saying, truthfully, to your children that you are unable to tell them the truth right now and explaining to them why you feel like that is itself a truth.

Be kind to yourself, it is human for you to have things that are difficult to cope with. Being honest with yourself and having compassion for your own weaknesses is the first step towards being more open with others.

Ways we block self disclosure


Young children quite naturally announce what they think and feel until they are stopped by embarrassed adults.  Children learn from being stopped that what they feel and think is wrong; they grow up into adults who daren’t express their true selves and who feel they have done something “bad” if they do.



What were you not allowed to speak about?  Were/are there taboo subjects in your family?  Some of the most common are:-

  •  Things to do with bodily functions, like serious illness, dying, pleasurable sex,
  • going to the toilet, AIDS, homosexuality, menstruation, giving birth, etc.
  • Things to do with family history, e.g. “We don’t talk about Uncle Willie”, or being very disapproving (but never mentioning) that a particular cousin had an illegitimate baby.
  • Different religious beliefs.
  • Unconventional behaviour.
  • he fact that parents are not the authority on everything.
  • Emotions such as anger, hatred, jealousy or expressions of love and warmth.
  • Our personal thoughts and needs.

Many of the taboo areas take on a magical, fascinating or fearful aspect for children who then, as adults, spend a great deal of time trying to come to terms with things that were not talked about openly when they were younger.

Awareness of the blockages and difficulties we experience as adults due to attitudes that surrounded as when we were children, gives us a responsibility to make sure that any children within our sphere of influence do not suffer under similar attitudes or prohibitions.  Allowing children their free expression of thoughts and feelings at the same time as teaching them respect and love for others means that they can retain their “here and now” responses and be more open and friendly.

And we can protect children from being hurt themselves by giving them clear, straightforward information about the dangers they may encounter from other people who are less open and honest than they are.  We all  risk danger to ourselves every day and making a child unduly fearful of the world will prevent them from ever living in it.



There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”. Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at:































Learning by watching others … behaving assertively

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 16) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful…

Learning by watching others

Just watching other people, on television, in the street, the supermarket or at work, can give you a great deal more information about these two types of behaviour.

Watch with your heart as well as your mind and understand that most people are behaving the best way they know how, to get their needs met, whatever your own feelings and judgements about what they are doing.

Whether they normally behave  submissively or aggressively, people sometimes adopt the opposite behaviour in certain circumstances.  For instance the victim blows up and behaves very aggressively when they can’t take any more and the persecutor can switch into submissive behaviour when being confronted by someone behaving even more aggressively.

For many people it is the situation which decides which behaviour they choose.  For instance the man who behaves in a subservient way at work may rule his wife and children with a rod of iron.

Behaving assertively

We said earlier that there were three general types of behaviour we can use to get our needs met. The third one is behaving assertively which allows you to meet your own needs and express yourself fully and openly yet not violate the rights and feelings of others.

True assertiveness is “a way of being” in the world, at ease with yourself, and aware of both your own and other people’s value as human beings. In short, you like yourself and you like other people.  Behaving in an assertive way means that you respect yourself and others. If you are faced with someone who is interfering with your needs, you are prepared to confront them respectfully and firmly and at the same time help them if they feel upset at being  confronted.

Behaving assertively involves a large degree of compassion not only for yourself but also for other people as well.

The advantages of behaving assertively

People who behave assertively soon gain the respect of others.  They get most of their needs met in life and often feel fulfilled in what they do and how they are.  Other people are attracted to them as models of how to live and can often be empowered by their example to change the way they live too.  If it were common in our society at all levels from the personal to the political, true assertive behaviour would revolutionise the way the whole world operates.

The disadvantages of assertive behaviour


The difference between NEEDS and WANTS

One useful way to develop a practical understanding of assertive behaviour is to differentiate between needs and wants.  In thinking about John, Jill and Wendy’s needs earlier, you may have thought of several ways that they could all have satisfied them.  In nearly all cases it is possible to think of more than one way to meet the need we have.  And yet, how often do we get stuck thinking that there is only one answer to our needs?

When we are stuck like that it is because we are considering only our “wants” and not the underlying needs.


for example:-

Bill has a slight cold and wants to stay off work.  He probably feels he that he needs to stay at home.  The reality is that there are rumours of redundancies at work due to a decrease in the company’s market share.

Bill needs a sense of safety and security, and the thought of redundancy scares him.  At home he feels safe, so he uses his cold as an excuse to meet his need for safety and security.


Getting help to meet your needs

It’s not always easy to identify needs as opposed to wants, or to know how to go about meeting them.  We may also have needs that right now we cannot hope to get met.  Our financial and social situation may well limit us and it may well feel as if there is nothing we can do about it.  That may be the case and even taking small steps to change the way we behave can begin to shift things in the world in which we live.

Understanding clearly our needs and slowly learning to take into our own hands the power to get them met is an important first step.  Taking such a step is easier if we feel we are doing it with others rather than all alone.  It is important that we get emotional support to help us make the changes we want in life.

Give some thought to who can offer you this support in your life.  If you have no one, consider obtaining professional support.  Thankfully, there is no longer such a stigma attached to seeking the aid of a professional counsellor.

Modern counsellors are professional ‘listeners’ who, by their listening and support can help us clarify and prioritise our needs, and discover the means in our lives to fill them.



There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”.  Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at:

Communication barriers

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 14) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful.

More about communication barriers

We need to get as much insight as possible into communication barriers … We all put up barriers of one kind or another which get in the way of good communication with others. These are developed in our childhood as a response to not being listened to and not being allowed to speak freely.

We learned to worry what others might think about us if we said what we really felt and thought!

We learned that people often weren’t honest and straight with us, so we had to make our own assumptions about was really going on.

We discovered we had to compete for speaking time, so we learned to rehearse what we wanted to say whilst another was speaking, thereby missing what was being said.

We learned that often people did not mean what they said, so we learned to tune out their voices and tuning out became a habit.

We learned to label and judge what others said. For example: “Don’t listen to him, he is stupid!” or “No one in the Government knows what they are talking about”.

Genuine contact with other people is made very difficult by these judgements and labels.

What do we do instead of listening?

Poor listening develops into a habit in much the same way as slouching or poor posture.  We have many ways of occupying our minds when we are not really listening to what someone is saying to us:-

  •  we compare ourselves with the speaker, hoping that we will come out favourably.
  • we “mind-read”: not fully trusting the words they are speaking, we try to work out what we think they are really thinking and feeling.
  • we rehearse what we want to say in reply.
  • we filter the communication, maybe filtering out the things we don’t want  to hear or only listening for the things that may affect us. We prejudge the person, write them off and cease to listen.
  • what is being said triggers off a daydream of our own which we pursue privately unknown to the speaker.
  • we relate everything that is being said to our own personal experience and get involved with reliving that instead of listening.
  • Some or all of these things can be going on in a listener’s mind while apparently listening to what is being said, although the speaker usually senses that they are not being attended to fully.

Can you identify what it is that you do when you are not interested in listening to what is being said, when you do it and who with?

NB :  Avoid beating yourself with a big stick about it, just become more aware of your own personal patterns.


Why no-listening listening?

Much of the behaviour that goes under the guise of listening has another purpose entirely.

For example:-

  • Pretending to be interested so that others will like you.
  • Half-listening because it is the polite thing to do.
  • Pretending to listen because you don’t know how not to without offending.
  • Listening because you want to be listened to.

People listen fully when they really want to understand someone, to learn something, or to give help and caring to another.

Everyone pretends to listen at times but as long as you have the choice (that is, you are capable of real listening) and are aware that you can choose, it isn’t a problem.  The more real listening you do, however, the closer you will get to people.  Because real listening says “l care about you”.

Stock responses

In much the same way that we learned listening blocks as a child,  we also developed patterns for “helping” a person who is experiencing stressful and emotional problems.  Many of these patterns are the stock responses our parents used when we had a problem that they had difficulty coping with.  Like pretending to listen, these patterns go under the guise of being helpful when really they are unhelpful, because they don’t allow people space to find their own solutions.

The following are examples of these unhelpful responses: they block the conversation and come between the person and their problem.

  • Criticising – making negative comments, “you should” or “you ought” statements, fault finding.
  • Name-calling and labelling – putting the other down, labelling them and thereby making them feel less of a person.
  • Diagnosing – playing amateur psychiatrist: “I can read you like a book”.
  • Praising – a positive judgement about another is still a judgement and makes you a higher authority over them.
  • Ordering, threatening, moralising, advising and questioning – all ways of providing your solution to another’s problem.  Only their solution can promote their growth, no matter how helpful yours are.
  • Diverting – pushing the other’s problem aside as if it were of no consequence, “taking their mind off things”.
  • Logical argument – focusing on facts when it is usually the feelings that need consideration.
  • Reassuring – attempting to stop the other from feeling the negative emotions they are experiencing.  This may appear to be comforting but in fact it is stifling.

Using your new understanding of these barriers to communication to point a finger of blame at yourself or another is also a barrier to communication and is a most unhelpful response. Use your increased knowledge to encourage yourself and others.


Being there

Allowing people the freedom to fully experience what is happening to them can be the greatest gift that you can give them.  All people struggle with their internal thoughts, feelings and emotions and it is through doing this that they grow – the struggle may or may not be painful for them but they need the freedom to do it.  Too often we feel that we have to do something or say something in order to help another when all they really need is the open caring contact with another human being.

After all, we don’t feel that we have to do something to help a person when they feel happy or in love. We just let them get on with it!

Using reflective listening instead of the stock responses is a good way to begin to break the pattern.


The next time someone close to you is hurt or upset,  try meeting them where they are without saying anything.  Just be there, letting them go through whatever is happening to them.  Be aware of your urges to speak, make better or avoid and just keep them to one side. Be there quietly and wait for them finish.

Doing this takes trust: trust in yourself and trust in the fact that you, being 100 per cent present and loving, are all that is needed.  You don’t need to do anything except open your heart to the child – they will know.


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”.  Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at:

When not to reflectively listen!

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 11) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful.

When not to reflective listen

It is useful to work out when not to reflectively listen.  Helping someone with an upset can take time. If you are too busy or have needs or worries of your own to attend to, suggest some other time or other person to do the listening.  If you are involved in the upset or problem you may not be the best person to help sort it out.

Listening to yourself

Most people are aware of having different parts of themselves—or inner voices representing the different ways they feel about things. It is possible to develop a part or voice that will reflective listen to all the other parts when we are feeling upset or in confusion. We can help ourselves by listening inside our heads or even in front of a mirror.


Communications barriers

Many old patterns and beliefs get in the way of listening to others. As children we learnt to switch off at times, to doubt and judge others, and to spend most of our listening time working out what we were going to say when it is our turn to speak. All these things stemmed from not having been listened to in our turn, and can get in the way now as we try to listen reflectively to others.

Unhelpful responses

With the best will in the world we may set out to help people with a problem and either have no effect or make it worse. Common unhelpful responses include reassuring, taking their minds off it, denying the feelings, sharing our own problems to divert them from theirs, or simply giving “good advice”. We all use responses like these at times, having learnt them as children from our parents, teachers and other adults. Feeling guilty or blameful towards ourselves or others is in itself an unhelpful response. We can all learn to react in other more useful ways in future.

More about reflective listening

So far, we have considered reflecting content and reflecting feelings. When we put this all together we have true reflective listening. It isn’t easy to become a good listener, so it might be useful here to recap and expand some of our suggestions.


Remember what we have said about not coming across as dogmatic and interpretive. To avoid this, we suggest using simple “lead-in” phrases that offer your reflective response more tentatively.

For example:

I sense that… you feel angry because the parcel was late and you can’t get your mother’s present to her on time.”


“I expect… you feel upset and hurt because he didn’t call you.”

This format is just to help you at the beginning: there is no need to stick to the same words each time.  You could, for instance, just as easily say: “I sense you are upset” rather than “I sense you feel upset”.

Words like “since”, “about” and “that” can be used instead of “because”.

Finding your own way of doing it is obviously more effective because it is “real” for you. Try different methods and pick the one you feel most at home with.

The most useful responses are the shortest ones, ones that include all you want to reflect in the smallest number of words. This way the speaker’s  conversation is not unduly interrupted but they know that you are “with them”.

Some examples:

statement –    “He had a go at me in front of the whole office!”

response –     “You must have felt awful.”


statement –    “I can’t read his writing, and he wants this typed up for the meeting this afternoon.”

response –     “How frustrating for you.”


statement –    “They just seem to keep on piling work onto me – now I have to produce the performance statistic as well!”

response –     “You sound as if you’re not sure you can cope with it all.”

It isn’t useful to pretend that you understand what someone is saying or feeling. It is O.K if you don’t understand – say so – and ask them to explain some more. Avoid telling people that you know what they are thinking or that you know just how they feel. Many people doubt, quite rightly, that others can know these things, so saying you do can distance you from them. It is far better to demonstrate your understanding with empathetic responses rather than tell them you know.

Vary your responses. These can range from silence, body movements like a nod of the head, and minor encouragements like the repetition of an important word through to reflecting in your own words the content, feeling or meaning of what they are saying. Like learning to drive a car, you will probably start out feeling a bit awkward with your new skills, yet with practice, they become second nature.

Be aware of your tone of voice. Our voices can reflect very clearly how we are feeling without us being aware of it—think about how you talk to someone that you want to get rid of, and then think about what your voice sounds like when you are talking to someone you love and want to get close to. When reflective listening, use the tone of your voice as a tool. Make sure it is appropriate to the situation.

Be patient. You may spend a long time listening to someone and yet they still go away seeming not to have found their solution. This is absolutely nothing to worry about. They may mull over what was said and discover something new and useful for themselves or they may need lots more listening time before they begin to find their way out of whatever it is that is troubling them. For others, just being able to talk freely may be the solution. Being heard and understood can in itself give people the very thing that they were looking for—deep caring contact with another human being.

Reflective listening is a wonderful skill for helping others but if there is no reason to use it, don’t. Like everything else, it can be overdone and flogged to death. Using it all the time will drain your energy and drive your family and friends mad. If you get comments like: “She’s off again!” or “Why don’t you talk properly to me any more”, then the chances are you are overdoing it.

More about when not to reflective listen

Probably the most important time to be wary of using it is when you need to take care of yourself and don’t have the energy and inclination to concentrate on another’s problems. If you continue to try and help others when you haven’t met your own needs you will become drained and the quality of the help that you are giving will be low.  It is in everyone’s interests that you look after yourself!

We suggest you avoid using reflective listening when you feel unaccepting of the other person. If your own negative thoughts and feelings keep intruding, the other person is likely to pick that up and you will not come across as helpful. Be congruent in your thoughts and feelings about wanting to be there for the other person. It isn’t useful to pretend to be accepting because you think you “ought” to help; you have the right not to help if you don’t want to.

Too close for comfort

Another time when reflective listening will probably not be useful is when you are too involved in the problem. Here your thoughts and feelings get caught up in the problem in the same way as for the speaker. This is most likely to happen with people who are very close to you and who have a problem that involves you, making it difficult for you to set aside your feelings while you help them.

For example:

You have had a lot of input in a presentation that a colleague had to make.  When the colleague returns from the meeting looking upset because the presentation was not well received, you will probably feel as defensive or as let down as your colleague, and would be unable to help your colleague deal with the way they felt.

Using the idea of “who owns the problem?” can be helpful here. If it is you, it is not an appropriate time for you to be trying to listen to them. In this situation, it may be enough to share your feelings, so that you can create some space in you to listen; or you may have to say that you are not feeling able to help right now because you are too upset and arrange a time to help later.

It is possible that you will always be so upset about a particular problem that you will not be able to help later either. In this case, it might be useful for you to find someone else to listen to the person with the problem.

There may be times when you are too rushed or busy to be able to listen attentively to someone else’s upsets. Tell them this and then you can avoid undue hurt feelings by making a time to get together later on.

Finally, be wary of using reflective listening when all you are being asked for is information.

More about Listening to yourself

You have learned a great deal about how to listen to others effectively. You can use these same skills to listen to yourself when you are upset or have a problem. There are quite a number of skills and techniques that you can use to overcome the fact that there is only one of you! They all require that you keep part of yourself detached from the problem you are having.

1 Reflective listening to yourself

Listen reflectively to your own inner voice to find out what is going on inside you. What are the thoughts and feelings you are having? Allow yourself to air them fully and listen to what you are saying with the same care and respect you would give to another person you were helping.

2 Gestalt therapy technique

In Gestalt therapy, developed by Fritz Perls, there is a technique in which you use cushions or chairs to represent the parts of you that are having problems. For example, if you were having a problem with your body you would have two cushions, one for you and one to represent your body. You would then have a conversation with your body. When you were speaking you would sit on your cushion and when your body was speaking you would sit on the cushion that represents your body.

In both places you use the first person when you are talking, i.e.: You – “I don’t understand why you are so painful all the time?”  Switch to body cushion  “I’m fed up, you never look after me properly and you just forget that I exist most of the time.”  You continue until you feel you want to stop.      This technique requires that you let go as much as you can and trust that things will come up that will let you know more about what is happening inside yourself. You may, in the process, bring to the surface many different parts of yourself, in which case you use a different cushion for each one.

3 Top-dog/Under-dog

Fritz Perls also noticed that most of us have two distinct types of voices in our heads that surface time and time again. One he labelled Top-dog; this voice is loud and bossy and always telling you what you should, must or ought to do. The other he labelled Under-dog and this voice is weak and unable to stand up for itself. These two voices continually war with each other whereas it would be better all round if we could get them to understand each other more and get closer together –  just like reconciling two fighting children.

Top-dog needs to learn to be more understanding and accepting, avoiding using labels and blame. Under-dog needs to learn to stand up for itself and be more assertive. Play out both roles as they apply to yourself and use the detached part of yourself to mediate between them.

4 Inner family

Most people recognise that they are made up of differing parts or aspects. It is almost like having an internal family. All these parts have needs (perhaps one part wants challenge and another part wants comfort) and, if these needs aren’t met, they will act up just like members of a real family do.


 Use your detached part to help identify them and get their needs met. Quite often it is only one or two parts which cause you real problems. These are the ones that feel you never meet their needs, which are usually to do with needing love, rest or fun.

5 Higher self or guardian

Some people develop a part of themselves who acts as an all-wise, all-knowing being who can be called on at times of trouble to give help and support. We all have an older and wiser part inside ourselves, one that understands us and knows what we need to be doing. We may recognise this being as ourself or the part may be seen as a person completely separate from ourselves. In whatever way this part is imagined it can be a very powerful ally to contact when your reserves are low.

6 Listen with your body

Our bodies continually send us messages which we don’t listen to until they get so loud that we become ill. When we get tired a lot or constantly have headaches, for instance, our bodies are telling us that we are putting ourselves under too much strain. Usually it is mental or emotional stress that causes these kinds of symptoms. What is happening in your body is a barometer for what is happening in your mind. Your body needs loving and caring for in just the same way as a young child does. It isn’t just a machine that gets you about. Listen to its needs, for they are your own…


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”. Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at:

Emotions in reflective listening

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 12) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful.


We have thoughts in our minds and sensations in our bodies and a combination of these two produces what we call emotions or feelings. Usually it is a thought that triggers an emotion although we need not necessarily be aware of the thought.

Repressing our feelings

Repressing our feelings has several undesirable effects. Firstly, not releasing our emotions means that they are stored inside our bodies and cause tension which builds up into aches and pains and can even lead to serious illnesses in later life.

Secondly, it takes energy and hard work to keep emotions buried, energy that is needed in order to live our lives fully NOW. We have all experienced at some time the sluggishness that goes with depression or feeling bad and, conversely, the release of energy and good feeling when we have finally blown up and got something off our chest.


Thirdly, we can build up an enormous amount of fear about the repressed emotion, believing that if we ever let it out it will damage either ourselves or other people.

Finally, emotion can be repressed so well that we are not aware of it all. Part of us becomes dead or numb-a part that we need in order to be fully human.

Any emotion can be repressed sexual feelings, anger, confidence, loneliness. In some societies, even feelings of love and compassion towards others are often not allowed expression.

To function fully and well we need to be in balance, neither too much in our heads, thinking all the time, nor overwhelmed constantly by our feelings or the repression of them.

The use of rational informed creative thought and emotional intelligence (the constructive use and expression of our emotions) enables us to become self-actualised-centred, aware, and living fully-the condition which American psychologist Abraham Maslow described as the pinnacle of human existence. (See Maslow’s pyramid mentioned in the earlier blogs re ‘Whose needs’)


Reflecting emotions

We have talked about paraphrasing, the method of reflecting a person’s words. Now we are going to look at ways of reflecting feelings, which are often nothing to do with the words that are being spoken.

Because we live in a society that does not readily accept the free expression of emotion, we often try hard to mask our feelings from each other…


We may speak confidently even when really we are fearful or we may carry on a seemingly normal conversation even when we are deeply upset. But these attempts at masking are rarely completely successful because we usually display our emotional state, whether we intend to or not, through all kinds of non-verbal behaviour. So this is where we now have to concentrate our attention.


Most of us have a sensitivity to emotions, to a greater or lesser degree. When we were small we sensed, for instance, whether our parents were angry or anxious. We know instinctively when not to approach someone. We notice when there is an “atmosphere” which makes us uncomfortable. Learning to reflect feelings is about developing this emotional sensitivity a bit more.

We do this by focusing our attention on how messages are being sent rather than on their verbal content. There are four main areas to look at:

  1. Listen for the use of “feeling” words by the speaker.

If the speaker is using words that truly express their feelings, then you feed them back, just as you did with paraphrasing. For example:

“You enjoyed your night out but you felt lonely when you had to go home alone.”

However, sometimes people express their feelings in words that, on the surface, mean the opposite of what they are intending to say. you understand their true meaning from the way they speak.

For example:

“Oh yes, I had a lovely time last night,” said in a sarcastic manner, means just the opposite of what it says. So in this case you pick up the underlying feelings and reflect those:

“You didn’t enjoy yourself when you went out.”

  1. Focus on body language and non-verbal behaviour.

This involves being aware of facial expression, body posture, tone of voice, bodily movements and gestures and also developing a sense of how strongly or otherwise they feel from the level of their energy.

It is these things that will tell you most clearly what a person is feeling and what you pick up from them may be completely at odds with what the speaker is actually saying.

“I really did enjoy going to the school party.” If this is said with conviction but also with a definite shake of the head, it would tell us that though part of the child enjoyed it, there was a part that didn’t.

The speaker may or may not be aware of a discrepancy between their words and behaviour. When you reflect back the feelings you have become aware of, you put them in touch with the feeling side of themselves. They are likely to feel more comfortable because you have understood and be encouraged to carry on talking. For example:

“So, most of you had a good time and there is a part of you that didn’t.”

  1. Problem described factually

Many people do not use feeling words at all and describe their problem in a very factual way. In these instances it is often possible to infer feelings from the overall content of what they are saying. For example:

“As soon as I went out it started to rain, then the bus was late and, when I finally got there, they didn’t have any left, then, to cap it all I had my purse stolen!”

At no point does the speaker mention how they feel but we can pick up the likely feelings from what has been said, even just from reading it on this page. One response might be:

“Sounds like you had a dreadful time!”

  1. Use own feelings and imagination to understand

You can use yourself, your own feelings and your ability to imagine how you would feel in a similar situation. At best, of course, this can only be guesswork, although people do have similar feelings in difficult situations. Reflecting the feelings that you guess someone is experiencing will soon give you an idea of whether you are right or not. If you are not, the speaker will probably say so and tell you why.

Some more guidelines

  • Say when you don’t understand and ask the other person to make it clear for you.
  • Avoid telling people that you know how they feel; you cannot know, only guess.
  • Focus on the feelings and choose accurate feeling words.

Being able to find the word that accurately reflects the speaker’s experience is very helpful to them. Where feelings are concerned this can be quite difficult. Our society does not value feelings and few people talk openly about their feelings, so it is easy to be at a loss for words to describe them. 

Giving feedback

As you start to practise these new skills, you might like to give some thought to how others can help you and you can help other people put these skills to best use. Being given and giving feedback is the most practical way to learn.  Use the following guide-lines when asking anyone to help you develop your skills.


  • Feedback means giving back to a person your own perceptions about what that person has just done or said.
  • Feedback enables a person to check out whether what they think they are doing and saying comes over as they expect to others.
  • Some of our behaviour is outside our own awareness but can be noticed by others. Feedback helps raise our awareness of this unconscious behaviour which in turn enables us to communicate more congruently.
  • Accurate feedback helps us understand ourselves and so continue to grow.


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”. Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at:

Peace of Mind Training, 145 Chapel Lane,
Preston, Lancashire, PR4 5NA,

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