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There are three basic ways to evaluate a listener’s response for its empathic accuracy:
1) Subtractive (-) responses – What you say is inaccurate. It takes away from what speaker says. The speaker slows down, has to explain what she means, feels interrupted or loses train of thought. Speaker has to expend more effort to communicate and try to be understood.
2) Interchangeable (=) responses – What you say is so accurate that it could be interchanged with what the speaker said. Speaker continues to talk freely and non-defensively, self-explores and gains more understanding. Speaker flows with what you said.
3) Additive (+) responses – What you say not only accurately reflects what the speaker said, but it connects to something not yet expressed. It mirrors the essence of what the speaker said and adds something new that stimulates the speaker to deeper levels of self-exploration and self-discovery. It generates the “Aha!” experience. Some of the speaker’s unconscious thoughts and feelings become conscious and more empowering.
As a listener, the usual goal is to be as consistently interchangeable as possible. When you try to be additive, it means you run the risk of being subtractive. And being subtractive can derail the speaker and cause a real setback. Research shows the clients of therapists who are consistently interchangeable get better at a high rate. In contrast, clients of therapists whose overall level of empathy is subtractive either deteriorate or improve at the same rate as people who want to see a therapist and do not!
Inviting your comments: Listen to a friend who is upset, respond interchangeably and tell us what happens.
We’d like to invite you to the UCLA Extension workshop: Empathy Training: How to Empower Personal, Professional & Financial Relationships
James W. Gottfurcht, Ph.D.