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  • By Alexandra Kovacevic Konstantatou

The secret of the effective communication: the empathic listening

In my practice, as a counsellor and a psychotherapist, I deal daily with people who entrust me with their most private thoughts and feelings. Usually they come with an issue they have in their relationships, whether they are with their loved ones, a partner, a spouse, children, or their friends, employers or colleagues. With people in psychological distress, the communication within them-selves has broken down and as a result a communication with the others has been damaged.

My goal as a therapist is to help my client, through a special relationship that is formed between us, to achieve a good communication within himself. Once this is accomplished the person can communicate more freely and effectively with others. Good therapy facilitates open communication, or if we turn it around; free and open communication between people is therapeutic.

Working with couples who are in crisis, I am reminding them in almost every session of the importance of a good communication. It is of tremendous importance that we can get our message across and receive fully and on every level (intellectual and emotional) the message that is coming from the other person.

A founder of Person Centered Therapy, Carl Rogers, has established through his long-term experience as a psychotherapist, that the main obstacle to communication is person’s tendency to evaluate. Fortunately, he also found that if people learn to listen they can counter fight this tendency to evaluate and greatly improve their communication with others.

Obstacles to communication: Tendency to evaluate

Rogers was arguing that we all have a tendency to judge, evaluate, approve or disapprove the other speaker’s statements. This is due to suppressed or denied unconscious needs, which come out in a distorted way in communication with others. We tend to agree or disagree with a speaker, based on our point of view. Our own point of view is disabling us to hear the speaker’s point of view, as most of the time when involved in a conversation we are thinking of what we are going to answer and not really make the effort to understand what the speaker is saying from his frame of reference.

Although evaluation making is present in almost all communications, this reaction is heightened in emotionally heated conversations. So, the higher are the feelings of the participants involved there will be less mutual element in communication. There will be “two ideas, two feelings and two judgements, missing each other in psychological space” (Rogers). Any person watching this exchange could rightly say:”Well they aren’t talking about the same thing”… there hasn’t been any communication in any real sense. This impulse to evaluate other’s emotionally meaningful statements from our frame of reference is the main bloc to interpersonal communication.

Bridge: Listening with understanding

We can avoid that obstacle and achieve real communication if we listen with empathic understanding. This means seeing the ideas and attitudes from the others person’s point of view, sensing how it feels for the person, achieving his frame of reference about the issue.

It may sound very simple but it is not. It is an extremely potent approach and has been used in psychotherapy as a most effective way to alter person’s personality structure and improve communication and relationships.

If I can really understand how it feels to my client personally: the feelings of hate, jealousy, inadequacy, preconceived opinions , etc, than I can help him in the best way to process those feelings and move towards more adequate ways of dealing with people and situations.This kind of understanding is best described as understanding with a person and not about her.

If you are wandering how you can improve your quality of understanding Rogers suggests the following exercise: The next time you find your selves in an argument with a spouse or a friend, stop the conversation and suggest the following rule :”before each person speaks up, he must first restate the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately and to that speaker’s satisfaction”.

A Tennis ball test:

In my practice, I suggest my clients to use a tennis ball or an object to emphasize this point. Next time you are involved in an heated discussion, set the following rule: The speaker is holding a tennis ball, the other person is allowed to speak only when the first speaker hands him a tennis ball, this is a sign that he got it exactly the speaker’s frame of reference. This means that you could express your own thoughts and feelings but only and if you got the other persons thoughts and feelings as if you were in his shoes. It may sound a rather simple endeavor, but if you do the test you would find in extremely difficult. When you manage to do it, you would find that your comments that follow would be greatly revised, emotions dissipated and what remains would be reasonable and understandable. As the process continue the free and open communication would be established.

Rogers was also pondering on the wider use of this empathic listening method. While this approach is extremely useful in psychotherapy, there is a resistance of it being applied widely outside the therapy room. The reason for this is that the most people are afraid to listen because of what they hear might make them change. If you really understand the other person deeply, if you are ready to enter in his private world, without any attempts to make evaluations or judgements, you run a risk of being changed your self. You run a risk of amending your attitudes and make changes of your personality. The most people are afraid of taking that risk and this is exactly what is needed to establish an effective communication and better relationships.

When emotions are too strong to let us drop our guard and listen to another person emphatically, a counselor can be consulted to help a couple or an individual clarify their thoughts and feelings. A therapist has been trained to be a third person, who can facilitate such conversations highlighting each person’s meanings . When the participants see that they are understood and validated, they become less defensive realizing that the attitudes “ I am100% right and you are 100 % wrong!” aren’t necessary any longer and the real communication can start from than on.


Rogers, C. (1991), Harvard Business Review

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