Interpersonal Communications

Updated 17 Jul 2008

By Rev'd Ed Swayze

Communication for Healthy Relationships

Open honest communication is present in healthy relationships. Part of this communication is good skills; the other part is the ability to face problems and deal with them.

A speaker can learn to say what he or she means, both thought and feeling.

A listener can use listening skills to help the speaker identify and express his or her emotions and the situations that caused the emotions.

The Art and Skill of Listening

The art and skill of listening is to help the speaker talk and to let the speaker know that he or she is understood.

Many people say, "You don't understand me", "You have not been listening", and "I don't feel accepted".

The problem is the listener wants to talk.

LISTEN before:

Passive Listening

Listening to another person's message without verbally responding is passive listening. Sometimes all someone needs from you is to be there while they talk.

Passive listening communicates acceptance to the speaker if the listener gives him or her their undivided attention.  The obvious limitation is the speaker does not know whether they have been understood, only that they have been heard.

The listener to help the speaker feel accepted, and willing to talk uses attending skills. SOLER, below, are attending skills.

Simple Acknowledgement
Verbal, non-committal responses to another's message (e.g. "I see, Uh Huh") offer no content of your own, but allow the other to proceed.

Door Openers
Door openers or prompters are verbal responses that the listener uses to invite the speaker to say more:

      "I'd like to hear about that....

      "Would you like to talk about it?....

      "Tell me about ...

Door openers such as, "Sounds like you have some feelings about that," convey acceptance of the other person by communicating that you respect her or him, are interested and really want to hear.

Face the other person squarely, do not turn away from the speaker.

Adopt an Open posture. Uncrossed or open arms and legs is body language for being open to what the speaker has to say; crossed indicates a lessened involvement.

Lean forward

Eye contact
Maintain good eye contact. Staring is fixed eye contact.

Try to be at home or relatively relaxed while listening. Set the speaker at ease.

Theory of the Understanding Response (Active Listening)

When a speaker relates a story, he or she shares factual information and associated feelings.

The speaker may not relate the whole story. He or she may not be consciously aware of what he or she is feeling, or conversely he or she may be aware of the feeling but not the situation which generated it.

The listener relates to the speaker the factual information and associated feelings, as she or he understands it. In this process the listener acts as an 'auxiliary reasoning power' and helps the speaker to fill in the blanks.

The Understanding Response communicates acceptance.  It tells the speaker what exactly the listener understands.

If the listener has not got it right, the speaker can correct the listener's understanding.

The listener may not agree with what the speaker is saying. 'Understanding Responses' are used by the listener to covey to the speaker understand what the listener understands. Understanding does not mean agreement. Once the listener has listened to the speaker, the listener can discuss where she or he disagrees with the speaker.

Understanding Response

You listen carefully to the speaker's total communication --words, non-verbal messages, voice-related cues;

You try to identify the feelings the speaker is expressing and the experiences and behaviours that give rise to these feelings;

You tell the speaker your understanding of what he or she seems to be feeling and the sources of these feelings;

You respond not by evaluating what he or she has to say but by showing your understanding of the others person's world from that person's point of view.  It is like decoding what they are saying.

"You feel     (feeling word or phrase)    about/when   (describe situation)     ."

Avoid parroting or paraphrasing. Get to the real feeling.

It is best to interject 'Understanding Responses' often. If you let the speaker talk for too long, there is too much information to sum up.

How does 'Understanding Responses' work in Conversation?
Quite often the speaker follows their line of thought with the listener periodically interjecting an 'Understanding Response". He or she will tell his or her story until it is finished.

If the listener has misunderstood the speaker, the speaker will correct the listener or elaborate. The speaker will clarify what he or she has said.

Once the speaker has told their story, the conversation may go on to another story, or the conversation deal with the story which has just been told.

It may be a problem that has to be solved.  The listener may give advice or provide information.

This skill is useful when talking with people who do not speak well nor hear well, for instance children do not speak well and the elderly have hearing difficulty.

Talking About Feelings

Emotions in themselves are neither good nor bad. It is the behaviour which results from the emotions which is good or bad. For example, anger can be the motivation to correct an injustice or the motivation to hurt someone.

You are responsible for your own feelings. You are responsible for how you treat other people, but you are not responsible for how they feel. Other people are responsible for their own feelings and for how they deal with them.

From Healing the Shame that Binds by John Bradshaw:

Our emotions are part of our basic power. They serve two major functions in our psychic life. They monitor our basic needs, telling us of a need, a loss or a satiation (needs which has been met). Without our emotional energy, we would not be aware or our most fundamental needs.

Emotions also give us the fuel or energy to act.

Do not assume that the other person knows how you feel and why unless you have told him or her.

The Speaker
As a speaker, it helps if you can name the feeling and the cause of the feeling: "I am angry because I tripped over the boots you left out".

It also helps to avoid beginning a statement with "you" as in, "You left your boots out." It is an invitation for a fight.

It is more helpful to begin the statement with 'I feel', as in, "I feel angry because I tripped over your boots which you did not put away".

If you a feeling a particular way, it is best to let people around you know. You may be angry, but not at them.

The Listener
As a listener, it helps if you can name for the speaker the feeling and the situation which caused the feeling (Understanding Response).  The speaker may not be fully aware of the feeling he or she is experiencing, or he or she may know the feeling but not the situation that caused the feeling.

You may notice someone is feeling a particular way. Check out how he or she is feeling, "You seem a bet upset", " How are you feeling today?" We often assume someone is upset with us when he or she may be upset with someone or something else.

Body Language, Them and Yours

Body language communicates messages, which are often unconsciously received. People can learn to recognize body language.

Body language must match what the person is saying. If it does not, the body language is reflecting what a person is really feeling. A person who is crying and says "I am okay" is not.

Body language may strengthen or emphasize what is being said. For example someone says, "Good bye I'll miss you" and throws their arms around their friend and hugs them.

It helps the speaker feel accepted and encourages him or her to talk if the listener mirrors posture with the speaker.  If the speaker is sitting, legs crossed, their chin leaning on their hand, the listener should do likewise.

Listening with Your Body

A listener should be aware of his or her own body language. It tells him or her what he or she is feeling, which may be a clue to the conversation. If the listener is feeling angry, the listener should figure out why. It may indicate what the speaker is saying is not consistent with how he or she is behaving, or that the listener disagrees with the speaker.

If a listener matches the pose of the speaker, the listener may feel in their body what the speaker is feeling.  The listener would need to check it out with the speaker, "you appear to be feeling ... "


A speaker will fire a counter-story in the listener's mind. For example a speaker talking about a wedding story may cause the listener to remember his or her own wedding story.

Often the temptation for the listener is to tell their counter-story. If they do they are not listening. Once the speaker has finished telling their story, it may be appropriate for the listener to become the speaker and share his or her counter-story.

The counter-story is a clue for the listener. It will parallel the feeling the speaker is relating. In the listener's own mind, the counter-story can be used to help identify and understand the feeling the speaker is relating.


The speaker needs to work out:

1. I feel ...  because of ...

2. This is what I want you to do ...

If it is difficult to confront someone, it helps to rehearse what you will say.  This rehearsal can be done in your head, on paper, or with a friend.

Dealing with Emotions

1. Talk out the emotion and the situation that gave rise to the emotion. (If it is not possible to talk, write in a journal).

2. Determine how to deal with the situation which generated the emotion; develop a plan. RESPOND instead of REACT.

3. Deal with it.

(Definitions are adapted from, Healing the Shame that Binds, by John Bradshaw, p. 52.)

Definition: Anger moves us to fight or run when our basic needs are being violated. If you are angry you may feel hurt.

Response:  Talk out the angry feelings, identify the injury, use problem solving to develop a plan to deal with the injury.

Related Emotions: Depression, anger turned inward.

Frustration, anger resulting from the denial or an opportunity to deal with a problem.

Definition: Sadness is an energy we discharge to heal; it releases the energy involved in our emotional pain.

Response: Talk about the loss, modify your life to adjust to loss.  Problem solving may be helpful to develop a plan to cope with the loss.

Definition: Fear releases an energy that warns us of danger to our basic needs. Fear is an energy leading to our discernment and wisdom.

Response: Identify danger and develop a plan to deal with the danger.  Problem solving may be helpful in developing a plan.

Sometimes it is enough to ask yourself, "What is it I am afraid of, and how much will it really hurt me?" Sometimes our fears are bigger than they really are.

Related Emotions: Anxiety

Definition: Guilt is our conscience former. it tells us we have transgressed our values. It moves us to action and change.

It tells us we have to take responsibility for our actions.

Response: Identify what has caused the guilt.

Sometimes people feel guilty when they ought not to feel guilty, which is called false guilt.

Admit you have done wrong, say I'm sorry and make amends.

Related Emotions: Blame, we feel someone else is responsible.

Definition: Shame warns us not to try to be more or less human. Shame signals our essential limitations.

Response: Identify limitation and accept it. It is okay to be human.

Related Emotions: Embarrassment.

Definition: Joy is the exhilarating energy that emerges when all our needs are being met. We want to sing, run and jump with joy. The energy of joy signals that all is well.

Response: Enjoy it.

Related Emotions: Happiness, contentment.

Problem Solving

A listener listens to the speaker. After the speaker is finished talking, he or she may have a problem to be solved. The speaker could work through this process with the assistance of a listener.

      1. Define problem.
      2. Develop list of possible solutions.
      3. Discuss pros and cons of each solution.
      4. Pick the optimum solution.
      5. Try the solution.
      6. Evaluate effectiveness of the solution, and determine further action.


Prayer is appropriate after the person has been listened to. Prayer can be an understanding response when the feelings and situations the person has described are offered up to God and when God is invited to help the person deal with it.

Information Sharing and Advice

Information sharing is providing factual information such as where to go if your husband is beating you. Information sharing may be appropriate after the person has been listened to.

Advice is telling what you would do in a similar situation. We should be very careful about giving advice.

Telling our own story takes away from allowing the person to tell his or her story. It may also impose our solution on his or her problem, when it is better for him or her to develop his or her own solution.

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