Information, Evaluate Inference, Appropriate Statements & Alternative Interpretations

Critical Analysis

Critical analysis is the process of determining how truthful, authentic or believable you judge information to be. For instance, when a person tries to convince you to vote for a particular and or to support or its to implement legalization of RU 486 (the so called  abortion pill), you will want to listen critically to these message to determine how much you agree with the speaker and how you wish to respond. If you fail to listen critically to the messages you receive, you risk inadvertently concurring in ideas or plans that may violate  your own values, be counterproductive to achieving your goals or be misleading to others (including the speakers) who value your judgment.

Critical analysis requires that you evaluate the quality of inferences. Inferences  are claims or assertions based on observation or act, but they are not necessarily true. Critical listeners evaluate inferences by examining the context in which they occur. An inference is usually presented as part of an argument that is, a person makes claim (an inference) and then presents other statements in support of the claim. Here is an example of a simple argument. Joyce says, “Next year is going to be a lot easier than the past year, I got a $200 a month raise and my husband’s been relieved of some of the extra work he’s had to do while they were looking for a replacement for Ed.” The statements I got a $200 a month raise and my  husband’s been relieved of some of the extra work he’s had to do while they were looking for a replacement for Ed are both factual statements that can be documented. Her claim Next year is going to be a lot easier than the past year is an inference a statement that requires support to validate it. Notice that Joyce’s inference suggests that she believes there is a relationship between her claim and the facts she presents. Her argument is based on the assumption that more money per month and less work for her husband will make the year easier.

The critical listener asks at least three questions when evaluating any inference:

1. Is there factual information to support the inference? Perhaps there is no supporting information perhaps there is not enough or perhaps the supporting information is inaccurate. Joyce does have factual statements for support: She received a raise and her husband has less work to do.

2. Is the factual support relevant to the inference? Perhaps the actual or implied statement of relevance is logically weak. In the example increased income is one kind of information that is relevant to having an easier time.” At this stage it would appear that Joyce does have the makings of a sound argument; however, we need to ask a third question.

3. Is there known information that would prevent the inference from logically following the factual statements? Perhaps there is information that is not counted for that affects the likelihood of the inference. If we learn that getting the $200 a month raise involves extra duties for Joyce, then we still might question whether the year is likely to be “easier” than the last one.

For many of us, the most difficult of the three questions to answer is the second one: “Is the factual support relevant to the inference? This question is difficult to answer because the listener must be able to verbalize a statement that she the relevance. The listener must create the statement because in most informal reasoning the link is only implied by the person presenting the argument. Recall that Joyce never said anything like “A raise and of work are two Criteria for predicting that next year will be a lot easier because the relevance is more often implied than stated we must learn to phrase it.

The key to phrasing the relationship between support and inference to judge its relevance is to ask yourself. What can I say that would make sense for this inference to follow from these facts?” For instance, suppose Hal says I see frost on the grass I think flowers are goners.” What can we say that establishes the relevance of the supporting fact frost on the grass to the claim “our flowers are goners”? If I were Hal, I would likely be thinking, “The presence of frost means that the temperature is low enough to freeze the moisture on the grass. If it’s cold enough to freeze the moisture on the grass, it’s cold enough to kill my flowers.” This seems to make sense because we can demonstrate a relationship between frost and the death of unprotected flowers.

Let’s try another one. Gina says, “I studied all night and only got a on the first test I’m not going to do any better on this one.” This statement suggests that Gina sees relevance between the amount of study time before a test and the grade. We could phrase the implied relevance by saying, “Because the time of study before the test, which determines the grade, can be no greater, Gina can’t improve her grade.”

In this case, the relevance seems questionable. Her reasoning suggests that the only factor in determining a grade is the amount of study time before the test. Experience would suggest that many other factors, such as previous time studying and frame of mind, are of equal if not greater importance.

In short, you are listening critically when (1) you question whether the inference is supported with meaningful factual statements, (2) you question whether the stated or implied relevance between the support and the inference makes sense, and (3) you question whether there is any other known information that lessens the quality of the inference.

Responding Empathically to Give Comfort

Once we have clarified the speaker’s message so that we understand it, we may need to provide further emotional comfort to the speaker. To comfort means to occurs when one feels respected, understood and confirmed.

Research on comforting messages shows that people who use a relatively high percentage of sophisticated comforting strategies are perceived as more sensitive, concerned and involved (Samter, Burleson, & Murphy, 1987; Burleson & Samter, 1990; Kunkel & Burleson, 1999). Obviously, we cannot comfort unless we have first empathized. Over the years, much of the most significant research on comforting has been conducted by Brant Burleson and colleagues and we feature Burleson in this Spotlight en Scholars.

In the section on Understanding, we discussed two important empathic responses: questioning and paraphrasing. In this section, we consider supporting and interpreting.


Supporting responses are comforting statements whose goal is to show approval bolster encourage, soothe, console or cheer up They show that we care about people and what happens to them and demonstrate that we empathize with people’s feelings whatever their direction or intensity (Burleson, 1994, p. 5).

Supporting (approving) positive feelings We all like to treasure our good feelings. When we share them, we don’t want them dashed by a listener’s inappropriate or insensitive responses. Supporting positive feelings is generally easy but still requires some care. Consider this example:

Kendra (hangs up the telephone, does a little dance step and turns to Selena): That was my boss. He said that, he’d put my name in for promotion. I didn’t believe he would really choose me!

Kendra’s statement requires an appropriate verbal response. To do so, Selena must appreciate the feeling people get when they receive good news, or she must envision how she would feel under the same circumstances.

Selena: Kendra, way to go, girl! That’s terrific! I am so happy for you. You really seem excited

Selena’s response gives her approval for Kendra to be excited. Her response also shows that she is happy because Kendra seems happy.

Supporting responses like Selena’s are much needed. Think of times when you have experienced an event that made you feel happy, proud pleased, scorched or amused and needed to express those your good feelings when others recognized your feelings and affirmed your right to have them?

Supporting (giving comfort) when a person experience’s negative feelings When a person has had an unfortunate experience and is in the midst of or is recalling unpleasant emotional reactions, an effective supporting statement provides much needed comfort, By acknowledging these feelings and supporting the person’s right to the feelings, you can help the person further his or her progress at working through the feelings.

For some people making appropriate responses to painful or angry feelings is very awkward and difficult. But when people are in pain or when they are feeling justifiably angry, they need to be comforted by appropriate supporting statements. Because it can be difficult to provide comfort when we are ill at ease we need to practice and develop skill at making appropriate supporting statements.

An appropriate comforting statement shows empathy, sensitivity and may show a willingness to be actively involved if need be. Consider this example:

Bill: My sister called today to tell me that Mom’s biopsy came back positive. She’s got cancer and it’s untreatable.

Dwight: Bill, you must be in shock. I’m so sorry that this is happening. Do you want to talk about it? Is there anything I can do to help you right now?

Notice how Dwight begins by empathizing Bill, you must be in shock. He continues with statements that show his sensitivity to the seriousness of the situation: I’m so sorry that this is happening. Finally, he shows he really cares he is willing to take time to talk about it, and he asks whether he can do anything for Bill.

We have stressed that comforting responses may reassure, bolster, encourage, soothe, console or cheer up. It is likely that each situation will call for a slightly different approach and on some occasions you may want to use more than one approach. For instance, instead of just recognizing that the person is feeling pain (“That must have been a particularly painful experience for you”) you may also want to extend your willingness to help (“Is there anything I can do for you”) or provide an optimistic note (“Dawn felt really down when but she was able to get the kind of help that allowed her to get through the ordeal”). In fact, combination approaches are often perceived as most comforting (Clark et al., 1998, p. 237).

Let’s contrast this example with another one that seems to be supportive but is really inappropriate.

Jim (comes out of his boss’s office clutching the report he had been so sure he would receive praise for): Jacobs tore my report apart. I worked my tail off, tried to do everything he asked and he just threw it back in my face and told me to redo it.

Aaron: He rejected it? After you worked all that overtime, I can see why you’re so upset.

Giving empathic support is not the same as making statements that are not true or It telling people what they want to hear. When supportive statements are out of touch with the facts, they can encourage behavior that is actually destructive. When offering comfort through supporting statements, be sure that you don’t inadvertently set the person up.

Making an appropriate supporting response is most difficult in situations of high emotion and stress. Sometimes the best supporting response is a nonverbal one. Imagine this scenario In the final few seconds of a basketball game with her team trailing by one point, Jory misses an uncontested lay up Jory walks off the floor, looks at the coach and shouts, I blew it I lost us the game!”

How should the coach react? A first reaction might be to say, “Don’t feel bad, Jory.” But Jory obviously does feel bad and she has a right to those feelings. Another response might be, “Hey, Jory, you didn’t lose us the game, but in fact Jory’s miss did affect the outcome. Jory is unlikely to find this response helpful because it is inaccurate. Perhaps the best thing the coach can do at that moment is to put an arm around Jory and give a comforting squeeze that says, “It’s OK, I understand.” Later coach might say, Jory, I know you feel bad, but without your steal, we wouldn’t even have had a chance to win.” Still, for the moment, Jory is going to be difficult to console.

Some people think comforting supportive statements come easier to females or even that they are more of a female skill. In fact, some people go so far as to say that men and women are totally different in their views of comfort. But in their detailed analysis of views on comforting, Kunkel and Burleson (1999) found that “Men and women tend to use, if not identical, at least very similar rulers in evaluating the sensitivity and effectiveness of emotional support” (p, 334). So it isn’t that men and women see comforting differently; rather, men and women perform differently. Men focus more on behaviors and women focus more on feelings. In their laboratory study, Derlega, Barbee and Winstead (1994) found that males were perceived to be somewhat better than females in providing achievement related support (such as for being passed over for a promotion).

If men recognize the importance of more personal, feelings oriented types of conferring statements, why don’t they do better? Kunkel and Burleson (1999) conclude that “men lack the competence perform cordoning behaviors as sensitively and effective women” (p. 335). In short, perhaps men need more practice than women in applying the information presented in this section. Whether you are male or female, you can learn to give effective supportive responses.

In summary, to make effective supporting statements, (1) listen closely to what the person is saying, (2) try to empathize with the dominant feelings, (3) phrase a reply that is in harmony with the feeling you have identified, (4) supplement your verbal response with appropriate nonverbal responses, and (5) , it seems appropriate, indicate your willingness to help.


Interpreting responses are those that offer a reasonable alternative explanation for an event or circumstance with the goal of helping another to understand the situation from a different perspective. Especially when people’s emotions are running high, they are to see only one of a number of possible explanations. Consider this following situation.

Travis returns from his first date with Natasha a woman he has been interested in for some time. He plops down on the couch, shakes his head, and says, Well that was certainly a disaster We had a great dinner and saw a really good show, and when I get to her door, she gives me a quick little kiss on the cheek, says, “Thanks a lot” and rushes into the house. We didn’t even have much time to talk about the play. I guess I can chalk that one up. It’s clear she’s really not interested in me.”

Travis is interpreting Natasha’s behavior negatively; he sees her actions as a rejection of him. Martin, Travis’s roommate, has been listening to him. Although he does not know what Natasha thinks, he perceives that Travis is only seeing one explanation for these events and that he might be comforted by seeing other possible explanations. So Martin says, “You’re right, her behavior was a bit abrupt but maybe she’s had bad experiences with other guys. You know ones who tried to go too far too fast, so she wasn’t really trying to reject you, she was just trying to protect herself.”

Whose interpretation is correct? It remains to be seen. Remember, you are not a mind reader you cannot know for sure why something was done or said. Your primary goal when interpreting is to help a person look at an event from a different point of view. As with supporting statements, it is important to offer interpretation only when it seems plausible and worth considering. The point is not merely to soothe the person’s feelings but to help the person see a possibility he or she has overlooked. Most events can be interpreted in more than one way and we can be supportive by helping people see alternative explanations for things that happen to them. When we do this, we both comfort them and help them more accurately understand what has happened.

Let’s consider two additional examples of appropriate interpreting responses:

Karla: I just don’t understand Deon. I say we’ve got to start saving money and he just gets angry with me.

Shelley: I can understand why his behavior would concern you (a supportive statement prefacing an interpretation). Perhaps he feels guilty about not being able to save money or feels resentful that you seem to be putting all the blame on him.

Micah: I just don’t believe Bradford. He says my work is top notch, but I haven’t got a pay raise in over a year.

Khalif: I can see why you’d be frustrated, but maybe it has nothing to do with the quality of your work. Maybe the company just doesn’t have the money.

Both of these examples follow the guidelines for providing appropriate interpreting responses: (1) Listen carefully to what that person is saying.  (2) Think of other reasonable explanations for the event or circumstance and decide which alternative seems to best fit the situation as you understand it. (3) Phrase an alternative to the person’s own interpretation one that is intended to help the person see that other interpretations are available. (4) When appropriate, try to preface the interpretive statement with a supporting response.

How good listeners and poor listeners deal with the five aspects of listening: attending, understanding, remembering, evaluating and responding empathetically.

Conversation and Analysis

Use your Communicate! CD-ROM to access a video scenario of the following conversation. Click on the “Communicate! In Action” feature and then click on “Damien and Chris.” As you watch Damien and Chris discuss Chris’s recent problem at work, focus on Damien’s use of listening skills.

1. What does he do that shows he is attending?

2. What does he do that demonstrates his understanding?

3. Does he use critical listening to separate facts from inferences?

4. How does he show empathy?

We have provided a transcript of Damien and Chris’s conversation. After you have viewed the conversation on your CD-ROM, read the transcript. In the right hand column there is space for you to record your analysis. You can also complete your analysis electronically using the Conversation Analysis feature included in Communicate! In Action. From the Conversation Menu on your CD-ROM, click “Analysis” for Damien and Chris. Type your answers to the questions above in the forms provided. When you are finished, click “Submit” to compare your response to the analysis provided by the authors.

Damien and Chris work in a small shop selling shirts and gifts. Usually they get along, Well, but lately Chris has seemed standoffish. Damien decides to talk with Chris to see if anything is wrong. Damien approaches Chris in the break room.


Damien: Chris, you’ve been kind of quiet lately, man. What’s been going on?

Chris: Nothing.

Damien: Come on, man. What’s going on?

Chris: Just life. (shrugs) I’m just kind of down right now.

Damien: Well what am I here for? I though we were friends Chris thinks about it and decides to talk about it.

Chris: Well, Carl’s been on my case the last few weeks.

Damien: Why? Did you do something?

Chris: Oh, he says that I’m sloppy when I restock and I’m not always “polite” to our customers. You know, just cuz I don’t smile all the time. I mean, what does he want little Mary Sunshine?

Damien: So you’re angry with the boss.

Chris: Yeah, I guess, .. no, no, not so angry, I’m just frustrated. I come in to work every day and I try to do my job and I don’t complain. You know, I’m sick and tired of getting stuck back there in the stock room reorganizing everything. It’s not like they’re paying us big bucks here. and Carl shouldn’t expect us to be charming with everybody who walks through that door. I mean, half of the people who walk through that door are, well, they’re totally rude and act like jerks.

Damien: Yeah, I feel you on that. Some of those people shouldn’t be allowed out in public. What is Carl saying about how you dealing with the customers?

Chris: Oh, he just says that I’ve changed and that I’m not being nice. I mean he used to call me his top guy.

Damien: I mean, you know how Carl is. He’s a fanatic about customer service. You know how, when we first started, he drilled u about being polite and smiling and courteous at all times. So maybe when hp says you’re you’re not doing it all the way you used to. I mean, I’ve noticed a change. I mean, you’re just not yourself lately. Is anything going on outside of work?

Chris: You could say that. Sarah and I just bought a house, so money’s been a bit tight. Now, she wants to quit her job and start a family, and I’m not sure we can afford it. On top of it all, my kid sister shows up a few weeks ago on our doorstep, pregnant and now she’s living with us, so yeah, it is a bit overwhelming. And I’m a bird worried that Carl’s going to fire me!

Damien: Wow, that is a lot of stuff! I can understand why you’re down, but did Carl really threaten to fire you?

Chris: No, no, but I’m not perfect and he could use my “attitude” as an excuse to fire me.

Damien: Well, did you think about telling him what’s been going on? And maybe, you know, he’ll understand and cut you some slack.

Chris: Or he could see that I really have changed and he’d can me.

Damien: OK, well, just tell me this. Do you like working here?

Chris: Yeah, of course I do.

Damien: OK, well, then, you’ve just got to tough it out. I mean, you’ve just got to use the game face on these people. You used to be the best at doing that. So you’re just gonna have to get back to being a salesman and leave everything else behind.

Chris: I guess I never realized how much my problems were affecting my work. I thought Carl was just out to get me, but now you’re noticing something too, then maybe I have changed.

Thanks, thanks for talking this out.

Summary (Listening)

Listening is an active process that involves attending, understanding, remembering evaluating and responding. Effective listening is essential to competent communication.

Attending is the process of selecting the sound waves we consciously process. We can increase the effectiveness of our attention by (1) getting ready to listen, (2) making the shift from speaker to listener a complete one, (3) hearing a person out before reacting, and (4) adjusting our attention to the listening goals of the situation.

Understanding is the process of decoding a message by assigning meaning to it. Understanding requires empathy, intellectually identifying with or vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another. We can increase our ability to empathize through caring and concentrating. A key to understanding is to practice active listening: Look for or create an organization for the information, ask questions and paraphrase.

Remembering is the process of storing the meanings that have been received so they may be recalled later. Remembering is increased by rehearsing information, looking for and storing information by an organizational pattern, grouping information to make it easier to remember and when feasible, taking notes.

Evaluating, or critical listening, is the process of separating fact from inference and judging the validity of the inferences made. A fact is a verifiable statement; an inference is a conclusion drawn from facts. You are listening critically when (1) you question whether the inference is supported with meaningful factual statements, (2) you question whether the reasoning statement that shows the relationship between the support and the inference makes sense, and (3) you question whether there is any other known information that lessens the quality of the inference.

Responding empathically gives comfort. Comforting responses give people information about themselves or their behavior. Comforting can be accomplished through supporting and interpreting responses. When we are supportive, we soothe, approve, reduce tension or pacify the other by acknowledging that we understand what the other is feeling and we support that person’s right to be feeling as they are. When we use interpreting responses, we offer a reasonable or alternative explanation for an event or circumstance with the goal of helping another to understand the situation different perspective.

Listening, Attention, Empathy, Increase Understanding & Paraphrase Both Content


Garson do you have an extra key to the document cabinet I misplaced mine and I have to get into it right away. No I don’t have a key but it doesn’t matter because I can’t believe it. When I left home this morning. I was sure I had it. Bart it’s OK

I pulled out my keys but of course I just had my car key and main door key I always carry two sets keys

Bart. I’ve been trying to tell you just try the”….

It’s just like me I think I’ve got  everything, but just before I check the last time sue will say something to me and I get  sidetracked. Then I just take off”.

“Bart, calm down. The doors…”

“Clam down? If I can”t  get those documents to the meeting there”s going to be hall to pay We’ve got six people coming form all over the city just to look at the documents. What am I supposed to say them?

“Bart you don’t have to say anything I’ve be trying to ….”

Oh, sure just just go in there and say, “By be way, the documents are locked up in the cabinet and I lift my key at home.” Come on, Garson who’s got the other key?”

“Bart Listen I’ve been trying to tell you Miller was in the cabinet and knowing you’d be along in a minute, he lift the door open.”

“Well, why didn’t  you tell me?”

Are you a good listener even when you are’ under pressure like Bart? Or do you sometimes find that your mind wanders when others are talking to you? Listening, “the process of receiving, attending to, and assigning meaning to aural and visual stimuli” (Wolvin & Coakley, 1996, p. 69), is a fundamental skill that affects the quality of our conversations in social and business settings. Despite the importance of listening, many of us do not listen as well as we need to. In this chapter, we will consider the concepts of attending, understanding, remembering, evaluating and responding.


Attending is the perceptual process of selecting and focusing on specific stimuli from the countless stimuli reaching the senses. Recall from that we attend to information that interests us and’ meets physical and psychological needs But to be a good listener, we have to train ourselves to attend to what people’ are saying regardless of our interest or needs. Let’s consider three techniques for consciously focusing attention.

1. Get physically and mentally ready to listen. Physically, good listeners adopt a listening posture. For instance, when good listeners have been told that the next bit of information will be on the test, they are likely to sit upright their chairs, lean slightly forward, cease any extraneous physical movement, and look directly at the professor. Like wise, mentally they will focus their attention by blocking out miscellaneous thoughts that pass through then minds. Although what you thinking about may be more pleasant to attend to than what someone is saying tv you, yet.! must compel yourself to focus on what is being said.

Of course, sometimes you afford without much intensity. People often speak of “vegging out in front of the tube,” which usually means “listening” to comedy or light drama as a means of passing time pleasurably. Unfortunately, many people approach all situations as if they were listening to pass time.

2. Make the shift from speaker to listener a complete one. Unlike the classroom, where you are supposed to listen continuously for long stretches, in conversation you are called on to switch back and forth from speaker to listener so frequently that you may find it difficult at times to make these shifts completely. If, instead of listening, you spend your time rehearsing what you are going to say as soon as you have a chance, your listening effectiveness will take a nosedive, Especially when you are in a heated conversation, take second to check yourself are you preparing speeches instead of listening? Shifting from the role of speaker to that of listener requires constant and continuous effort.

3. Hear a person out before you react.Far too often we stop listening before the person has finished speaking because we know” what a person is going to say, yet our “knowing” is really only a guess. Accordingly, the habit of always letting a person complete his or her thought before you stop listening or try to respond.

In addition to prematurely ceasing to listen, we often let a person’s mannerisms and words “turn us off.” For instance, we may become annoyed when a speaker mutters, stammers, or talks in a monotone. Like wise, we may let a  language or ideas turn us off. Are there any words or ideas that create bursts of semantic noise for you, causing you to stop listening attentively? For instance, do you have a tendency to react negatively or tune out when people speak of gay rights, skinheads, welfare frauds, political correctness, or rednecks? To counteract this effect,


Understanding is decoding a message accurately by assigning appropriate meaning to it. Sometimes we do not understand because people use words that are outside our vocabulary or are used in a way that we do not recognize. Fully understanding what a person means. listen to ensure your understanding, including empathizing, asking questions, and paraphrasing


Empathy is intellectually identifying with or vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. When we empathize, we are attempting to understand or experience what another understands or experiences. To do this, generally, we try to put aside our own feelings, thoughts, and attitudes and to “try on the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of another and responding appropriately. Three approaches people use when empathizing are empathic responsiveness, perspective taking and sympathetic responsiveness (Weaver & Kirtley, 1995, p. 131).

Empathic responsiveness occurs when you experience an emotional response parallel to, and as a result of observing, another person’s actual or anticipated display of emotion (Stiff et al., 1988, p. 199). For instance, when Monique tells Heather that Brad broke off their engagement, Heather will have used empathic responsiveness if she senses the sadness that Monique is feeling and experiences a similar sense of loss.

Perspective taking imagining yourself in the place of another-is the most common form of empathizing (Zillmann, 1991). For example, if Heather personalize the message by picturing herself being told that her engagement is off, anticipates and experiences her own emotions were this to occur, and then assumes that Monique must be feeling the same way, Heather is exemplifying perspective taking.

Sympathetic responsiveness is your feeling concern, compassion, or sorrow for another because of the other’s situation or plight, The sympathetic responsiveness approach differs from the other two approaches in that you do not attempt to experience the feelings of the other. Rather, you translate your intellectual understanding of what the speaker has experienced into your own feelings of concern, compassion, or sorrow for that person. For instance, imagine that Heather that Monique is sad and disappointed, but instead of try tag feel emotions or experience how she herself would feel in a situation. Heather feels concern and compassion for her friend. This is a sympathetic response. Because of this difference in perspective, scholars differentiate sympathy from empathy.

Although people vary in their ability to empathize, most of us should learn to increase our empathy and then decide to practice it. Those of us who are overly oriented find it especially difficult to see the world from another’s point of view. As a result, our ability to empathize is often underdeveloped. Under these circumstances may need to exert extra effort to develop empathizing skills if we are to increase our interpersonal effectiveness.

Though it may seem trite, the first step in improving our empathizing is to take the time and make the effort to respect the person who is speaking. This does not mean that we need to have a deep, personal relationship with others to empathize with them. Respect means that we pay serious attention to what others are saying and what they feel about what they are saying. It begins by treating a person as.a with value and not as an object. Respecting others focuses our time and energy on the other, not on the self.

How well you empathize also depends on how observant you are of others’ behavior and how clearly you read” the nonverbal messages they are sending. To improve your observational skills, try the following. When another person begins a conversation with you develop the habit of silently posing two questions to yourself: (1) What emotions do I believe the person is experiencing right now? and (2) What are the cues the person is giving that I am using to draw this conclusion? Consciously asking these questions helps you focus your attention on the nonverbal aspects of messages; this is where most of the information on the person’s emotional state is conveyed.

To further increase the accuracy of reading emotions, you can use the skill of perception checking especially when the other person’s culture is different from your own. Remember, cultures vary in how and how much is expr cssvd nonverbally. Once you have understood the emotions the other person is feeling, you can then choose the type of empathic response you wish to use.

To become more effective at empathizing with another, (1) adopt an attitude 9(respect toward the person, (2) concentrate on understanding the nonverbal as well as the verbal messages, (3) use behavioral cues to ascertain his or her emotional state, (4) try to. feel with the person, (or) try to recall or imagine how you would feel in similar circumstances, (or) try to understand what the person is feeling to help yourself experience your own feelings of concern, compassion, or sorrow for that person. Finally, (5) respond in a way that reflects those feelings.

For additional information on empathy and listening, log on to, an empathy and listening skills home page by Lawrence Bookbinder, Ph.D., and Fellow of the American Psychological Association.


Active listeners are willing to question to help them’ get the information they need to understand. A question is, of course, a response designed to get further information or to clarify information already received. Although you may have asked questions for as long as you can remember, you may notice that at times your questions either don’t get the information you want or irritate, fluster, or cause defensiveness. We can increase the chances that our questions will get us the information we want and reduce negative reactions if we observe these guidelines:

1. Note the kind of information you need to increase your understanding. Suppose Maria says to you, “I am totally frustrated. Would you stop at the on the way home and buy me some more paper?” At this point, you may be a bit confused and need more information to understand what Maria is asking you. Yet if you respond “What do you mean?” you are likely to add to the confusion. Maria, who is already uptight, will probably not know precisely what it is you do not understand. To increase your understanding, you might ask Maria one these three types of questions:

• Questions to get more information on important details. “What kind of paper would you like me to get and how much will you need?”
Questions to clarify the use of a term. “Could you tell me what you mean by frustrated?”
Questions to clarify the cause of the feelings the person is expressing. “What’s frustrating you?”

Determine whether the information you need is more detail clarification of a word or idea or information on the cause of feelings or events then phrase your question accordingly.

2. Phrase questions as complete sentences. Under pressure our tendency is to use one- or two word questions that may be perceived as curt or abrupt. For instance, when Miles says “Molly just told me that I always behave in ways that are totally insensitive to her needs” instead of asking “How?” you might ask, “Did she give you specific behaviors or describe specific incidents when this happened?” Curt, abrupt questions often seem to challenge the speaker instead of focusing on the kind of information the respondent needs to understand the statement. By phrasing more complete question the questioner shows the respondent that he or she has been heard.

3. Monitor your nonverbal cues so that they convey genuine interest and concern. Ask questions with a tone of voice that is sincere not a tone that could be interpreted as bored, sarcastic, cutting, superior, dogmatic, or evaluative. We need to constantly remind ourselves that the way we speak may be even more important than the words we use.

4. Put the “burden of ignorance” on your own shoulders. To minimize defensive reactions, especially when people are under, stress, phrase your questions to put the burden of ignorance on your own shoulders by prefacing your question with a short statement that suggests that any problem of misunderstanding may be the result of your listening skills. For instance, when Drew says, “I’ve really had it with Malone screwing up all the time” you might say, Drew, I’m sorry I’m missing some details that would help me understand your feelings better what kinds of things has Malone been doing?

Here are two more examples that contrast inappropriate with more appropriate questioning responses.

Tamara: “They turned down my proposal again!”
Art: [Inappropriate] “Well, did you explain it the way you should have?”
(This question is a veiled attack on Tamara in question form.)
[Appropriate] “Did they tell you why?” (This question is a sincere request for additional information.)

Renee: “With all those executives at the party last night, I really felt strange.”

Javier: [Inappropriate] “Why?” (With this abrupt question, Javier is making no effort to be sensitive to Renee’s feelings or to understand them.)
[Appropriate] “Gee, what is it about your bosses presence that makes you feel strange?” (Here the question is phrased to elicit information that will help Javier understand and it may help Renee understand as well.)

In summary, to increase your effectiveness at asking questions, (1) note the kind of information you need to increase your understanding of the message, (2) phrase specific, complete sentence questions that focus on getting that information, (3) deliver them in a sincere tone of voice, and (4) in stressful situations put the burden of ignorance on your own shoulders.


In addition to being skilled questioners, active listeners are also adept at paraphrasing putting their understanding of the message into words. For example during a meeting with his professor to discuss his performance on the first exam, Charley says Well, it looks like I really blew this first test I had a lot of things on my mind If Professor Jensen responds by saying If I understand you. correctly there were things happening to you that took your mind away from studying,” she would be paraphrasing.

Paraphrases may focus on content on feelings underlying the content or on both. In the previous example the professor’s paraphrase If I understand you correctly, there were things happening to you that took your mind away from studying” is a content paraphrase. It focuses on the denotative meaning of the message. As Charley began to speak, if Professor Jensen noticed that he dropped his eyes, sighed and slowly shook his head and she said, “So you were pretty upset with your grade on the last test, her response would be a feelings paraphrase that is, a response that captures the emotions attached to the content of the message.

In real life settings, we often don’t distinguish clearly between content and feelings paraphrases and our responses might well be a combination of both. All three types of paraphrases for the same statement are shown in this example:

Statement: “Five weeks ago I gave the revised manuscript of my independent study to my project adviser. I felt really good about it because I thought the changes I had made really improved my explanations. Well yesterday I stopped by and got the manuscript back and my adviser said he couldn’t really see that this draft was much different from the first.”

Content paraphrase: “Let me see if I’m understanding this right. Your adviser thought that you hadn’t really done much to rework your paper, but you put a lot of effort into it and think this draft was a lot different and much improved.”

Feelings paraphrase: I sense that you are really frustrated that your adviser did not recognize the changes you had made.”

Combination: “If I have this right, you’re saying that your adviser could see no real differences, yet you think your draft was not only different but much improved. I also get the feeling that your adviser’s comments really irk you.”

In addition to paraphrasing when you need a better understanding of a message you will also want to consider paraphrasing when the message is long and contains several complex ideas, when it seems to have been said under emotional strain or when you are talking with people for whom English is not their native language.

In summary, to paraphrase is effectively, (1) listen carefully to the message, (2) notice what images and feelings you have experienced from the message (3) determine what the message means to you, and (4) create a message that conveys these images or feelings.

Remembering: Retaining Information

Remembering is being able to retain information and recall it when needed. Too often we forget almost immediately what we have heard. For instance, you can probably think of many times when you were unable to recall the name of a person to whom you were introduced just moments earlier. Three techniques that are likely to work for you in improving your ability to remember information are repeating constructing mnemonics and taking notes.

Repeat Information

Repetition saying something two, three, or even four times-helps listeners store information in long term memory by providing necessary reinforcement (Estes, 1989, p. 7). If information is not reinforced, it will be held in short term memory for as little as twenty seconds and then forgotten. So, when you are introduced to a stranger named Jack McNeil, if you mentally say “Jack McNeil, Jack McNeil, Jack McNeil, Jack McNeil, you increase the chances that you will remember his name. Like wise when a person gives you the directions, Go two blocks east, turn left turn right at the next light, and it’s in the next block,” you should immediately repeat to yourself, “two blocks east, turn left, turn right at light, next block that’s two blocks east, turn left, turn right at light, next block.”

Construct Mnemonics

Constructing mnemonics helps listeners put information in forms that are more easily recalled. A mnemonic device is any artificial technique used as a memory aid. One of the most common ways of forming a mnemonic is to take the first letters of a list of items you are trying to remember and form a word. For example, an easy mnemonic for remembering the five Great Lakes is HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior).

When you want to remember items in a sequence, try to form a sentence with the words themselves or assign words using the first letters of the words in sequence and form an easy-to-remember statement. For example, when you studied music the first time you may have learned the lines of the treble clef with the good my for the spaces of the treble clef (FACE), you may have remembered the word face.

Take Notes

Although note taking would be inappropriate, in most casual interpersonal encounters, it represent a powerful tool for increasing our recall of information when we are involved in telephone conversations, briefing sessions, interviews, business meetings and listening to speeches. Note taking provides us with a written record we can go back to and it also enables us to take a more active role in the listening process (Wolvin & Coakley, 1996, p. 239). In short, when you are listening to complex information, take notes.

What constitutes good notes will vary depending on the situation. Useful notes may consist of a brief list of main points or key ideas plus a few of the most significant details. Or they may be a short summary of the entire concept (a type of paraphrase) after the message is completed. For lengthy and rather detailed information, however, good notes likely will consist of a brief outline of what the speaker has said, including the overall idea, the main points of the message and key developmental material. Good notes are not necessarily very long.