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.