David Burns, MD
Photo: Courtesy Broadway Books 
A cognitive behavioral therapist and author of the best-selling books Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and When Panic Attacks, is an adjunct clinical professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Burns finds he can defuse stressful family situations by communicating more effectively. "Most people do surprisingly poorly when dealing with a relative who is hurting, depressed, or anxious—we get defensive and try to solve the problem rather than finding the truth in what the person is saying," says Burns. "I like to use what I call the five secrets of effective communication, which are made up of three listening skills and two self-expression skills."

First, practice listening (Burns calls it the disarming technique): "Find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if it seems unreasonable or unfair. Then empathize by putting yourself in her [or his] shoes and see the world from her perspective." Part of being empathetic is to act as a mirror, paraphrasing her words and acknowledging how she's probably feeling.

"Third, ask gentle, probing questions to learn more about what the other person is thinking and feeling. Those are the three listening skills."

Now you're ready to begin communicating back. The fourth step is to use "I feel" statements, such as "I feel upset," rather than "You" statements, such as "You're wrong!" Stroking statements come last. "Stroking means treating the other person with respect even if you're angry and they're angry. Always do it in a way that the other person won't feel put down or lose face."


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