A Simple, Surprisingly Effective Way to Get People to Tell You How They’re Really Feeling

In order to build strong, meaningful relationships with your family, friends, and romantic partners, you need to be the kind of listener they feel comfortable opening up to. You want to feel close, and maybe you’re even concerned about them, but whenever you try to talk about an issue, they quickly clam up.

It’s an unfortunately common scenario, but the good news is that a simple technique can make you a much better listener and can help others feel more comfortable opening up to you.

The Work of Carl Rogers

In the early twentieth century, humanist psychologist Carl Rogers pioneered client-centered therapy. Here are some of the tenets of his philosophy and practice:

  • Humans innately want to move toward reaching their potential.
  • Given a supportive environment, they will act in the best interests if themselves and their communities.
  • The therapist’s role is to offer authenticity, empathy, and unconditional positive regard.
  • The therapist’s main tool is active listening. Instead of providing original analysis of the client, the therapist helps the client recognize and examine their own thoughts and emotions so that the client can be the one to analyze them.
  • With the therapist’s support, the client figures out how he or she can change in order to meet his or her full potential.

Some aspects of the Rogerian approach may not apply to your everyday relationships – maintaining “unconditional positive regard” for everyone you meet isn’t exactly safe or feasible – but borrowing from it can help others feel more comfortable telling you how they really feel.

How to Apply This

One simple yet effective Rogerian technique for active listening involves reflecting back two aspects of what the other person tells you: facts and feelings. Basically, when someone makes a statement, you paraphrase the facts that they shared and state the emotions it evokes. Here’s how it works:

  • Someone expresses a thought like “And now I have this big bill to pay!”
  • You identify the facts and feelings embedded in that statement. The closer attention you pay to the person, the more accurate your identification will be.
  • You state the facts and feelings you’ve identified – you give a Rogerian reflection. In this example, depending on the person’s tone of voice and body language, as well as the context, you might say something like “The financial pressure is really stressing you out,” or “Seems like you’re frustrated about getting charged so much without getting the results you wanted.”
  • The person (hopefully) feels heard and is comfortable continuing to talk to you.

Doing this throughout a conversation works for three reasons:

  • You synthesize different parts of the story and its telling, which helps you understand more deeply what’s going on.
  • The other person hears that you’re actually paying attention and comprehending both what happened and that person’s reaction to it.
  • If you misinterpret a feeling or get confused about a fact, the Rogerian reflections give the other person a natural opportunity to clarify.

Things to Keep in Mind

Although Rogerian reflection is a simple conversational technique, it takes some time and effort to get good at it. Here are a few ways to make sure you’re being as good a listener as possible:

  • Instead of literally restating what the other person said, paraphrase and summarize to show engagement (and avoid sounding like a robot).
  • Exact phrasing is less important than your commitment to actually understanding and supporting the other person. Remember that Rogers emphasized authenticity and empathy in his approach to therapy.
  • As mentioned earlier, there comes a point in many conversations where it makes sense to offer advice, or share a story from your own life. But, especially earlier in the conversation, when the dynamics are still being established, reflecting frequently can help maximize communication between you and your friend and make them more likely to trust you with their true thoughts and feelings.

Finally, realize that, with rare exceptions, no one owes it to you to explain their feelings. However, by weaving Rogerian reflections into your conversations, you will create an environment in which anyone who wants to open up to you will feel comfortable doing so. You may be surprised by how well this works!

Alicia Holland

Alicia Holland has a B.A. in creative writing from Binghamton University and an M.A. in teaching of English from Teachers College, Columbia University. She loves to play with language and literature.

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