Communication is a surprisingly complex process—it isn’t easy. Hearing a message is different from understanding it. People don’t always say what they mean. Their body language can contradict their words. Our brains work so fast, that we can easily misinterpret a message. We need to slow down our thinking, which takes energy and focus.

Effective listening is really a simple process. (Not easy, but simple.) Each step of the F-A-X Listening process matches the three problem-solving steps we just learned. We learn step 1 in this chapter and steps 2 and 3 in the Problem-Solving Toolset. (The Summary Sheet at the end of the Problem-Solving Toolset summarizes all the steps of the Child Problem Toolbox.)

  • Focus on feelings. (Step B1) The first step of F-A-X Listening is, quite simply, how to check whether you decoded a person’s message correctly. The secret to decoding messages is to know how to listen to what others mean, rather than just hearing words. This process is more of an art and an action skill than an exact science or passive process. We listen with our eyes, ears, brain, and heart (intuition). By using warmth, empathy, respect, and effective listening tools, we encourage people to share their thoughts and feelings and show we understand. People connect with deeper feelings that they might not be aware of yet. This step brings great relief from overwhelming feelings, which may be all someone needs.
  • Ask helpful questions. (Step B2) We can use helpful questions to better understand people’s feelings. They still might be upset, though, because they are confused or have inaccurate beliefs about the situation. We can also  use helpful questions to help them realize, on their own, that there is another way to view the situation. This brings new insights, greater self-understanding, and a readiness to resolve the problem.
  • X-amine options. (Step B3) If people need to plan a response or choose a solution, “Ask helpful questions” (Step B2) and “X-amine options” (Step B3) to guide them as they set goals and choose the best solution to meet those goals.


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When I ask you to listen to me

and you start giving advice

you have not done what I asked.

When I ask you to listen to me

and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way

you are trampling on my feelings.

When I ask you to listen to me

and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem

you have failed me, strange as that may seem.

Listen! All I asked, was that you listen,

not talk or do, just hear me.

Advice is cheap: 35 cents will get you both Dear Abby

and Billy Graham in the same newspaper.

And I can do for myself; I’m not helpless.

Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.

When you do something for me that I can and need to do

for myself, you contribute to my fear and weakness.

But, when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel, no matter how 

irrational, then I can quit trying to convince you

and can get about the business of understanding

what’s behind this irrational feeling.

And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious,

and I don’t need advice.

Irrational feelings make sense when we understand what’s

behind them.

Perhaps that’s why prayer works, sometimes, for some people

because God doesn’t give advice or try to fix things.

He just listens and lets you work it out for yourself.

So please listen and just hear me. And, if you want to

talk, wait a minute for your turn; and I’ll listen to you.


Author Unknown 

Permission  to  reprint  this  page  granted  by  author,  Jody  Johnston  Pawel,  LSW,  The  Parent’s  Toolshop,  ©  2000.


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Step  B1:  Focus  on  Feelings ✰✰✰✰ 

When people are sharing their feelings, use the following three-step process to respond helpfully:

Step  B1:  Focus  on  Feelings

  1. Identify the feeling. In our minds, we look for clues to what people are feeling.
  2. Identify the thought, belief or event. In our minds, we look for clues about why people are having those feelings and how they are interpreting the event.
  3. Summarize, in your own words, what you think they mean. We take the clues and use them in our spoken response, to check whether we understood them correctly. 


When children misbehave or express emotions, we ask ourselves, “What are they feeling?” If we aren’t sure, we can ask, “How would I feel if that happened to me?” Think of a word that describes the feeling.

  • Don’t  worry  about  making  children  more  upset  by  calling  attention  to  their  feelings. Children feel reassured to know their feelings have names—it means they are normal and it must be okay to feel them. When we use feeling words, children learn how to express themselves with words, rather than misbehavior.
  • It’s okay to use big words. If we use feeling words in context, children learn “This feeling is called ___.” This is the same way they learn “this feeling in my stomach is called hunger.” (My son’s first feeling word, at age two, was “embarrassed”—and he was not very verbal.)
  • If we are unsure what others are feeling, it’s okay to guess. If we are wrong, they usually correct us—and by correcting us, they better understand what they are really feeling. “Well, I’m not really scared, just careful.


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★   If you identify more than one feeling, go with the feeling that is closest to the center of the onion.  “Secondary” emotions come after another feeling. For example, sadness is usually the result of something else—loneliness, inadequacy, anger, or depression. All these feelings can appear on the surface to be sadness. It is important to find out the cause behind someone’s sadness, because it is the feeling that’s closer to the core of the problem. This is the feeling we want to reflect back to them, since it helps them feel understood and work through whatever is causing them to feel sad.

A “secondary emotion” is an emotion that comes after another feeling. The first feeling, which is closer to the real issue, causes the second feeling they are ex-pressing. 

There are two difficulties we often face when focusing on feelings (besides the temptation to use the communication barriers mentioned before):

i.  Responding  to  Nonverbal  Messages

When people aren’t saying anything, we want to tune in to their behavior. Here are some examples of nonverbal clues and their possible meanings2 : 

 POSSIBLE MEANING                 

sagging shoulders …………………………………………………………… discouraged, exhausted, despair

arms folded tightly across the chest ………………………………… defensive, impatient, or rejected

clenched hands and jaw …………………………………………………. angry or tense

quivering chin ……………………………………………………………….. struggling with intense emotion

fidgeting and foot tapping ………………………………………………. nervous or anxious

Tone of voice is another clue to the real meaning behind people’s words. Emphasizing different words can change the meaning of the same statement. Here is an example from Listening for Heaven’s Sake3 : 

Actual words:     “I didn’t say your outfit looked silly.”
Interpretation:   “Someone else said it was silly.”
Actual words:     I didn’t say your outfit looked silly.
Interpretation:   I may have thought it was silly, but I didn’t say so.
Actual words:     I didn’t say your outfit looked silly.
Interpretation:   It wasn’t you I was talking about.
Actual words:     I didn’t say your outfit looked silly.
Interpretation:   It wasn’t your outfit that looked silly, it was you.
Actual words:     I didn’t say your outfit looked silly.
Interpretation:   I didn’t say silly exactly, I said it looked unusual.

Sometimes people hide or deny their feelings as a defense mechanism. For example, “It doesn’t hurt that bad” or “It doesn’t really bother me.” Don’t assume they aren’t really bothered. Instead, lightly acknowledge the underlying feeling in a matter-of-fact way and give them permission to feel that way. For example, “I know you’re trying to be tough,  but it’s okay to admit it hurts.”

ii. Tuning  into  Feelings

Many people have difficulty getting in touch with feelings. Feelings can seem like a foreign language if we have any of the following traits:


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  • Logical and analytical
  • Raised in an over-controlling family where negative feelings weren’t allowed (learned to stuff or ignore feelings)
  • Taught not to express any strong emotion, positive (tears of happiness) or negative

Don’t view these last two statements as blame or criticism of your parents. Remember, before the 1960s effective listening skills were not commonly known to parents or professionals. There was little information about the mind and emotions. If the information was not available to our parents, they could not have taught it to us. They, too, did the best they could with the resources they had.

If you struggle to find a name for feelings, the cartoon on the next page might be helpful.



Usually, a person’s statement includes one of the following clues:

  • The event that caused the feeling.
  • The person’s beliefs or thoughts about the situation, which influence their perceptions and feelings.

If we are confused about why a person has these feelings, we can clarify facts without using journalistic questions. We do this by tying the facts to the feeling they caused. For example, “Let me get this straight. First this happened . . . then you felt . . . so you did . . .”

Be careful not to confuse thoughts and feelings. For example, “I feel the teacher shouldn’t give us so much homework.” The belief is that the teacher is giving too much homework. The feeling might be “overwhelmed” or “frustrated.” We learn in Chapter 9, “Keep Your Cool Toolset,” that our feelings are a direct result of our beliefs about an event. If our beliefs are inaccurate or unhelpful, we experience misguided or unhelpful feelings. As we listen to others, their statements often reveal these inaccurate or unhelpful beliefs. For example, a child might say, “My coach doesn’t like me because she told me I could do better.” The child is assuming the coach said this because she didn’t like her, which might not be accurate.

Try to balance thoughts and feelings. If we overemphasize thoughts, we tend to forget about people’s feelings and start analyzing or judging. If we focus only on feelings, however, we might feed into inaccurate beliefs. We need to maintain our objectivity while remaining in touch with the other person’s feelings and perspective.



First, we listen intently, identifying (in our minds) the speakers’ feelings and thoughts. Then we check whether we understood them accurately by restating in our own words what we think they mean.

So we don’t come across like a know-it-all, we can end our statement with a questioning tone of voice. Even if we’re sure we are correct, we are usually better received if we sound like we are “checking this out,” rather than telling  them what they are feeling.

Here are some possible responses:

  “You sound like you’re feeling . . .”        
“Are you saying . . .?”
  “So you believe/think/feel . . . ?”       
“From your point of view . . .”
  “Correct me if I’m wrong, but . .”       
“I wonder if you’re thinking/feeling . . .”
  “Let me get this straight. You think/feel . . .”       “Do you wish . . . ?”


Important  Points  to  Remember

  • If you identify inaccurate beliefs, do not tell people their viewpoint is wrong. In the example about the coach, it is accurate, but unhelpful, to say,” You’re overreacting. Your coach likes

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 Cartoon  by  Mick Wells.  Permission  for  reader  to  reprint  this  page for  personal use only  granted  by  author,  Jody  Johnston  Pawel,  LSW,The  Parent’s  Toolshop,  ©  2000. 


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you. She probably just wants you to try harder.” Many children would think or say, “No she doesn’t! I was already trying as hard as I could!” Now the child thinks we are siding with the coach and gets more upset because we don’t understand. Instead, we can repeat the belief in a slightly different way so the child hears what was really said. We might say in a questioning tone of voice, “So she wants you to do your best because she doesn’t like you?” When people hear their beliefs restated, accurately but differently, they see on their own that they might be misinterpreting the situation.

If they are too upset to see this, don’t pursue the belief any further until they work through their feelings. Examining beliefs is a logical process. When they move to the next step, “understanding the problem or beliefs” (B2), we can ask helpful questions to explore this area again.

  • Use the word “I” cautiously; use “you” whenever possible. If this is a Child problem, we want to keep the ball in the child’s court. When we say “I,” we are talking about us, not them. “I” often leads to personal opinions or advice, so it is usually a barrier. Likewise, be careful using the word “we,” especially when talking about the other person’s responsibilities, such as school, work, or chores. “We” implies that the task is partly our responsibility. This might result in people accepting less than total responsibility for the solution or fostering dependency on others to solve their problems.
  • Don’t repeat names people call themselves or others. If children say they’re stupid or ugly, don’t use the names in your response. You don’t want to give the negative more power or seem as if you are agreeing with them. Instead, get in touch with what happened and how they feel about it. For example, “I bet it was really frustrating to have to spend a whole hour on your homework, when you thought it would only take 20 minutes” or “Do you feel self-conscious in your bathing suit?”
  • Match your tone of voice with their emotional intensity. Don’t overreact to what people say, “I bet you hated the teacher calling on you.” The child might have felt just slightly embarrassed. On the other hand, if someone is furious, don’t calmly say, “You’re angry.” Instead, say with emphasis, “You’re furious!” We don’t have to act furious, just emphasize the word so people know we understand how strongly they feel the emotion. If they are out of control, we can use our words and tone of voice to show we understand, but control our own emotions. This helps people regain control, without dismissing their feelings.
  • Our words, tone of voice, and body language combined communicate whether we understood someone.

A Personal Story. When I was selecting my son’s preschool, I visited a school that taught S.T.E.P.4 classes to their teachers and parents. Since I knew the skills and philosophy would be consistent with mine, I was optimistic. I observed a young child who was sitting at a table crying. Her teacher walked up to her, remained standing, put her hands on her hips, and said in a deadpan voice, “You’re sad because you can’t play with the blocks right now.” While her words were constructed according to all the rules, her body language said she didn’t really care how the child felt. She looked irritated to have to deal with the child’s feelings. Had she knelt down next to the girl, put an arm around her, and sounded more empathetic, she would have been much more effective.


Universal  Formula  for  Effective  Listening 

When we combine the three steps for focusing on feelings, we get a simple formula for responding to people’s problems.

“You sound like (or similar opening) you’re feeling (feeling), because (event, thought, or belief).”


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As you become more comfortable responding to feelings, you will develop your own personal style. Just remember to include the three a-b-c steps: (a) identify the feeling, (b) identify the event, then (c) summarize what you think they mean in your own words. In the following statements, the feeling and event words are emphasized, so you can see how they fit together in various, more comfortable statements.

    That math problem is really frustrating!
                      (event)                     (feeling)
    It’s irritating to be bothered when you want time alone, huh?
            (feeling)           (event)                       (thought)
    I can tell you’re really excited about the pool opening tomorrow!
                                          (feeling)                   (event)

To respond to nonverbal clues, match a feeling word to the behavioral clue, like the following examples.

    When I see you smile like that, I can tell you’re having fun!
                         (behavior)                                              (feeling)
    see you wandering around, like you don’t know what to do. Are you bored?
                       (behavior)                                          (event)                             (feeling)
    You seem quiet. Is anything bothering you?
                   (behavior)                  (feeling)


Sometimes people have contradictory or confusing feelings. It can be helpful to let them know this is natural and normal.

    Sometimes you like playing with Tommy, but not when he’s bossy.
                              (feeling)                                                     (event)
    In some ways you are glad you weren’t invited to her party, because 
                                        (feeling)                      (event)                                                      
      you don’t really like her, but you feel left out too.”
           (thought)                                     (feeling)


What  Do  I  Say  Next?

When we first start using these listening skills, we can usually think of a first-response, but don’t know what to say next. Our first response opens the door and children usually start sharing more. Many parents panic at this point. We just continue reflecting the thoughts and feelings we hear.

Continue reflecting the thoughts and feelings you hear, until:

  1. The person vents the emotions, feels better, stops sharing, and moves on.
  2. The person expresses confusion about why the problem happened or talks about logical facts. At this point, move on to the next step, “B2: Ask Helpful Questions.”

Here is an example of a listening conversation between a mom and her 13-year-old son.

A Graduate’s Conversation.

  Adam:    Dad wouldn’t let me talk in the car tonight.
  Mom:    You sound hurt that he told you not to talk.
  Adam:    Yeah, he said, “Mike, don’t say anything,” right in front of the girls, like it’s all my fault.
  Mom:   Do you feel like Dad is blaming you for the squabbles in the car, the teasing?
  Adam:   Yeah, he thinks it’s my fault, but they always start it. They’re always saying something. 
   Mom:   It’s rotten to take the blame for stuff like that.
  I just shut up. I didn’t say anything.  
  Mom:    So you didn’t say anything at all? 
  Adam:   No, I didn’t say anything the whole way home
  Mom:   What happened?
  Adam:    Dad just talked to them.
  Mom:   How did that go?
  Adam:    Okay. They just talked and I didn’t say anything.
  Mom:   Were there any fights?
  Adam:   No.
  Mom:   Does that work okay for you?
  Adam:   I guess.

Here, Mom didn’t want to defend Dad or the girls, or offer a solution. She felt it was more important to Focus on her son’s feelings and leave the “ball” in his court. She could have taken the next two steps, Asking helpful questions and X-amining possible options, which she might do if the same problem occurs again.


When  Not  to  Use  Listening  Skills

  • Sometimes we can overdo reflecting statements. You don’t have to respond to every frown or comment—use discretion. You will learn to recognize when people want to talk and when they don’t. You’ll also learn when it’s best to give a nod, a comment, or say nothing at all.
  • Don’t try to force people to share their feelings. A power contest could result if you push the matter. Let them know you are willing to listen and they are free to talk or not talk. Don’t be discouraged if people don’t open up to you quickly. This is a new experience which may be uncomfortable for them. If you’ve had unhealthy communication in the past, they might be hesitant to open up. Give them time and space, to rebuild trust.
  • Turn complaints into requests and ask people what they want. For example, “You think the carrots look dirty when the skin’s on. Would you like them peeled?”
  • If someone is trying to involve you in unhealthy or inappropriate interactions, such as gossip, simply nod your head or give a dull “um,” then refuse to discuss the topic further. Change the subject or stop making eye contact.