Communication that conveys empathy for the feelings and
respect for the worth of the listener, however, is particularly supportive and
defense reductive. Reassurance results when a message indicates that the speaker
identifies himself or herself with the listener's problems, shares her feelings,
and accepts her emotional reactions at face value. Abortive efforts to deny the
legitimacy of the receiver's emotions by assuring the receiver that she need not
feel badly, that she should not feel rejected, or that she is overly anxious,
although often intended as support giving, may impress the listener as lack of
acceptance. The combination of understanding and empathizing with the other
person's emotions with no accompanying effort to change him or her is supportive
at a high level.
The importance of gestural behavior cues in communicating
empathy should be mentioned. Apparently spontaneous facial and bodily evidences
of concern are often interpreted as especially valid evidence of deep-level
When a person communicates to another that he or she feels
superior in position, power, wealth, intellectual ability, physical
characteristics, or other ways, she or he arouses defensiveness. Here, as with
other sources of disturbance, whatever arouses feelings of inadequacy causes the
listener to center upon the affect loading of the statement rather than upon the
cognitive elements. The receiver then reacts by not hearing the message, by
forgetting it, by competing with the sender, or by becoming jealous of him or
The person who is perceived as feeling superior communicates
that he or she is not willing to enter into a shared problem-solving
relationship, that he or she probably does not desire feedback, that he or she
does not require help, and/or that he or she will be likely to try to reduce the
power, the status, or the worth of the receiver.
Many ways exist for creating the atmosphere that the sender
feels himself or herself equal to the listener. Defenses are reduced when one
perceives the sender as being willing to enter into participative planning with
mutual trust and respect. Differences in talent, ability, worth, appearance,
status and power often exist, but the low defense communicator seems to attach
little importance to these distinctions.
The effects of dogmatism in producing defensiveness are well
known. Those who seem to know the answers, to require no additional data, and to
regard themselves as teachers rather than as co-workers tend to put others on
guard. Moreover, in the writer's experiment, listeners often perceived manifest expressions of certainty as connoting inward feelings of inferiority. They saw the dogmatic individual as needing to be right, as wanting to win an argument rather than solve a problem and as
seeing his or her ideas as truths to be defended. This kind of behavior often
was associated with acts which others regarded as attempts to exercise control.
People who were right seemed to have low tolerance for members who were
"wrong"—i.e., who did not agree with the sender.
One reduces the defensiveness of the listener when one
communicates that one is willing to experiment with one's own behavior,
attitudes and ideas. The person who appears to be taking provisional attitudes,
to be investigating issues rather than taking sides on them, to be problem
solving rather than doubting, and to be willing to experiment and explore tends
to communicate that the listener may have some control over the shared quest or
the investigation of the ideas. If a person is genuinely searching for
information and data, he or she does not resent help or company along the way.