Q: Can you give an example of what good communication using the ECHO approach would look like?

A: The "ECHO" approach is a way of communicating that draws on four helpful skills: Empathy, Courtesy, Honesty, and Ownership. (See the relationships page for more info.) Even though they are simple, using these skills effectively is an art that requires practice.

I find that many people are skilled at one or two of these four elements, but sometimes out of practice on the others. In therapy, we work to strengthen and refine the elements that need it.

To illustrate this strengthening process, let's imagine a client named Paul who frequently gets into arguments with his wife Mary. Paul rarely uses any of the ECHO skills. For example, when Mary is late to meet him for dinner, Paul often says something like this:

    Paul: "You know, I hate it when you're always late like this. I've been waiting here for twenty minutes. You really need to grow up and learn to be on time. I was looking forward to going out to eat, but now you've ruined the whole experience."

Now, unless Mary is a saint, she will probably feel hurt and react defensively to this. A comment like this one can spark a lengthy series of recriminations and resentments — and perhaps send the relationship spiraling into arguments. And yet, a simple shift in communication can make a world of difference.

Using the ECHO skills, Paul would express himself very differently. Let's look at how each element might come into play.

The first skill in the ECHO approach is empathy. In the world of psychology, empathy doesn't just mean compassion or sensitivity — it refers to the ability to see things through another person's eyes. In order to use empathy effectively, we need to set aside our own perspective for a few seconds and try to view the world through our partner's vision.

If he were to begin with an empathetic statement, Paul might open the conversation by saying something like:

    Paul: "Hi. I know you probably rushed to get over here. Did you hit a lot of traffic?"

This is actually just a mild use of empathy. However, it is a far more disarming opening than his original "I hate it when you're always late." Even though Paul is upset, he is willing to set aside his own feelings for a few seconds and acknowledge what Mary might be experiencing. The simple attempt to see things through Mary's eyes sets a much different tone for the conversation.

Let's now move onto the next skill in the ECHO set: courtesy. For many people, it takes repeated practice to learn how to remain courteous and respectful even in the midst of a conflict. However, this is an extremely important skill. If your partner feels that he can discuss conflicts with you without being attacked, he will be much more likely to keep the communication channel open.

So what does courteous communication look like? If we're communicating with courtesy, we refrain from insulting the other person. We don't use threats. We don't blame the other person or try to make him or her feel guilty. We don't engage in personal attacks. We don't list character defects or use sarcastic, needling comments. We don't compare the other person to "better" people. Above all, we don't attempt to shame the other person into submission.

Of course, we can be very firm, clear, and strong while at the same time being courteous and respectful. This combination is an extremely effective communication style. To illustrate, Paul might follow-up his empathetic comment with the following:

    Paul: If it's OK with you, I'd like to chat for a couple minutes about scheduling. It's really important for me to resolve this pattern that we're in.

That type of comment is focused, respectful, and clear. It is free of personal attacks like those that Paul used in his original approach. While Mary might feel some resistance about discussing this topic — especially if she and Paul have a history of arguing — she is far more likely to be open to a discussion if the attacks and insults are gone.

Let's move on to the next skill: honesty. True honesty involves looking beneath our immediate feelings and thoughts to some of the deeper, more vulnerable ones that may lie beneath. If Paul were to use honesty effectively, he might say:

    Paul: The thing is, I felt a bit embarrassed sitting here by myself for twenty minutes. I was also worried about you, especially since you didn't call. I'd like to figure out a system so that this doesn't keep happening.

Now, in that case Paul "dropped down" beneath his initial anger and irritation to some of the more vulnerable feelings and concerns beneath. This type of deeper honesty can be extremely disarming. Instead of attacking Mary, he chose to give an honest report of his own distress — and asked for help to improve things.

The final element of the ECHO system is ownership, or the taking-of-responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. If we are going to give honest feedback to people, and let them know what we are feeling and thinking, it's essential to do so without the implication of blame. Otherwise, we are simply engaging in a manipulation game.

Paul might say, for example:

    Paul: I know that I get really stressed when I have to wait, and I'm trying to work on that. However, I could use your help with this.

By leading with an empathetic statement, speaking with courtesy and respect, dropping down honestly into some deeper feelings, and taking ownership of his own reactions, Paul is communicating in an extremely effective manner. While there is no guarantee that Mary will reciprocate in kind, it's far more likely that Paul will receive the support that he seeks — and it's likely that the relationship will strengthen, rather than become strained.

Let's take a quick look at how these two styles might look in contrast to each other:

Old StyleNew Style

Paul: You know, I hate it when you're always late like this.

Mary: Well, I just lost track of time. I don't know why it's such a big deal.

Paul: I've been waiting here for twenty minutes. You really need to grow up and learn to be on time.

Mary: And what – you're never late? Give me a break.

Paul: I was looking forward to going out to eat, but now you've ruined the whole experience.

Mary: Well, let's just forget it then. I don't need this stress. Let's just leave.

Paul: Hi. I know you probably rushed to get over here. Did you hit a lot of traffic on the way over?

Mary: Actually, I just lost track of time.

Paul: Well, if it's OK with you, I'd like to chat for a couple minutes about scheduling. It's really important for me to resolve this pattern that we're in.

Mary: I'm not sure what you're talking about.

Paul: The thing is, I felt a bit embarrassed sitting here by myself for twenty minutes. I was also worried about you, especially since you didn't call. I'd like to figure out a system so that this doesn't keep happening.

Mary: I didn't realize that you felt that way.

Paul: I know that I get really stressed when I have to wait, and I'm trying to work on that. However, I could use your help with this.

Mary: Sure. Let's leave a little more time when we do dinner again. And I'll try to call if I'm more than five minutes late.

The ECHO approach in the right column is far more likely to help Paul receive the support he wants. Even if he just uses one of the ECHO skills — courtesy, for example — it will be a great improvement on the old style.

And of course, the ECHO skills are just a beginning. In cognitive therapy, we often work on such things as assertiveness training, setting boundaries in a way that is both self-respectful and kind to others, and developing a habit of seeking win-win solutions to problems. However, I find that these ECHO skills serve as an excellent foundation for building other relationship and communication habits.

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