5 Secrets To Communicating With Someone With Depression

Is your friend crying a lot? Is your partner having many negative thoughts? Ever wonder why your significant other seems to be in bed all the time? When should I be worried? Our mental health coach, Stanford psychiatry faculty member Dr. David Carreon shared some tips on how to better understand and support for your loved ones with depression. This blog contains some key takeaways on one of the most important issues: communication.

Five secrets of effective communication

Feeling Good: the new mood therapy

Feeling Good: the new mood therapy

Developed by Dr. David Burns, a key figure in cognitive therapy, these universal techniques can help rapidly transform conflict into trust by enhancing communication. The five techniques include disarming, thought and feeling empathy, inquiry, “I Feel” statements, and affirmation/stroking. Get the book here.

Secret #1: Disarming

  • KEY PHRASE(S): Practice saying “You’re right…”

Dr. David Burns describes disarming as finding a kernel of truth in what the other person is saying even if it seems illogical, wrong, unfair, distorted, or self-serving. The goal is to improve communication by attempting to listen. For example, if your partner says, “You never have time to help with the dishes” your natural response may be to get defensive and say, “YOU clearly don’t see how tired I am after work”. The disarming technique, however, aims to find some truth in what your partner is saying. Is it true that I never help with the dishes? Am I frustrating my partner? If there is even some small truth to your partner’s statement, then you could respond instead with “You’re right, the dishes aren’t always done. I don’t always contribute and help.” By agreeing to some small truths, you are conveying to your partner that you are trying to see their point of view. This will help reduce conflict and prevent additional complaints. It is rather important to note that you are not agreeing simply to appease your partner, rather you are doing your best to genuinely find truth.

Secret #2: Thought & Feeling Empathy

  • KEY PHRASE(S): Practice saying “I imagine that you might be feeling…”

Thought empathy and feeling empathy are other techniques to help the other person feel heard. Thought empathy means trying to understand what the other person is saying. A good way to do this is to restate what the other person has said, sometimes using their own words if possible. In contrast, feeling empathy focuses on the emotions behind what the other person is saying. A good way to show feeling empathy is to observe the other person and do your best to describe their emotions. For example, if your loved one has just missed graduation because of a pandemic, starts crying, and then yells, “I can’t believe that I will not have a graduation. I’m going to miss all of my friends”, you could respond by saying, “You are going to miss your friends and that you won’t be able to attend graduation (thought empathy) as well as “I imagine you may be feeling frustrated and lonely right now” (feeling empathy). Again, it’s more about genuine connection rather than simply repeating/parroting what they said.

Secret #3: Inquiry

  • KEY PHRASE(S): Practice saying “Can you tell me more about…”

Inquiry is asking questions to genuinely learn more about your loved one’s situation. Many good questions try to clarify a previous response. For example, in the example of a missed graduation due to coronavirus, you could have responded “Can you tell me more about what graduation was going to be like?” In addition, other good questions try to invite further responses. For example, your loved one may share more if you ask “I would love to know more about why missing graduation makes you so upset”.

Secret #4: “I Feel” Statements

  • KEY PHRASE(S): Practice saying “I feel…” rather than “I feel you are…”

“I Feel” statements are where we get to express our own feelings. It’s important to recognize that our own feelings are crucial facts that need to be addressed. When using an “I Feel” statement, it is important to follow these words with a human emotion like sad, angry, anxious, joyful, hopeful, or others. For example, if your depressed loved one tried to cook you dinner, you could say that “I feel very warm and connected to you when you try to cook dinner when I know it’s so hard for you to do it”. In contrast, if your partner is not speaking to you, you can say “I feel nervous when you don’t talk to me because I don’t know what to do”. A common error is that we often try to express thoughts about the other person rather than your own feelings as in “I feel you are being stubborn”. We are not here to criticize the other person but to provide a chance to express our own feelings. Using the five secrets, we don’t need to determine right or wrong right away, rather, we are recognizing that your feelings do exist and need to be addressed too.

Secret #5: Affirmation & Stroking

  • KEY PHRASE(S): Practice saying “Thank you…” or “I really respect…” or “I value…”

Finally, affirmation is a chance to for us to give the other person a feeling of importance or belonging. Affirmation is also known as stroking. It involves our body language as well as our words. We don’t want to roll our eyes or do anything that may taken poorly. Typically, a great way to begin is to simply praise the other person for an accomplishment or even just bringing up a conversation topic. For example, in the case of an elderly woman who is lonely and believes there is no hope in feeling better, you may say “I know we don’t see eye to eye right now, but I deeply love and respect you”. Another example could be: “Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. I really admire how much courage it took for you to talk to me about your mental health”.

Together in combination

The five secrets to communication can be the most effective when used together in combination. Suppose your partner has developed an extreme difficulty in getting out of bed in the morning. On this day, you happen to let slip that you think your partner is lazy for wanting to sleep all the time. Your partner throws a pillow at you and exclaims, “You are the meanest person; can’t you see that it’s not fair that I have to deal with so much suffering and pain!” You may be tempted to lash out by saying “Well, life isn’t fair, so get out of bed”. While you may possibly guilt them out of bed, there are alternative phrases that may strengthen your relationship even during this argument.

Instead of lashing out, you could respond using the five secrets. You could start by saying “You’re right, it isn’t fair, and my approach was less than gentle.” (disarming) “I know you are experiencing a lot of pain and suffering and I imagine you may be feeling frustrated right now”. (thought and feeling empath) “I feel a bit anxious and a little guilty for pressuring you”. (I Feel Statement). “At the end of the day, I love you deeply no matter what time you get out of bed” (Affirmation) “Can you tell me more about how you’ve been feeling this morning?”(Inquiry) In many cases, it is not always necessary to put in all five secrets. It will depend on the situation.

People don’t always speak in this way. In fact, most people are not very good at communication using the five secrets without additional practice. So, we want to leave you with three key thoughts as you practice. First, the phrase “use it or lose it” makes sense here. Practicing these skills as often as you can will prepare you for when you need them. Second, the phrase “death of the ego” is also apt. Be prepared to mess up frequently before you start to improve. Finally, the “ultimate judge” is your loved one. If the other person doesn’t feel loved or supported, then your communication did not work this time no matter how good you think you are.

We hope you have learned, we look forward to more practice, and we wish you happy relationships!