“The most effective way to show compassion to another is to listen to them, rather than talk.”— Thich Nhat Hanh


Before coming to Auburn University, I taught for a decade at The College of Saint Rose, (CSR) in Albany, New York. One year I taught a course titled, “Creative Coping: Dealing with Life’s Problems,” along with Gregory Gross, a professor in social work at CSR. During the month of January, we taught a three-credit course Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon.

We did not have a course syllabus to hand out to the class on day one. Instead, we had the students devise the course content by themselves. In this way, students had complete ownership of the class and attendance was absolutely superb. Students hesitated to skip the class because if they did, they felt they would be letting down themselves and their peers.

The class dealt with such topics as grief, death and dying, love and friendship, self-esteem, ethical decision making, and sexuality. This course seemed to resonate with students since it’s the only course I ever taught in which the students asked to have a class reunion one year later. Apparently, they had emotional ties to their classmates and desired to know how their peers were doing one year after the class ended. 

We used cooperative learning in which students were broken down into small groups with five students to a group. We gave mini-lectures dealing with a specific content, limiting our input to 20 minutes, leaving most of the time to small group work. In such a setting, the three hours of time went by exceedingly fast because these topics touched a nerve with our students. 

For example, on the topic of grief we had students tell of their losses in life such as breaking up with a close friend, dealing with the death of a parent, or sibling. Students walking by our classroom wondered why they could hear students in the class sobbing loudly. Apparently, several of our students never dealt with the loss of a loved one, hence we gave them the opportunity to grieve openly.

One rule we had for the class was this: whatever was said in the classroom stayed in the classroom. Both students and faculty members promised not tell others outside the class confidential matters.

Gregory and I listened very carefully to what students told us. In fact, we listened carefully rather than gave advice. I learned that one can listen on three levels: the verbal level, the feeling level, and the fantasy level. 

In arguing with a loved one, a spouse may say “I’m not upset; why should I be upset at what you’ve done?” This may be understood on both the verbal level and the emotional or feeling level. The words “I’m not upset” may be spoken in anger and on the feeling level may mean the complete opposite of what’s stated on the verbal level.

The third level deals with the fantasy level. A person may say, “I’m a failure and will never amount to anything.” While anther person may blurt out that “I’m the smartest person on the planet.” Neither of these sentences are true but involve hyperbole or making wild exaggerations.

We also taught students how to use “I” messages rather than “you” messages. For example, when I lived in New York, a neighbor of mine had a drinking problem but used complete denial if someone said to him, “Harry, you have a drinking problem.” Denial is part of an alcoholic’s repertoire. To say “You have a drinking problem” won’t help that person but will make the person defensive. 

“I” messages have another dynamic. We taught our students this formula. “When you drink so much, I 'feel' distant from you, and 'I' want to be close.” These words do not put the other person on the defensive. Rather, an “I” message, like “I feel distant from you,” states how the other’s behavior affects the other person. 

It also states what both parties in a relationship really desire, that is, “I want to be close.” These “I” messages are extremely simple but very powerful and may be used in dozens of situations. For example, in returning an item to a store an “I” message carries a lot of weight and doesn’t make the store’s owner angry.

One may say this to the staff. “I really like your clothes (or furniture) but I’m disappointed that the suit (or dress) I bought had a serious flaw in it. “I feel really bad about this since I’ve always been very satisfied with your store but now want my money back.” Using this simple message has always worked exceedingly well for me! 


Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus- Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.

(1) comment


I really enjoyed this article, it was very encouraging.

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