Most people think of the phrase "I love you" when they hear of the three magic words. But I think there are three other words that are even more loving. They are "Tell me more." Another variation is, " Is there more? Or "Any other thing?" These words show a willingness to listen, to learn the experience of the other.

I first learned of the power of these words when I was 19. I was a sophomore in college; my sweetheart was a medical student. We were planning to marry in a few months with the whole wedding ceremony shebang, to please our parents. But we didn't want to wait and were married by a justice of the peace. Later that day, I flew home for a previously planned visit to my parents. I had intended to keep the elopement a secret and continue with our plan.

It was hard to hide my internally bursting joy. In fact, I had put a family ring on my little finger for me to look at and rejoice. It never occurred to me that anyone would notice it. After several hours of getting caught up with my mother-with other stuff, of course-we geared up to go to bed. She turned to me and asked, "Is there more?"

Well, I just couldn't contain it. I told her, all the while being afraid she would be disappointed. So I was delightfully shocked when she breathed a huge sigh of relief. She had been so concerned that perhaps I was pregnant that hearing "married" was a gift to her.

These three magic words are called, in listening skills, "eliciting." And they are very powerful.

What is eliciting?

Webster defines the verb ‘elicit': to draw forth or to bring out (something latent or potential).
Being human, none of us can be completely aware of all of our thoughts, beliefs, feelings and memories at all times. When we are in conflict and possibly feeling emotionally threatened, our focus narrows in the fight/flight response. So we often either forget or are too afraid to access important emotional elements that have contributed to our conflict. When a partner elicits, that shows goodwill and interest and helps create safety and can compensate for the automatic narrowing of consciousness.

What does it look like?

In the course of the Five Step Deep Listening process, eliciting is asking the present speaker something like the following: "Tell me more," or "Is there more?" or "Anything else?"

What is the purpose of eliciting?

Eliciting attempts to bring to the surface any beliefs, feelings, or needs that in the heat of conflict may have been buried. When the listener authentically desires more understanding, the sender can be reassured enough through eliciting to bring out previously hidden material.

An example of how eliciting can help:

A father* ("Martin") and son ("Bob") had been estranged for about 10 years. There were so many hurt feelings between them. They rarely spoke, and then only superficially. The son, Bob, had wanted to distance from his father who, he thought did not respect his boundaries. Bob refused to let his father do anything for him.

By the time they came to see me, but they both felt the urgency of a crunch with time. Bob now had terminal cancer, was in excruciating pain, and his doctors predicted that he only had a few more months to live. They wanted to heal their relationship in the time they had left. They both wanted authentic communication and we worked on that.

The listening skill of eliciting was what turned the tide. As Bob talked about how he had felt invaded when he was a teenager and Martin had come into his room, pulled his journal out from under the bed and read it. Martin reflected back (mirrored) how intruded upon, hurt and angry Bob had been, and checked out that assumption. Bob agreed that that was indeed was his experience.

Peace was growing between them. Then when Martin elicited by asking, "Is there more about that?" Bob burst into tears. He went on to say that what had hurt him the most was he had used that journal to write down all his hateful, angry feelings specifically so that he would not have to speak them or act them out at his father.

Bob had wanted to protect Martin from his "bad" feelings because he loved him. When the journal was invaded, he no longer had a place to vent. But even more painful was that Bob knew that his father would only know the angry part; Martin would not know that Bob wrote the things because he didn't want to hurt his father. His loving motivations were not understood. And that's what had hurt the most.

The relaxation and love that then flowed so strongly between these two was profound. The next day both Martin and Bob called me, separately, saying that they were both so grateful: they felt reunited. In the weeks that followed Bob allowed his father to care for him at home, moving his painful limbs, feeding him, sitting with him in the darkness of early mornings. Martin was there when Bob died. In Bob's his last breaths, he told his father how much he had always loved him, and was so glad to have found him again.

This is how eliciting can bring out material that may not come to the surface at first. And this is why eliciting is so vitally important.

Saying, "Tell me more" is an act of love.

*I maintain clients' confidentiality by changing their recognizable identities

About the Author

Jane Bolton

Jane Bolton, Psy.D., M.F.T., is a supervising and training analyst and adjunct professor at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles.

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