Get "SET" For Effective Communication

 In my Atlanta counseling and psychotherapy practice I often recommend an easy-to-remember communication technique that's effective to use in difficult situations when emotions are high. It's known as the “SET” model of communication, which stands for "Support, Empathy, Truth.' It's easy to learn and effective to use!

We all have problems communicating effectively at various times or with certain people. Often when trying to work through a difficult issue with a person who is upset, the message you are trying to convey gets lost in hurt feelings and misunderstanding, which is frustrating for everyone. In my counseling practice I often recommend an easy-to-remember technique that's effective to use in difficult situations when emotions are high. It's known as the “SET” model of communication, initially presented in “I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me”, a book about borderline personality (which I prefer to call "emotional intensity") disorder.

The idea is that trying to tell your thoughts or feelings to a person who is upset and defensive can be like trying to fill a jar with water before taking off the lid. This is especially true if you are disagreeing with what that person says or declining to accept a point or proposal he or she is putting before you. Before trying to express your opinion, taking two simple but very important steps can help the other person to be more receptive to what you have to say. This is where the "SET" model enters the picture.

The letters in “SET” stand for “Support, Empathy, Truth”, and the overall concept is very simple.

  • The "S" in "SET" refers to the importance of beginning your communication with a supportive comment. This is basically any statement that conveys a fundamental level of respect or caring. There are ways to do this even in situations where you vehemently disagree with the other person. It may be as simple as saying “I hope we can work this out", "Your opinion is important" or "Thanks for letting me know how you feel". As the old saying goes, people don't care what you know unless they know that you care.
  • The "E" of "SET" represents the value of next making an empathetic comment. Empathy is any clear demonstration that you understand the emotional experience another person is having. It’s not enough to simply say “I know how you feel”. Detailed statements are much more effective, such as “I bet you're pretty frustrated", "You probably wish I'd stop bothering you", or "This must be difficult for you". 
  • The "T" of "SET" is the sharing of your point of view (i.e. your truth) to the other person. While this is the part most people say first it's generally the last step you should take. It's best to start by expressing supportive ("S") and empathetic ("E") comments since they are much more likely to be well received and thus set the stage for you to effectively communicate what is true ("T") for you. 

So the "SET" model comes down to this: once you've conveyed a basic level of support and empathy for the other person you are in a much better position to productively state your opinion about the matter at hand. A garden analogy is useful: first you "clear the weeds" with supportive comments, then you "prepare the soil" with empathetic statements, and only then do you "plant the seeds" of what you want to convey. It’s important for your supportive and empathetic comments to be as genuine as possible and not just insincere attempts designed to manipulate the other person.

The “SET” model requires you to examine your own attitude before engaging in an emotionally challenging conversation. When I remind myself that I can respect people even if we disagree and that I have some basic understanding and appreciation for what they are going through, then I am more likely to communicate in a manner that others will appreciate, regardless of the outcome.

Taking the time to state supportive and empathetic statements can be a real challenge during emotionally difficult situations, but the end result is generally a more productive, effective experience for everyone. The SET model may take some practice before it becomes second nature to you, but even faltering steps toward this goal will usually begin to pay off very quickly. Ready, SET, Go!


Bill Herring LCSW, CSAT is an Atlanta therapist, counselor and consultant.  He specializes in helping relationships heal from the damage of repeated, chornic infidelity and other forms of sexual behavior that conflict with a person's promises, values or self-control.  To schedule an appointment you can use this form or call.