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High levels of cancer specific distress have been found before and after genetic counseling for breast cancer. This study investigated the process of reducing distress during 111 genetic counseling consultations for familial breast cancer. Consultations were audiotaped, transcribed, and a detailed coding system developed to measure cues of emotional distress from the patient, and consultant (clinical geneticist or genetic counselor) behaviors before and after the cues. At least 1 emotional cue was given in 64 consultations, with a median of 1 cue per consultation. More emotional cues of distress occurred when the consultant responded empathetically to the first cue of distress. Satisfaction outcomes were largely positive regardless of the consultant's attentiveness to distress. Postconsultation depression scores were significantly reduced if more empathic responses were given, but anxiety remained the same. These results are discussed and recommendations are made for improving patient care.