Listening: How to Get Someone To Open Up To You
Many years ago, at the beginning of my career as a therapist, I was working with a couple. The wife’s main complaint was not an uncommon one — “my husband doesn’t reveal much of himself, so I never know what he is really thinking and feeling.” Indeed, her husband was a pretty quiet guy and after a few sessions I was wondering whether he truly was alexithymic (that’s one of my favorite words so I had to put in here! )The word means “difficulty talking about emotions.”
Some time during our fifth session he did express a very personal feeling. No sooner were the words out of his mouth before his wife launched into a rant on why his feelings were invalid and unreasonable. Whereupon, the man stood bolt upright and announced, “That’s why I never say anything,” and left the office never to be seen again.
For a young therapist it was a great demonstration of the fact that if you want people to talk to you about important thoughts and feelings, you have to create an environment where they will feel safe to do so. Very few people will reveal themselves if they think they are going to be criticized, ridiculed or simply not taken seriously. At the heart of effective communication and listening then, is the ability to create an atmosphere where the other person trusts you will be respectful of what they are about to say. When I think about trust in a relationship, the ability to trust your partner to respect what you are saying maybe the most important trust there is.
Sometimes, people bring that fear and mistrust into their interactions, in which case you will have to work extra hard to reassure them that they are safe to reveal themselves. One implication of this is that wherever practical you need to ensure that you have the time and mindset to create a trusting environment. The automatic brain response to something we don’t agree with is to attack, so creating the right trusting environment takes practice and effort. It’s not typically the default setting. So if you are tired, stressed, distracted or overwhelmed, the chances are that you are not going to be a patient listener and under those circumstances perhaps the conversation is best delayed.
Many people are raised in environments where there is little respect or trust and as a result feel very inhibited from talking intimately about themselves. A partner who can create a trusting environment to reverse that learned inhibition offers a great, nurturing service, that will go along way to creating intimacy. And talking of intimacy, physical intimacy follows from the intimacy that is generated where two people can trust each other enough to have an open and honest interaction based on trust and respect.
So think about your interactions. I expect there are some people you feel very safe with and others you don’t trust at all. Could you do better at creating a communication environment where people feel safe to talk to you? If you are a walking attack waiting to happen, don’t expect people to trust you.
Respecting someone else’s views and feelings — and even understanding them — is not the same as accepting them or tolerating them. This confusion between understanding and accepting often interferes with the ability to create a trusting communication environment and will be the subject of a future blog.