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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.

Communication: Do you want to be right or effective?

How do you get to be a really effective communicator who can motivate and influence others? First, you need to recognize that human beings aren’t logical, we’re emotional beings with the ability to rationalize. When we don’t want to emotionally accept what someone is saying to us, we can make up all sorts of great reasons why not to accept the message. The reluctance to accept communications, and to embrace change in general, is called resistance. Recognizing the inevitability of resistance and having tools to overcome it are critical parts of being a good communicator.

Obstacles to Acceptance. Resistance occurs for several reasons but mostly because accepting the message creates conflict with the person’s view of the world or themselves, violates beliefs and values, and is seen as threatening in some way. One of the keys to effective communication, therefore, is the ability to design messages that do not arouse resistance. Another key is the ability to defuse resistance once it occurs.

One of the most common communication mistakes is to attempt to confront resistance head-on.

Confrontational techniques typically only increase resistance rather than reduce it. The effective communicator uses subtlety rather than force to overcome listener resistance. It is almost impossible to break down resistance through confrontation unless you have natural and significant authority over the person who is resisting – and even then the chance of success is questionable. The fact of the matter is, as Dale Carnegie in his excellent book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ says, “No-one wins an argument.” Confrontational techniques might occasionally seem to be successful in breaking down barriers and assuring acceptance but typically these gains are short-term and illusory. The best way to get effective acceptance is to get the listener to own the message.

Rolling Rather Than Butting. If threat increases resistance, it follows that the opposite of threat might be helpful in removing resistance. Resistance increases when a freedom, behavior or possession is challenged so resistance is best overcome by reinforcing the listener’s choices and emotions, not taking them away. The technique of validating the listener’s choice rather than attacking it is called “rolling with the resistance” and is the most effective way of influencing people to abandon their resistance or circumvent it altogether. This occurs because the technique is not threatening in that it honors the listener’s choices rather than invalidating them. It’s not that you abandon your message, it’s that you present it in such a way so the listener owns it. For me, that is a key communication skill.

Milton Erickson was a legendary psychotherapist largely because of his recognition that resistance could not be confronted but had to be circumvented. One of my favorite Erickson stories, recounted by Jay Haley in his excellent book on Erickson’s work entitled “Uncommon Therapy,” concerned a young woman who had “two possessive, oversolicitous parents,” otherwise known as control freaks (p.281).  As a high school graduation present the parents had extended the house so that their daughter could live there when she got married! Understandably, the daughter was feeling totally trapped and fearing that she would never get free.

Faced with this situation, the natural inclination to use logic rather than emotion, might lead one to explain to the parents that their control was excessive, paralyzing and completely inappropriate and that they should stop at once. Erickson knew, however, that all this would do would harden the parents’ attitude even more and thus be completely counter-productive.

So how can you use the parents’ own position to convince them to give their daughter her independence?

What Erickson did was to praise the parents for their concern for their daughter. What a sacrifice they were making because when other parents are happy to see their children leave the nest, they would be continuing parenting. When the daughter inevitably got married, “they would be available for baby-sitting  at any time, unlike most parents who don’t like that imposition.”  They could look forward to future grandchildren beginning to talk and walk and they “would be in and out of their house all the time. We recalled what it was like to have a toddler getting into everything, and how all the breakable things had to be placed up high and the house rearranged. Other grandparents wouldn’t be that willing to sacrifice their ways of living.”

Of course, Erickson did this with all sincerity not in a mocking or patronizing way. He also went on to focus on the differences in grandparenting styles and some of the conflict that might ensue as a result.

“After having this discussion, they decided they really didn’t want to have their daughter and her family living with them.”

Note how Erickson used the parents’ very own desire to be in control to help them reach that decision. He did this by implying that they would have less control with the daughter living right there with them. Erickson empowered the message by using the client’s natural emotions to convey it!

Of course, a lot of communication is not done in an intensive one-on-one situation like the case described. However, that doesn’t mean that the same principles of resistance and acceptance don’t apply. Even if you’re talking to a group of 200, it is a group of 200 individuals, each with their own emotions, attitudes and values that will determine whether they will accept your message or not.

Four Important Principles. In situations where you don’t have any authority over your audience, and even in some cases where you do, like parenting an adolescent, remember these four rules if you want someone to own your message.

Don’t challenge in a way that arouses resistance. Most cornered animals fight rather than submit.

Use the person’s key emotions and attitudes, in this case, the need for control, to carry your message.

Emphasize choices. Every behavior is a choice with a price and a pay-off. The best we can do is make informed choices. This places freedom as well as responsibility squarely where it belongs.

Focus on the person’s goals. Show how your message is completely compatible with the person’s own feelings, beliefs and goals.

Strategies for achieving the above will be the subject of future posts.

Of course, if you just want to be right rather than effective, you can be as confrontational as you wish.