November 2015 Issue #51
Today's Topic: How to make it safe for your partner to open up
Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers! I guess Christmas is officially just-around-the-corner. Anticipating the holiday season often highlights the state of our relationships – for better and for worse. No matter what our situation, we always have the opportunity to set our sights on deeper, more satisfying relationships for the future.
What are the qualities which you value and desire in your closest relationships? What makes a relationship a “safe place” for you? If you would like more closeness with your partner (or others) then read on. Today’s article looks at how you can create a safe environment where intimacy can flourish.
Here’s to closeness and connection,
Something to think about
Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond.
-Henri J. M. Nouwen
Why won’t you confide in me?
I sometimes hear complaints from my clients such as “My partner doesn’t confide in me” or “I’m frustrated that my spouse won’t share more with me about how they’re feeling”. Like many of us, they want a closer relationship with their partner, they want to connect more deeply -- and don’t know how to make it happen. This desire can also apply to other important family members or friends.
I notice that it’s easy for all of us to blame the other person for not being more open and self-disclosing. However, people generally don’t self-disclose or share their vulnerabilities when it feels unsafe to do so. So a more helpful and courageous line of questioning may be: How safe am I to open up to? How could I make it safer for my partner (or friend) to share?
Do you really want to hear how they feel?
Sometimes I ask my clients to describe a conversation in which they are frustrated by their loved one’s lack of sharing. When they do, I am struck by how unaware they sometimes are of how critically or defensively they respond, when their partner actually does share how they feel. It's not surprising that their partner then clams up!
Many of us similarly fail to realize the impact of a critical or defensive response -- and how this can cause the other to withdraw and shut down. We are often oblivious to our own part in undermining the intimacy.
So if you would like to become a “safe zone” for your partner (or others) to open up and share themselves, here are some tips:
1) Give the other person your full attention.
Don’t try to have an intimate conversation while multi-tasking or distracted. Have you ever begun to bare your soul and then noticed that the other person was surreptitiously checking their cell phone? Nothing will shut down intimacy quicker! If you want to foster more openness and sharing, then give your undivided attention and pick a setting that is conducive to intimate conversation.
2) Listen for and acknowledge their underlying feelings.
The content of what we say is often much less important than the feelings we have about it. If I tell you that I didn’t get the job I was interviewed for, my tone of voice and body language will reveal if I feel angry, sad or relieved. When you acknowledge my underlying feelings by saying “You sound really sad about that… must be disappointing”-- then I feel heard. This results in a much deeper connection than if you respond by launching into an analysis of what happened and why I didn’t get the job. There is a time for analysis; however intimacy is furthered when the underlying feelings are first seen, heard and acknowledged.
3) Don’t “rain on their parade” with negativity.
Have you ever enthusiastically shared an exciting new plan or idea -- and been met with comments like: “Here’s why that won’t work” or “That’s kind of a stupid idea” or “What were you thinking?” There is nothing more deflating than someone reacting negatively to your fledgling desire, before you’ve even had a chance to explain it! I recently did this very thing to my son, when he was sharing a new plan with me, and I’m grateful that he had the awareness to tell me how much my negativity felt like I was “throwing cold water” on his excitement and his idea. Not the outcome I desired!
People soon stop confiding their hopes and dreams with those who pick them apart. So instead, put your focus on understanding how the other person actually sees things. Explore their idea or aspiration with questions that are curious, not negative. “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What are your hopes?” are open-ended questions that encourage self-disclosure and sharing. Make connection the focus, not giving your opinions and advice.
4) Refrain from judging and criticizing.
We often direct our harshest judgments and criticisms towards those closest to us (including ourselves). Even if we don’t overtly express our negative judgments, they are usually sensed by the other person. Our tone and body language don’t lie, even if our words are diplomatic. And if we are overtly critical, we corrode any prior-existing trust that we are a safe person to confide in.
It's truly astounding how quickly we jump to conclusions about what another person means and thinks -- and then judge them negatively. For example: Someone bumps into us on the street and we judge that they are “rude”. Any number of other interpretations are possible: They lost their balance, they were pushed by another person, they have mobility issues and are unsteady on their feet, and so on.
When we judge negatively, we make an assumption about the other, which may or may not be accurate or fair. When we judge, we close down our capacity for compassion and empathy and understanding – all of which contribute to a closer connection with the other. So if we want to foster closeness, then we must stop driving people away with our judgments and criticism.
5) Ask for permission before giving unsolicited advice or feedback.
You may very well have some important information that could be helpful to your loved one. However timing is everything, when it comes to giving advice and feedback. Before trying to make your thoughts known, ensure that you’ve listened fully to what your partner is saying and the underlying feelings associated with it. You can always check by asking, “Is there more about that?” or "Do you feel heard?"
Once they’ve been heard, you can ask if they’d like to hear your thoughts, advice or feedback. Sometimes people are a bit tender after sharing something precious and they aren’t ready for input. Other times they may appreciate your thoughts. However if you’re not sure, ASK. That puts the other person in the driver’s seat regarding what they need and want. You would always ask someone if they want more food before piling it on their plate. Similarly, asking if they’d like advice or feedback on their idea, before giving it to them, is respectful, considerate and builds trust.
Here’s what you can do
Take responsibility for creating the safety that will contribute to greater closeness and connection with your partner and other important people in your life. You can’t make another person share, however you can create the conditions that will make it easier for them to do so. The more you can give them your full attention, listen for their underlying feelings and refrain from criticism, judgment and unsolicited advice, the more you will set the stage for safe and open communication. Practice these tips and you will become the “safe zone” that others will respond to and appreciate.
Invitation to action
Review the 5 tips and note which of these tips speaks most loudly to you.
Make a commitment to practice this tip over the course of the holidays with your partner or someone else for whom you would like to become a “safe zone”. Notice what happens.
If you’re really brave, share this article with your partner and ask for feedback regarding how you could make it safer for him or her to share. This list may also give you some clues regarding what requests you might want to make of your partner, to help you feel safer sharing too.
Among the many memorable moments of my recent trip to Europe was a visit to the place where Anne Frank and her family hid during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. This was so poignant, as I had just finished reading her writings in The Diary of a Young Girl. This edition included passages that had been omitted in the original publishing and I highly recommend it. Recently I came across this video story, told by a woman who, as a child, lived in the very same prisoner camp (Bergen-Belsen) where Anne Frank and her sister died of typhus. May it warm your heart as it did mine.
Shirley Vollett BSW PCC is a Life and Relationship Coach, with over 25 years of combined experience in counselling and coaching. She delights in helping pro-active individuals make positive changes in their lives, their work and their relationships. Her Conscious Dating Program helps single and divorced individuals improve their relationship skills, avoid past mistakes and make healthy dating and relationship choices. Contact Shirley for a complimentary intro phone session. If you are experiencing a challenge or are eager to make some changes, explore how coaching works and how she can help. Visit her website.