(3 minute read)
I’ve recently had a couple of clients ask me how they can get their partners to open up more to them. As they’ve described their conversations, I’ve realized how easy it is for all of us to say things that either shut down a conversation or divert it into more superficial channels. We want to understand the other person, we want to draw them out, but somehow things don’t work out, and we don’t understand quite why.
The result of this is that we sometimes spend many years with our partners, and yet there are large parts of them that we never get to know. There is great joy in really understanding another person, and having them understand you: intimacy is a basic human need, right up there with oxygen, food and water. And better communication skills can help get us that intimacy.
So here are six things to remember when you’re trying to get your partner (or any friend for that matter) to open up.
Ask Open Ended Questions
An open ended question is one that has an infinite number of possible answers. For example:
How was your day?
What’s been on your mind recently?
What would you like to talk about?
What’s been happening in your life?
Questions like this give the lead to the other person and enables them to select what’s important to them, what they would like to share with you. Contrast that with closed ended questions, which can be answered with a yes or no:
Are you happier today?
Did you get angry at your boss again?
Do you want to go to a movie?
Both open and closed questions have their uses. But if you’re trying to get closer to someone, to understand them better, you’ll want to start with some open ended questions.
Don’t Understand Your Partner Too Fast
This sounds odd, doesn’t it? After all, this article is about understanding. The problem is that our brains are very good in filling in the blanks in the information we receive. We hear that our partner was criticized unfairly by the boss, and we know how we’d feel, so we assume our partner feels the same. We don’t take the time to ask or say for example:
How did you feel?
What made you feel that way?
That sounds terrible…tell me more.
What was the worst part of being criticized?
How do you feel now?
When we fill in the blanks and leap to a conclusion, we cut off our partner and stop them from sharing the richness of the experience. They may not even be aware of what has happened — all they know is that the conversation feels over to them and it’s time to look at Facebook.
Silence is Golden
Dead air in a conversation feels very uncomfortable for many of us. We may worry that the other person is bored with us. Or that they’re uncomfortable too, and we have a responsibility to make them feel better. Or that silence is a sign that we have nothing to say to each other and that the relationship is in trouble. And so we jump in to fill the space. But when we do that, we crowd out our partner, particularly if they’re less forthcoming than us. Silence gives them time to think, to formulate their thoughts, to become aware of their feelings. And just as they’re figuring out how to show themselves to us, we charge in and steamroll them.
Most of us move on too quickly when we get the answer to a question. But if you’ve ever been fortunate enough to have someone really listen to you and draw you out, you know that your thoughts and feelings don’t spring fully formed from your brain the moment you start answering a question. Even if you’ve been thinking about the issue for days, talking about it to another person changes how you see it and feel about it. So when your partner answers your question, don’t just agree, or sympathize or offer a solution. Instead, say things like,
Tell me more about that.
What else were you feeling?
Then what happened?
We want to open up to another person when we feel that person is interested in us, and understands us. It's obvious that we must put away our phone, make eye contact and stop checking our watch if we want to show interest. But showing understanding is less obvious. We can do that by telling the other person what we hear them telling us, by reflecting back what they’re saying. For example:
You really sound angry
I can see how sad you are.
It really hurt you when she said that.
You feel there’s no solution, you’re hopeless.
That sounds really tough.
It doesn’t matter much whether your reflection is accurate. Sometimes the other person may correct you, and that will help you understand them better. Then just reflect back the correction you heard. And once you do accurately reflect the feelings, the other person will feel understood, and that will make them want to tell you even more.
Ask Fewer Questions
Sometimes we feel that in order to understand someone we have to ask them lots of questions. But questions put us in the driver seat, and may take us on a less fruitful road. For example, if your husband was criticized by his boss you might ask him to tell you about his anger, his plan to look for a new job or his sense of humiliation. But if you were to let him lead, he might choose to talk about something completely different — his memory of how his parents used to criticize him, or his sense that he’s really not very good at what he does, or a feeling that he’s trapped. People will generally talk about the things that are most important to them, while asking them a question gets them to talk about things that are most important to you.
So instead of struggling to think of great questions, sit back and say any of the following:
“Tell me more”
Nothing at all (remember that Silence is Golden)
This may sound all terribly easy, and perhaps even obvious. Still, old habits die hard, and when our emotions get hooked by our partner those habits take over. But if you can remember these tips, you’ll find yourself having richer, more intimate and rewarding conversations with your partner.