I was reading through the dating advice subreddit, as one does when one blogs about dating advice, and came across this question. I’ll spare the details, but the crux of the question is this:
How do you get someone to open up?
How do you get someone to open up again?
At different points in my dating life, I have been the person asking those questions, and the person being asked those questions. How do I get you to open up? How do I get you to open up again? It’s a tough position to be in on both sides. It’s hard to care for someone who is reluctant to give you their all. It’s hard to feel like you’re connecting with someone when you know their holding parts of themselves back from you.
There is no foolproof way to get someone to open up, or open up again. How people deal with pain, how closed off they are, and how open they are to communicating, are things we spend a lot of time studying, but as far as I’m aware, there isn’t one right way to get people to open up. There’s no panacea for being emotionally closed off, as far as I’m aware, but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. I can’t tell you “Do these 5 things and you’re guaranteed to get them to open up to you” and be honest with you or myself. I wont do that, so if that’s the bridge you’re looking to buy, sorry, I don’t have one to sell you. I say this a bunch, but it always bears repeating: I am not a mental health professional. This advice is based on my own experiences. It’s not “expert” advice, it’s just advice. Caveat Lector.
I’ve had the distinct fortune of surrounding myself with people, platonically and romantically, who fostered an environment where I felt like I could open up, and that helped me immensely. There’s no way to directly duplicate the people or the conditions that got me to where I am today, being moderately decent at expressing emotions and such, but at the very least I can describe the sort of environment they fostered.
Abandon Logos, embrace Pathos
When you’re dealing with someone who is closed off, odds are good that the reason or reasons they are closed off makes sense to them, even if those reasons don’t make sense to you. What might make sense to you, or seem obvious to you, could be viewed completely differently by the person a person who chooses to close themselves off. They might be hesitant to open up because they’re afraid of hurting you…but then do things to hurt you, which makes no sense logically, but makes sense to them. People are emotional creatures, in the most neutral sense of the word “emotional”, in that they use reasoning that relies on emotions. Sure we use logic in our lives, but it’s hard to apply a logic to things that are largely emotional. Even people who say that the reason they’re closed off is for a logical reason are operating from a place of emotion.
Which is why you should abandon logical reasoning (Logos) and embrace emotional reasoning (Pathos). Not wholly, but try to speak from a place that validates and respects that a lot of the time, logical reasoning just isn’t going to help anyone breakthrough and sometimes, appealing to their emotions is more effective. If someone tells you that they’re closed off because they’ve been hurt in the past, your first instinct might be to say that the past is the past and we should move on, or to state that you’re not that person thus you wouldn’t react the same way, but this sort of reasoning, in my experience, gets you nowhere fast. In the same situation, you might be better served to ask why they feel like they can’t open up, rather than trying to use logic to convince them that they can open up.
A willingness to listen first and speak second
Let’s say you’re hesitant to open up, but after lots of work you finally do open up, but when you do, you get interrupted, corrected, or disagreed with without getting a complete thought out. How would you feel? I know that for me, it will just reinforce a feeling I already felt, that I should just keep my mouth shut. It’s so much easier to shut down again if you were reluctant to do so in the first place. Let’s say you’re learning a skill, like riding a bike, or driving, or picking up a language. You’re trying, with trepidation, but feel like without enough time and space to make mistakes, you’ll pick it up eventually. What if, after trying for about 5 minutes or so, you immediately get interrupted and told you’re doing it wrong, before you even have a concept of how to do it right or wrong looks like. Why would you keep trying? Why would you keep trying to learn a language if your language teacher keeps complaining about your syntax when you barely understand the words you’re saying?
That’s what it can feel like when you’re finally at the point where you want to open up, and you just don’t have the language or skill for it, and you’re told you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes you just need to remember to listen, really listen, then speak. Let them finish their thoughts first, even if they don’t make sense to you, then speak second. Not everyone has the same emotional intelligence as everyone else, so be cognizant of that and let people get their thoughts out, which might take more time for them because they’re new to it.
Candor with Tact
If you want to foster an environment that is focused on honesty, you have to be honest as well. But, too often people focus on candor, but forget to remember tact. It’s one thing to tell the truth, it’s another to tell the truth in an insensitive way, and it’s another thing to tell the truth in a way that acknowledges the sensitivity of a situation. How you say things matters. I’m not saying that you need to tip-toe around tough topics, but you should be conscious about how you discuss them. It’s not about being politically correct, it’s about having some basic empathy and understanding that with tough subjects, especially subjects that someone might be sensitive too, how you say the truth matters.
If someone is reluctant to open up, if or when they do, it wont have been easy, and part of having candid conversations with tact is acknowledging that. Trust me, you can have honest discussions, never sugar-coat things, but also do so tactfully.
There’s no guarantee that creating an environment that encourages honest communication, active listening, and one that fosters emotional discussion and reasoning will get everyone you meet to open up, or open up again, but it’s worked for me, on both sides of the equation, and I think it can and does well for a lot of people. If nothing else, being empathetic, listening carefully, and regarding what people say won’t cause any harm. As always, I would encourage everyone, and I mean everyone, to seek mental health counseling if they feel like they’re at a point where they want to make a change, but are clueless as to how you should go about doing it. I’ve sought therapy in the past and it helped me to realize that that the root of my closed-offness (totally not a word, just go with me) had less to do with machismo and more to do with fear. Fear of being hurt again, fear of being small, fear that I wouldn’t be listened to. Am I preaching to the choir here? Some people will need more than just a partner who builds an environment that encourages communication, so to those people I say: seek out help if you need it. For some people, all it takes is a [partner with an open mind and heart. For others, they need a few open-minds in their lives, professional mental health services, a clergyperson, and maybe a few other resources to learn how to open up. I would encourage you to find what works for you if you’re struggling with opening up, but want to learn how. Learning how to do that isn’t the same for everyone, and the difficulty varies from person to person, so the best you can do as a partner is build a space where opening up, at a pace your partner is comfortable with, is encouraged in a positive way. The best thing you can do as a person who is closed off, but wants to open up, is find a way to open up, even if that “way” is several different approaches. If a change is going to happen, it’s going to require commitment and hard work, but I’ve got faith that you can do it.
Good Luck Out There.