Why do we sometimes find it so hard to express how we feel? Sharing our pent-up emotions to a trusted person invariably brings release. It helps clear the mind and allows alternative perspectives to take shape. Persuading another person to open up is the other side of this coin. Let’s tackle the issue by first looking at some common blocks to sharing.
Controlling our emotions is generally regarded as a good thing. It’s seen as a mark of maturity and stability. Because of this, it sometimes becomes hard to fully acknowledge the depth of emotion we experience. We perhaps drop hints, hoping someone may be able to join the dots.
In the workplace, fearing consequences can make us feel unable or unwilling to confront someone about a situation that is making us feel so bad. Why? Perhaps they are in a supervisory position and can influence our career prospects. Or they may be of equal or inferior rank, in which case, do we really want them to gain satisfaction from knowing their actions are hurtful?
While jobs can be a source of stress and fatigue, there are some careers in which people feel that any expression of anxiety will be viewed as a weakness. In medicine, the emergency services, police or military, there is a code of silence. The unspoken assumption is that if you show signs of cracking, you may be unreliable, and if you’re unreliable, you’re either not looking out for others or you’ll fail in your job when it’s most critical.
And sometimes, we may feel sharing emotions will only make things worse, or make no difference whatsoever. These beliefs tend to occur when we feel fear or timidity or other unhelpful thinking. When confronted by a situation or personality that seems unmovable, it’s easy to believe that anything we say or do will have no benefits.
The problem with all of these emotional blocks is that they become bottled up and tend to leak out anyway via bad behavior. We become terse or disinterested or resort to passive-aggressiveness, such as deliberately forgetting things, making mistakes or putting things off.
Getting a Person to Share
It’s actually quite hard to bottle up emotions so tightly that no outward signs are showing. Those who know a person well can nearly always see signs that something is wrong. The standard approach goes along the lines of “you’re very quiet, is something the matter?” The standard way of deflecting such a question goes something like “oh I’m just a bit tired”, and so we’re no further forward.
Getting a person to open up sometimes requires striking a balance between persistence and pressure. Ask too many questions too often and it becomes irritating. The person feels we’re too probing, and may close down even more. But it also may not work if we back off too far for fear of causing offense, or assume they’ll open up when they’re ready.
Timing is important. You need to know that the person is sufficiently relaxed to be amenable to speaking. Talk about anything to begin with, in order to establish or reestablish a connection. You may find that a person wants to talk but is holding back, and will skirt around the very issues troubling them. Treat this as a gateway to exploit.
There are no hard and fast rules about when to speak or what to say because every conversation is different. However, it’s usually effective to ask open questions: “What happened then?” or “what do you think you should do?” This creates a space for the troubled person to open up and share their feelings.
It’s important that you keep your own input to a minimum. Be patient, and listen to what’s being said.
It’s sometimes the case that a single conversation fails to elicit what is troubling another person, but that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Hopefully you will have sent the message that you’re a person who is able to listen and not judge. You’ve set yourself up as a person who can be trusted and you’re offering a space that respects the feelings of the person you are listening to. When the opportunity next arises for a similar conversation, you may find the person feels able to take more of a risk by disclosing what’s troubling them.
See more helpful articles:
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.