Thursday, March 5, 2009

Fundamentals of Emotional Intimacy: Taking Risks and Listening Deeply

This post kicks off what will be a several part series on the basics of creating and nurturing close relationships. I have found that The Talk Book by Gerald Goodman is a terrific resource for learning to initiate and improve relationships. It was written in 1988 and is out of print now, but believe me, it is well worth the effort to track down a used copy. Far more than inspirational, it is a practical guide to mastering the basic techniques of personal communication, explained in detail, and it includes specific exercises for increasing your skills. It absolutely demystifies the process of developing close, personal relationships. There are six components that Goodman identifies as important for communicating in close relationships. Two of these are personal disclosure, and the use of reflection.

Personal disclosure is the first key to intimacy, and is defined as “… taking risks…by disclosing an unvarnished truth, a private thought, an embarrassing impulse, a romantic feeling, an undignified desire, the first rush of love, or any confession of classified information that might make someone think less of us or put us in emotional jeopardy.” Goodman masterfully guides us through the art of disclosure by examining some film and real life dialog that illustrates how disclosures affect feelings. By disclosing our private thoughts, we demonstrate that we trust the person we’re talking to, and that we’re willing to take the risk of allowing ourselves to be known, just as we are. These kinds of personal self-revelations make our acquaintances feel comfortable in revealing similarly private feelings, and can sometimes lead us into a deepening spiral of disclosure matching. Goodman provides examples that clearly show the links between what we’re saying, what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, what we’re holding back, and how the relationship evolves as a consequence of these choices. He warns us against the pitfalls of the premature disclosure, in other words, talking about something very private too soon in a budding relationship. Premature disclosure puts pressure on the listener, and can cause discomfort when it happens too early in the “getting to know you” stage of a relationship. Another warning is about flooded disclosure, that is when our urgent need to talk about our private concerns overwhelms our consideration for our listener. While this may be deadly to a newly forming relationship, Goodman also draws our attention to the inherent beauty and usefulness of flooding as an emotional release, and shows how lending a willing ear to someone’s flooding can be a deep act of caring.

Reflections are defined as mirroring back what someone is saying without adding interpretation, judgment or analysis. Reflections give people the feeling of being understood, and encourage them to further open up about themselves. Being able to meaningfully reflect the thoughts and feelings of another person is closely linked with empathy. A good way to increase our empathy for others is to take the time to imagine in detail what it’s like to be them. Goodman also illustrates how distortive reflections arise when we, as listeners, want things to be different than they are, and we want to project our own views onto what is being said. This denial of reality results in a feeling of separation for both the listener and speaker. By working to accurately summarize what someone is saying, we give them the opportunity to correct any misperceptions we have about them or their feelings.

As I read this book, I remembered some moments where I felt deeply connected with another person, and I was able to see how these moments were created through disclosure and reflection. By disclosing our private thoughts and feelings, we allow ourselves to be known by another in all our imperfect humanness, we communicate that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to show our flaws, and we give others permission to do the same. By providing reflecting statements, we say, “I hear you. I understand your experience. It’s okay to tell me how you’re really feeling.” One of my favorite quotes from The Talk Book is Goodman’s observation that “What we do know is that the disclosure of empathy and the reflections of empathy can blend giving and taking to a point where the become the same. And that’s where love starts.” By becoming aware of how the basic mechanics of disclosure and reflection work in building emotional intimacy, we can confidently create the conditions that make it possible.


  1. Personal disclosure is so important. To feel safe, to feel loved despite our perceived inadequacies or flaws, is quite a wonderful thing. It's why I chose "unfurl" as my word for the year. Time to learn to trust more. Loved this!

    :) Debi

  2. Debi—I agree completely. Of the two, reflections were far easier for me to learn than disclosures. Being shy, I have always relied on a conversational style that revolves around getting the other person to talk about him or herself. Being the center of attention, especially in a group, has forever been a “hot potato” that I wanted to get rid of as quickly as possible. However, like you, I’m feeling optimistic about making a few changes in my life this year.

  3. I've given you an "award" for your awesome blog!

    Thanks for doing what you do!