Communication, Conflict Resolution, Emotional Intelligence

Constructive Openness

Rarely do two people talk openly about their reactions to each other.  Most of us withhold our feelings (even in relationships that are very important or dear to us) because we fear hurting others, making them angry, or being rejected by them.  Because we don’t know how to be constructively open, we say nothing.

The other person continues, totally unaware of our reaction to their actions.  Likewise, we continue ignorant of the effect our actions produce in them.  As a result, many relationships that could be productive and enjoyable gradually flounder and sink under the accumulated load of tiny annoyances, hurt feelings and misunderstandings that we never talked about openly.

The following points increase the possibility that openness will improve a relationship rather than harming it:

  1. Openness must stem from a desire to improve your relationship with another person.  Openness is not an end in itself but a means to an end.  We are not open with people who we do not want to connect with.  Indicate that you value your relationship with the other and wish to improve it because it is important to you.

  2. Aim at creating a shared understanding of your relationship.  Share your thoughts and feelings with each other and clarify your perceptions.

  3. Recognise that openness involves risk-taking.  You cannot receive maximum guarantee with minimum risk. Your willingness to risk your self-esteem, being rejected or hurt by each other etc., depends upon the importance of the relationship to you. Likewise, you cannot ask that the other person guarantees not to become angry or feel hurt by your comments.  The important point is that you are willing to risk them being themselves – whatever they feel – to create a growing situation for both of you. The attitude should not be “Who’s wrong or who’s right; rather, “What can each of us learn from this discussion that will make our working together more productive and more satisfying?”

  4. Timing is important.  Reactions should be shared as close as possible to the behaviour that aroused them, so that the other will know exactly what behaviour is being discussed.  That is, behaviour during the encounter itself can be commented on, eg. “What you just said is the kind of remark that makes me feel I’m not needed on the team”.

  5. Disturbing situations should be discussed as they occur. It is better to do this rather than saving up massive accumulations of hurt feelings and annoyance and dumping them on the other all at the one time. Some helpful ways to achieve that:

    • Paraphrase the other’s comments about you to make sure you understand them as they intended them.  Check to make sure the other understands your comments in the way you intended them.

    • Statements are more helpful if they are:

      1. Specific rather than general.  “You bumped my cup” rather than “You never watch where you’re going.”

      2. Tentative rather than absolute.  “You seemed unconcerned about the situation” rather than, “You don’t care about the situation and never will!”

      3. Informing rather than ordering.  “I hadn’t finished yet” rather than “Stop interrupting me.”

    • Use perception-checking responses.This helps to ensure that you are not making false assumptions about the other’s feelings.  “I thought you weren’t interested in trying to understand my idea.  Was I wrong?” “Did my last statement bother you.”

    • The least helpful kinds of statements are those that sound as if they are information about the other person, but are really expressions of your own feelings coming out as:

      1. Judgements about the other.  “You never pay any attention.”

      2. Name-calling, trait labelling. “You’re a phony.” “You’re rude.”

      3. Accusations – implying undesirable motives. “You enjoy putting people down.” “You always have to be the centre of attention.”

      4. Commands and orders.  “Stop laughing.” “Don’t talk so much.”

      5. Sarcasm.  “You always look on the bright side of things, don’t you?” (when the opposite is meant)

    • The most helpful kinds of information about yourself and your reactions are:

      1. Behaviour descriptions, reporting the specific acts of the other that affect you. For example, “You interrupted before I had finished my sentence.”

      2. Describing your own feelings. “I feel annoyed.” “I like what you just said.”

To encourage constructive openness try to describe your feelings so that they are seen as temporary and capable of change, rather than as permanent attitudes.  For example, “At this point I’m very annoyed with you,” rather than, “I dislike you and I always will.”

Constructive openness is often difficult but the end results are worth the effort.

By Colin Noyes

1 thought on “Constructive Openness

  1. Hi Colin,
    I found your post most helpful on Constructive Openness
    Especially at the beginning when you state, “Openness must stem from a desire to improve your relationship with another person. Openness is not an end in itself but a means to an end. We are not open with people who we do not want to connect with. Indicate that you value your relationship with the other and wish to improve it because it is important to you.”
    This has helped me to explore in my own life the different value I place upon people and their relationship with and to me, also challenges me to improve some of my relationship with other people.


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