3.6 Personalising Your Communication

The process of exchanging confidences is at the heart of building and deepening relationships. To use the jargon, relationships evolve as the partners ‘self-disclose’. The skilled and wise Explainer/Teller appreciates the power of personalisation, of revealing yourself through the telling of your experiences and points of view, but is equally sensitive to how it can be badly handled, or even abused.

a. Good communication is the lifeblood of good relationships

One of the prime purposes of conversation is to establish, develop, maintain, and deepen relationships.

Intimate relationships — ones that are enjoyable, productive, and lasting - develop when people get to know one another in more than superficial ways. Intimacy usually involves some kind of mutual self-disclosure. Learning how to make self-disclosure serve relationships is a combination of skill and wisdom.

Ellen Berscheid, an expert in the field of interpersonal relationships, notes that "satisfying close relationships constitute the very best thing in life; there is nothing people consider more meaningful and essential to their mental and physical well-being than their close relationships with other people." On the negative side, she notes that troubled relationships, especially family relationships, are the most commonly presented problems of those seeking professional help. Dialogue can help. The kind of conversations we have with others affects our relationships with them profoundly. Conversations can build, destroy, maintain, or stultify our relationships.

Relationship building covers a lot of territory. You chat briefly with the postman. You get to know him a bit. He gets to know you a bit. You both enjoy these brief encounters. More than mere civility is involved. You’re friendly. However, at work you talk long and hard with fellow team members in order to develop and execute projects. On an even deeper level, you talk quite intimately with those to be numbered among your closest friends. More is at stake here. Conversations of increasing intimacy constitute one of the principal ways of developing friendships. Once friendships are established, deeper conversations about many different things become an end in themselves.

b. Self-disclosure and intimacy

James Pennebaker has edited a guide entitled Emotion, Disclosure, and Health. The guide's many contributors look at self-disclosure, sharing details of one's life with other people, from just about every possible angle. The consensus is that appropriate self-disclosure contributes to both physical and emotional health.

Yet, some people actively struggle to avoid becoming known by other people. They have their reasons. Some people even spend energy constructing a false public self. There is the real self and the version presented to other people. Some of these ‘hiders’ become fearful of being exposed. For them, normal social interactions and conversations, instead of becoming a source of pleasure and support, become a source of anxiety. This kind of struggle to remain unknown can be quite stressful. In some cases, it can lead to both physical and emotional problems. It goes without saying that dialogue with someone who does not want to be known is inevitably constrained.

c. Different kinds of intimacy

It goes without saying that ‘hiders’ often avoid intimacy. There are, of course, many different kinds of intimacy. The media can give the false impression that the most important kind of intimacy is sexual intimacy. But the intimacy of marriage, or other deeper relationships, is far more than sexual. The meeting of minds, hearts, and wills that constitutes friendship does not get a big play in the media. One of the most important kinds of intimacy for many is ‘work’ intimacy. The workplace provides a great deal of social satisfaction for most people. The intimacy of socialising with co-workers and working with team members on a project is very rewarding for many.

Self-disclosure, or openness, provides nourishment for intimacy. Good friends naturally want to know things about one another. Friends want to know what their friends think, feel, believe, worry about, and hope for. They often want to know the experiences that have shaped their friends' lives. And so friends naturally exchange confidences. Furthermore, personalising conversations often makes them more interesting.

d. Tailoring self-disclosure to the person and the setting

The point here is that different kinds of intimacy are nourished by different kinds of openness or disclosure. Good communicators tailor self-disclosure to the situation and to the kind of intimacy that makes sense for the relationship. The fancy name for this is ‘appropriate self-disclosure’. It's a question of balance. Also, what is appropriate for someone else might not be appropriate for you. There is no one ideal level of openness. The kind of self-sharing that goes on in more intimate relationships might be out of place in a more casual setting.

Western societies, perhaps especially the United States, have had periods when telling ‘everything’ in small groups - or even to total strangers on trains and planes - was the fad. We can be thankful that this fad has had its day. ‘Letting it all hang out’ is a form of latter-day barbarism that creates its own set of problems. Indeed, the over-discloser is often seen as boring. Bores tend to over-personalise things and talk about themselves too much. Therefore, much of their disclosure is inappropriate. There is too much detail about everything.

Learning to be appropriately open with others has an added benefit. We get to know and understand ourselves better by communicating openly with others. Conversation, it turns out, is one of the best ways we have of exploring the full range and diversity of our thoughts, memories, and emotions. Talking candidly about ourselves not only helps other people to know us, it also helps us to get to know ourselves better and be more genuine.

e. Using self-disclosure with stories, messages, points of view and cases

The stories you tell, the messages you deliver, the points of view you share, and the cases you present say a great deal about you. They are modes of self-disclosure in themselves. You can also use these modes of communication to reveal more about yourself. That is, you can personalise them to the degree you think appropriate. We cannot not communicate. Silence and refusing to communicate are communications in themselves. Our actions communicate. Our nonverbal behaviour communicates. It follows that we cannot not reveal ourselves through our communication. Therefore, it’s wise to be in charge of what you want to communicate about yourself, and to whom.

A further word about using emotion as a way of personalising your communication. Expressing emotions appropriately adds colour, intensity, and spice to your stories, messages, points of view, and cases. On the other hand, don't make them up. They should flow naturally from you because they are you. People differ widely in styles of emotional expression. There is no one ‘right style’. But a bit of authentic salsa can add the right degree of piquancy to stories, messages, points of view, and cases.

Personalising stories

You can, of course, tell stories about yourself. These, by their very nature, are acts of self-disclosure. For instance, you tell your wife how much you enjoyed a business conference you attended. But you can also use personal anecdotes to make stories about other things more interesting. Let's say that you’re telling a story about a friend's illness and his stay in the hospital. But you personalise it by sharing how learning about his illness affected you, and what it was like when you visited him.

At one point you say, "Every time he mentioned the word ‘cancer’ my whole body tightened. I was amazed at how freely he talked about his illness and I compared my own tight-lipped approach to problems with his openness. In a very matter-of-fact way he talked about probabilities of a complete cure. I felt my own life was in the balance. I admired how he was handling the whole thing. I began to wonder why I'm so uptight about any physical problem I have."

You go on to relate how the two of you react so differently to hospitals. You hate them. He sees a hospital stay as a break.

Personalising messages

The messages you deliver are of two types. There are messages that you pass along about decisions that have been made elsewhere. For instance, if a company makes a decision to close a factory, you, as factory manager, have to deal with both employees and the community. However, the way you deliver this unpalatable message has a lot to do with how the decision will be carried out. Even though you have not made the decision and even though you think the decision may be flawed, your job is to communicate it and help carry it out. Therefore, in some way you must make it your own. When you communicate it, you need to put some of yourself in it. Eloise, a plant manager, talks to the members of her team about the decision.

She puts herself on the line. "This decision is difficult for all of us. It certainly is for me. Whether I agree with the decision or not, is no longer the issue. But I want to implement it with the same dignity and decency that I would, had it been my own. Since I'm paid by this company, it now is my own."

Eloise personalises the decision she is passing along. She wants her team members to know what she is thinking and feeling, as a prelude to their getting on with it as a team.

On the other hand, many of the decisions you make in your personal and work life are yours, rather than someone else's. Therefore, the messages through which these decisions are conveyed are personal by nature. They are a form of self-disclosure. You can further personalise them by revealing how you arrived at the decision, by using personal anecdotes to illustrate the message, by taking others through the reasoning process that led to the decision, by sharing the implications the decision has for you, and by revealing how you feel about how the decision will affect others.

For instance, Derek is talking to one of his married sons about his decision to put off retirement. "I didn’t realise how much I had come to identify with work. And I've done nothing to prepare for retirement. I just put it off. A couple of my buddies are overjoyed. We do a lot of things outside work and they feared that once I left that would be the end of it. But your mother is disappointed. That's the one thing that almost changed my mind. She and I spent evenings talking it through and came up with a definite plan for some mini-vacations. She calls them ‘mini-retirements’ and sees them as promising signs for the real thing. But I'm still not sure that she understands how important work is for me and how much I love being with my buddies there."

This kind of self-disclosure - which is certainly not self-disclosure for its own sake - brings life and humanity to his message.

Personalising points of view

Sharing a belief or point of view is, in itself, a form of self-disclosure. Points of view are part of you. In some ways they are you. Your opinions (P), when expressed, are windows that reveal the ways you see yourself and the world. The processes you use in order to form these opinions (R), when expressed, tell others a great deal about how you gather, sift through, organise, and form opinions from data. They tell others something about the breadth of your experiences, and what conclusions you draw from them. They say something about the degree to which you try to validate these conclusions. Finally, the examples you use to illustrate your opinions (E), tell your conversational partners something about you. They can show how thoughtful, (or how prejudiced and scatter-brained!) you are.

Aileen is talking with her friend, Liz. They have been talking about what keeps them going when things get rough. At one point, Liz tells Aileen that she's discovered that her husband, Bill, is having an affair.

Then she says, "You know all the clichés about when the going gets tough the tough get going. I suppose that there's something to that and it's not just a bunch of macho crap. But when I run into big problems, like this one with Bill, I try to put things in context by thinking about who we are and why we're here. I have to find some meaning beyond molecules and all the media hype that surrounds us these days. I meditate a little every day. I don't know, it builds up some kind of reserve, or strength, that I draw on when things don't go right."

Aileen never really knew her friend, Liz, until Liz shared with her some of her religious beliefs. These beliefs were a key to many of Liz's behaviours, including her kindness and her sticking to principle. Understanding the wellspring of Liz's behaviours helped Aileen appreciate her friend even more.

Personalising cases

Making a case is personal, because a case is something you own, something you invest yourself in. You usually have feelings about it. Take some of the CRITIC categories. Your credibility, and the case (C) you’re investing yourself in, are quite personal. Furthermore, no set of reasons (R) for your position is completely objective. Therefore, your set of reasons says something about you. Sharing your interests (I), what you personally are going to get out of it is, by definition, an act of self-disclosure. Sharing with others how your position affects their interests (I), tells them something about you. Finally, indicating to what degree of manoeuvrability there is your position - your willingness to compromise (C) - is self-revealing.

Rebecca is talking with three of her friends. The four of them have, from time to time, talked about the possibility of getting a modest place at a nearby lake, to be used as a weekend getaway spot.

Early in the conversation she says, "I know that I can be very persuasive. But I don't want to talk you guys into doing anything you don't want to do. I'd really love to have such a place. And I'd like to have just for ourselves - or maybe one or two more. Not for relatives, not for boyfriends. Somewhere where anyone of us, or any group of us, could be alone. I think that's been the idea. But let me stop anticipating what we need to discuss.

"So here's what I'm proposing. Let's get together, sooner rather than later, to do a serious feasibility study, if I may use a fancy term, to determine what we want and what we'd be willing to pay. We'd also hammer out a set of rules for using the place. Rules we'd all be willing to abide by because none of us wants to start fighting about it down the road. Again, I've got some strong ideas about what they should be, but they have to be ours, not mine."

Rebecca knows herself. So, instead of, even unwittingly, trying to railroad the group, she suggests the preliminary step of hammering out a proposal as a group. She talks about her tendencies to be aggressive so that her friends can challenge her during their ‘feasibility study’.

You can use any of the CRITIC categories to share more of yourself, if you think that doing so is both relevant and appropriate. For example, Thea, a deputy head teacher in primary school, knows that some of the school’s staff don't trust her.

Therefore, when pitching a new approach to discipline in the school, she starts by saying, "I know that some of you see me as high-handed. I guess that I see myself as assertive. Maybe we are both partly right. Anyway, I'd like you to listen to the programme I’m suggesting and judge it on its merits - despite the fact that it's coming from me. It will work only if you put your ‘smell’ on it, mould it, make it yours."

This simple statement does not undo a history of distrust. But it’s a step in the right direction toward re-establishing her credibility.

f. Everyone can’t be the life and soul of the party

A critic might say, "So this Guide aims at developing a world of raconteurs. Come on. Most of us have very modest talents. We are not ‘the life of the party’. Can you imagine what it would be like if everyone were the life of the party? Let those who have those talents use them. The rest of us will keep them from abusing the talents they have … And all this stuff about openness. I see you hedge your bets by taking about the excesses of encounter groups and things like that. I can see it now: “Excuse me while I personalise my message.” Let conversation flow. We're all different. Lots of little streams will do. We don't need rivers. Anyway, you're not going to get it."

Our friend could have included the harm done by some people, who have excellent Explainer/Teller skills. There are loads of fast-talkers who manipulate people in all sorts of different ways - some quite despicable. They use openness to lure in the unsuspecting.

Someone once said: "What an awful place it would be if everyone is the world were to develop all of his or her ‘potential’." I said: "Don't worry." So, I don't think we need to worry about filling the world with raconteurs. Most of us could use a bit more spark and punch in our conversations. Perhaps then many of us would move from dull to, well, neutral. No one is being asked to make up things to make their conversations interesting. This would be a travesty. Maybe some people will discover that if they want to make their conversations more interesting they will have to do more interesting things with their lives.

Being cynical about people's ability to improve is a disservice to human kind. This Guide is written, not for cynics, but those who are interested in self-improvement. Also, my bet is that those who become good at these skills will more easily recognise the phoney communication of manipulators and ‘fast-talkers’.

Finally, many people in relationships complain that their partners, or friends, are not very forthcoming. The fact that their partners don't reveal themselves does not, in the main, destroy the relationship - though this, too, sometimes happens. Rather, the lack of openness limits the relationship. Who brings out the best in you? What's he, or she, or they, like? Whom do you bring out the best in? What would they say about you? The Guide is not about a radical new lifestyle. It's about skills that increase your options. Come on. Live a little

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