In my last post “A Way Beyond the Biggest Difficulty in Communication”, I talked about Curious questioning as a strategy in open communication often used by therapists but also used between partners. I also explained the advantages of both Closed and Open Approaches to communication. Curious questioning is inherently validating because the person expressing curiosity genuinely wants to know more about the other. Likewise, telling your partner what you think in a straightforward way might satisfy an inherent curiosity or openness to their perspective or opinion. In this way, the two approaches can be complementary. For example, a curious statement (“I’m curious about how more and more people are identifying as transgendered.”) could be followed by an open statement(“For your information, I am a transmale.”)
Overdoing the open approach
But, there is no easy fix, because there are always pitfalls. Open approaches, if overdone, can involve asking too many questions without including enough personal disclosure. A person asked too many questions of any kind can feel like they’re “on the spot” or may feel judged if they get the answer wrong. It can seem like the “interviewer” might have the answer and the “interviewee” is in the hotspot of guessing what it is. Rather than appealing to people’s willingness to talk about themselves (ego-stroking), overdoing the interview mode can lead to feelings of vulnerability. In addition, the interviewer can be seen as hiding personal information behind a quest to know deeper and more intimately before the interviewee feels ready. Even though “what” and “how” are intended to open up any possible response, if a person responds primarily with more questions, the conversation partner can start to feel like they’ve been marked for an exercise in “data mining”. The search for personal information can feel forced or prematurely intimate before enough shared disclosure of specific personal information in both directions sets the context for inviting and granting the quest for further information sharing.
Overdoing the closed approach
Closed approaches, if overdone, can also involve asking too many questions with the same outcome as plagues the overdo of too much curiosity. An important distinction to draw here is that the primary purpose of closed approaches is to direct information flow, while the primary purpose of the open approaches is to invite information sharing in a way that is mutually valued. While inviting sharing of personal information can convey a feeling of value, it can also leave the partner feeling tapped out as if the seeker doesn’t wish to reciprocate with perspectives of their own. Whether closed or open questions are used, the overly curious, closed questioner can seem empty of opinion, rarely offering up enough raw material to match the demand sustain an interesting conversation. The development of mutual trust can be sacrificed and the drained partner can leave feeling vulnerable, emptied, and unsatisfied.
By contrast, when closed approaches are overdone, particularly in serving the purpose of providing too much of one’s own opinion, the risk is the perception that the speaker is pontificating from a soap-box. It is as though due regard for occasionally testing the ongoing level of interest in the listener has been ignored. In addition, the speaker can be seen to have little sensitivity to body language demonstrating a disengaged lack of curiosity from one’s partner. Cues to tiredness, boredom, or a desire to leave the interaction can seem to be intentionally overlooked or overtly disregarded, just to get across a point that expressed only the speaker’s interests and nothing more. Little attempt at collaboration is reflected by such speakers and listeners can be left feeling utterly invalidated, irritated, or angered by the lack of consideration they have just witnessed.
It is unclear which is worse, the open-minded curiosity-monger who never has an opinion or the closed-minded lecturer who enjoys hearing self-talk so much that everyone in the audience could leave and s/he would still be talking. One may as well not have any contribution to make at all; the other might benefit by talking more to themselves than anyone else. Neither extreme seems very interesting for pursuing a mutually-beneficial relationship.
Importance of balance
Somewhere along the line, a balance must be sought in the motives of these two extremes. Sometimes, and more often in the clients I see in couple therapy, both partners are close to the extreme of the lecturer, waiting only to get their own opinion across to the other, never really checking whether any part of their opinion has really been of interest or has even been understood by the listener. The accompanying assumption is that the point of the conversation is not to listen for understanding but to project one’s point of view into the air-space just in case one’s partner might happen to be listening and cares enough to understand. To the speakers, the proof of the partner’s caring is when the partner does listen and attempts to understand. Left to their own devices, I rarely witness an explicit check for investment, nor for understanding. Focusing too often only on expressing points of view results in missed opportunities to check for understanding and, probably more important, to evoke investment in the relationship as more important than practically any point of view offered out into the air. This raises the potential for training couples to focus carefully and caringly on these aspects of their intent.
Showing care and affection
Most important to the initiation and maintenance of intimate relationship is continued and regular displays of caring for the relationship itself. These displays of caring come in both verbal and non-verbal forms. A touch of a hand, an arm around a shoulder, a statement of “I love you,” “I care what you think, even though I might not always agree,” or “We can get through this, even though it’s been a really difficult, frustrating road”. These are cues which acknowledge the mutual challenge the relationship presents to partners to overcome their differences and focus on the project they have in common, the reason they came together in the first place, and the reason they have persisted in a relationship with one another. These cues value the relationship – both its struggles and its strengths. Regardless of what else is said, this is the most important piece to reinforce at every opportunity. That we have something to learn from one another. That we provoke something important in each other, some of which might not be pleasant but in the suffering-through is worth caring for. And through the trials and celebrations we witness as we carry on our individual lives, our relationship fulfills one another’s need to be cared for, to be valued. This is love.