Much research demonstrates the physical and psychological benefits of social support—not surprising since we all know from personal experience how good it feels to be close to others. On the road to establishing intimacy and building trust, an important step is sharing confidences…so when you’re hoping to deepen friendships, it helps to know how to encourage others to open up to you.
Be careful: Some people, in an effort to be friendly, inadvertently come across as pushy, prying or presumptuous—which drives others away. To get closer…
Ask questions, but start gently. Most people like to talk about themselves, so asking questions is a welcome sign of interest—provided they are the right questions. Of course you know not to say anything as insensitive as "Has your husband ever cheated on you?" or as intrusive as "How much money have you saved for retirement?" But the boundary between interest and inquisition is not always so obvious. Helpful: Get a feel for the other person’s comfort zone by introducing the subject you want to talk about in a neutral way. For instance, to spark a conversation about marriage, you can ask, "Did you read that interesting article in yesterday’s paper about what makes a relationship last?" It also is reassuring to ask permission to delve deeper ("Is it OK if we confide in each other?") so your queries don’t come out of the blue…or to invite the other person to set limits ("I’m the type of woman who is open with close friends, so please let me know what you’re comfortable with").
Set an example, then be patient. If you are talking with someone who is shy or reserved, revealing something about yourself can help move the conversation to a more intimate level. Share a brief confidence, demonstrating your trust ("It’s hard to admit how insecure I feel whenever I speak in public, but I’m comfortable enough with you to be honest"). Then change the subject—and wait to see whether the other person returns to the more personal topic…or bring it up again yourself another day.
Listen well. Suppose someone mentions an upsetting experience of hers (for instance, "I think the man I’m dating is seeing other women"). You may think that you are being empathetic if you share your own similar experience ("That happened to me when I was dating a man last year") or that you are being helpful if you offer definitive advice ("Dump the creep"). But in reality, such interruptions cut off the other person, making her feel more alone. So unless she asks you a direct question ("Has that ever happened to you?" or "What would you do?"), keep the focus on her by practicing active listening. Repeat the essence of what she said to show you heard, understood and care ("Oh, you have suspicions about the man you’re seeing")…respond empathically ("I can imagine that upset you")…and invite her to explore her experience further ("What makes you think that?" or "How do you feel about that?").
Prove that you can keep confidences. You may think that sharing a secret about someone else will build intimacy with a new friend ("You and your husband argue about money? Diane told me that she and her husband are having money troubles, too"). But this only makes the other person fear that you would similarly gossip about her. Instead: Saying, "I know other women who are having that problem, too," makes the same point generally (that she is not the only one) without breaking the trust that is so essential to true closeness.
Judy Kuriansky, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist on the adjunct faculty of Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City. She is the author of five books, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to a Healthy Relationship
(Alpha), and is a columnist and advisory board member for HealthyWoman from Bottom Line