Build trust and quality social connections through self-disclosure

As I looked at the calendar and saw my assignment for this week, I cringed a little. I was uncomfortable writing about this topic because I thought I didn't have enough knowledge about it. However, the more I think about it, the more enthusiastic I am about this topic because I'm starting to see just how important it is. It helped that I had some time to think about the topic over the last couple days.

Why is this topic important?

Self-disclosure is thought to be beneficial for forming close, intimate social connections.

What an uninspiring sentence that is, isn't it? Although true, it hardly entices you to read more. It certainly did not motivate me to write more. What did?

I took a break from considering this topic to go get some exercise. As is so often the case, I had some additional insights while I was out.One of the things I do is listen to podcasts that cover topics I write about. Hearing something related to the subject of my blog post often triggers a burst of enthusiasm. For instance, during my walk, I happened to listen to the following podcast excerpt. Then I listened to an hour of people sharing embarrassing stories on a nationally-broadcast radio show, which got me thinking about self-disclosure from a completely different perspective. Unfortunately, that is too tangential for this article, but I am interested in exploring the psychology behind it at a later date.

People want to work with those they know and trust.Just for kicks, I entered this phrase, with quotes, into Google. It turns out this exact phrase appears "about 42,300" times on this day in 2022. Trust is built up through low-stakes repeated interactions, which is a fancy way of describing those "How was your weekend?" conversations. Getting promoted into management and then succeeding in that role isn't just about being good at your job. It's about having other people want to do their best work for you which doesn't happen when they don't trust you. ... Other people have valuable information that they can choose to share, or not. They're more likely to warm you off troublesome projects or share the name of someone in accounting who can help with your problem if you've built up a rapport. - Laura Vanderkam

None of this was news to me, but it well illustrates two very important benefits of building trust with coworkers:

  1. They are more likely to cooperate with us when we need it the most.
  2. They are more likely to share information that will benefit us.

Building trust with coworkers is important, but it should be obvious that building trust with those we depend on the most - our family and friends - is even more important.

Self-disclosure is all about trust. We need to trust others in order to disclose information to them that might make us vulnerable. But they need to trust us before they will give us the support, status, and influence we need. And what is the most crucial factor in building trust? If you've read my article on building trust, you already know that openness is by far the most important factor. As a refresher, openness refers to being relatable, approachable, warm, and human.The other, lesser, but still important factors are honesty (in word and action), competence, and caring about others. 

Additionally, the article pointed out a huge gap between the need to improve "intimacy skills" and the emphasis organizations place on such skills. In other words, when you are aware of the importance of self-disclosure, you will be able to establish a higher level of trust than a majority of your peers.

Openness reflects mutual trust. Withholding information raises suspicions. While distrust breeds distrust, trust begets trust.

According to The Berkeley Well-Being Institute, people like someone more who discloses to them, people like someone more who they have disclosed to, and people disclose more to someone they like.

Sharing personal information shows the other person that you trust them and value their perspective; it also shows that you would like to be close to them.

Besides building trust that makes others more willing to help us and cooperate with us, self-disclosure can contribute to our mental health. Some burdens are too heavy for us to carry alone. Having someone we can trust who can listen empathetically can be a big stress reliever. Of course, it's important to be careful who we choose to unburden ourselves to.

The minefield

As with any skill that is highly valuable and rare, self-disclosure requires a good understanding of the risks and benefits. As well as building trust and deepening relationships, we might also disclose personal information to seek relief or clarification, to seek support, or to correct misinformation.

In self-disclosure, we reveal information about things that others may not learn about us any other way - our beliefs, thoughts, feelings, experiences, hopes, or dreams. We do not want the entire world to know this information since some people might use it against us. However, sometimes sharing it with people we feel safe around can still have unintended consequences. 

We might be reluctant to share something because:

  • There are taboos about the topic.
  • There is a concern with sharing it that it might lead to feelings surfacing that we aren't ready to express in front of the other party.
  • We are concerned about being judged by the other person.
  • We don't want anyone else to know certain things.

Here are some problems self-disclosure may cause:

  • Others may perceive it as inappropriate. They may feel that our relationship with them has not developed well enough for us to share such information.
  • It can make us question the discloser's judgment.
  • When someone shares something intimate, it creates a sense of imbalance in the relationship. The other person may not be ready to reciprocate.
  • The content of our self-disclosure may overwhelm or burden others.
  • Not being completely honest in our disclosure can be counterproductive.
  • It is possible that the disclosure goes against social norms, that is, what is socially acceptable.
  • It can be frustrating for the listener if the information is revealed at the end of the conversation and they haven't had enough time to process it or respond as they would have liked.

The role of personality

Our approach to sharing is heavily influenced by our personalities. Some people are eager to share. Others keep things close to the vest. We might find it easier to get close to others who share our communication style, but we miss out on creating closer, trusting relationships with others who have different personalities.

When we are self-aware, we will recognize our own tendency to share or withhold information. It is crucial for someone like me who tends to overshare to learn how to read cues better and to be more judicious about sharing information. An individual who has difficulty trusting others needs to develop more receptive behaviors and to learn how to be vulnerable.

I recently learned of another type of personality difference from McKinley Valentine: she describes people as being either Volunteers or Interviewers. An "Interviewer" feels comfortable asking questions in order to learn more about the other person. They are unaware, however, that they are asking the other person to be vulnerable. It is possible they may feel frustrated when the other person doesn't ask them any questions about themselves. "An Interviewer sees talking about yourself as arrogant and expects the other person not to do too much."

A Volunteer, meanwhile, recognizes that asking questions essentially amounts to "pushing the other person to be vulnerable first." McKinley, who is strongly in the Volunteer category, will share an anecdote or opinion and pause afterward to invite the other person to share their own. In her view, Interviewers should recognize the pause as follows:

That pause is an invitation for you to share a related anecdote or opinion. Hear it as one. Then, when you feel the urge to ask another question, change it into a statement. Lead with your own answer to the question instead. So switch out “Do you have any side-projects?” with “I’ve been thinking of starting a newsletter.”

Self-protection in close relationships can also be a barrier to successful self-disclosure. It could be that the individual is uncertain about their partner's approval or has low self-esteem. Consequently, they avoid self-disclosure, openness, and vulnerability.

The four levels of self-disclosure

This may be the most important part of this article. Understanding this "staircase" is the key to navigating the minefield of self-disclosure.

  1. Common courtesies, also referred to as phatic communication. For example, "How are you?"Many introverts falsely believe that this level of conversation, "small talk," is irrelevant and unnecessary. However, trying to engage in productive conversations without recognizing the value of this stage is like building a staircase but eliminating the first step.
  2. Trading information. "So what brought you here?" "Am I in the right place?"
  3. Trading opinion. "Isn't this music unusual?" "I like your handbag. Where did you get it?"
  4. Sharing emotions. "I really hate this weather." "Do you like your job?"

Every level carries an additional element of risk. While it is safe to start at level one, a conversation that stays at that same level will get awkward fast. The key is to continue the conversation at a comfortable level and gradually test the waters of the next level. 

The article How to Be a Great Conversationalist contains a variety of tips for starting and continuing conversations. However, it does not cover self-disclosure. Most of the suggestions in that article keep the conversation at a fairly safe level. Now let's consider how we can deepen the conversation.

I like these suggestions from Art of Manliness:

When you think you’ve spent sufficient time in one of the stages, disclose something from the next stage as a kind of trial balloon and see if the other person responds in kind. For example, if you’ve been swapping facts, be the first to offer an opinion; if the person offers an opinion in return, then you’re ready to spend some time in that stage. If they fail to reciprocate and stick with sharing facts, however, then keep on with that stage for a while longer, before sending up another balloon.

As I mentioned in the conversation article, preparation goes a long way. Before engaging others in conversation, think of a few opinions and emotions that you can express that will be relatively neutral or positive. These will be useful "balloons" to launch into a conversation to feel out the other person.

One of my favorite podcasts, the Art of Charm, uses the analogy of a cave to illustrate the idea of matching vulnerability with the other person. Instead of waiting for the other person to lead the way into the "cave," we can take the initiative and enter first. They mention the following examples:

Make that first step into the cave by asking an emotionally charged question, like, what are summers like in Toronto?

Maybe now they're talking about their favorite hobby. And again, you're like, Hey, what do you like most about wakeboarding?

Now, how could we bring in emotion? How can we bring in just a little bit of vulnerability to test the ground and to shine the light into that cave? Well, we go vertical by saying, what do you like most about it? Like, if I were to ask you, what do you do? And you say, "Well, you know, I'm a barista. I make coffee." I could ask where you're from, or I could go deeper, bring in that emotional component and ask, "What do you like most about being a barista?"

Self-disclosure can often be most effective in the middle of a conversation. Thus, you can determine whether the other person is ready to hear what you have to say. Consider gauging their mood to see if what you have to say will fit.

How to respond when someone else discloses something

This article is primarily about how to skillfully use disclosure to build trust and deepen connections with others. But disclosure is a two-way street, and how we respond to others' disclosure will have an impact on how they respond to us.

If we understand the levels of self-disclosure we'll detect if someone is sharing an opinion with us, or even more important, an emotion. When that happens, it's time to put our empathy training to work. 

A dismissive response will create distance and make it less likely for the other person to welcome our self-disclosures. Even worse, if we respond with ridicule we'll convince them that we aren't to be trusted. It is for this reason that empathy and intellectual humility are essential. We don't have to agree with them. Though we might disagree completely, it is important for them to know that we respect their viewpoint.

The best way to respond to self-disclosure from another person is to listen. Accepting and validating their viewpoint not only bolsters their trust, but it's money in the relationship bank account

After you have listened carefully, you may feel that it's appropriate to disclose information of your own on the same level. Watch how the other person reacts when you share information with them.

In addition, be aware that a person may feel uncomfortable once they realize they have disclosed something to you, perhaps something they weren't planning on sharing. Don't be afraid to allow the conversation to drift back to shallow topics. It will make the person feel more at ease with you and more likely to share more with you in the future. If appropriate, you might want to acknowledge their vulnerability and courage.

Another important point to note is that when someone discloses something to us, it puts us in a position of trust. We must not abuse their trust by sharing what they've told us without careful consideration. If in doubt, keep the information to yourself, or ask the person who you can share it with. When they share information that shows they or someone else is in danger, we have a special responsibility to carefully consider whom to share it with. Protecting someone's safety is sometimes more important than preserving their trust. Such matters should never be taken lightly.

How to navigate the minefield

I hope I have made clear the value of skillfully using self-disclosure and recognizing it in others. Here is a recap:

  • Be aware of your personality and know what you need to watch out for in yourself and others.
  • Become familiar with the four levels of self-disclosure and practice navigating them in conversation.
  • Think of some simple, positive things you can share.
  • Try taking a small step into the "cave of vulnerability" to see if the other person follows you. If they don't, keep the conversation shallow.
  • Try to match the other person's level of vulnerability whenever possible. Reciprocate.
  • Be prepared to respond with empathy and validate the other person's viewpoint, especially when you don't agree.
  • Balance asking questions and offering information.
  • Master the pause. Give the other person time to share information, complete their thoughts, or ask a question of their own.
  • Be alert to signs that the other person wants the conversation to lighten up. You can always go deeper again next time.
  • Try to end the conversation on a lighter note.

What I've learned

It is about time I put this section at the end of the article. After all, you're more interested in finding the answers than hearing my story, right? For the sake of those who are interested, I'm putting this here.

As I'm trying to earn your trust, I must be honest that all the information I covered above, although not new to me, still needed considerable processing. As with all my blog posts, I'm hoping that the effort of processing the information helps me put it to better use.

There are three concepts I've saved for this section. The first is the concept of "capitalization". I'd never heard of this term in this context before, but it's been around in psychology since at least 1994, according to one source. Capitalization is simply "the sharing of positive events with others." Or, in a slightly longer version, "Capitalization is the interpersonal process of disclosing positive events to close others, which has been linked to individual and relationship well-being (i.e., lower emotional distress and increased intimacy; see Gable & Reis, 2010)."

According to APA Dictionary of Psychology:

Capitalization is most often studied in social contexts, in which people share news of their personal good fortune with others for various social purposes, such as to heighten enjoyment of the experience, to create a positive impression in others’ eyes, or to enhance the memorability of the event. It is often contrasted with social support as a means of coping with negative events.

While we're at it, we might as well get the benefits:

Personal benefits linked to capitalization include increased positive emotions, subjective well-being, and self-esteem, and decreased loneliness. Relationship benefits associated with capitalization processes include satisfaction, intimacy, commitment, trust, liking, closeness, and stability (Gable & Reis, 2010).

Sharing positive events with others can make me feel better? I'm not sure we needed science to tell us that. I'm always amazed at what science has hiding around the corner.

Here's a gem from McKinley Valentine's article quoted above. If someone asks you a question you don't feel comfortable answering, "99% of people won’t mind if you answer a tangential question they didn’t actually ask, instead." Talk about creative self-disclosure. 

My final insight pertains to emotional bank accounts, also known as relationship bank accounts. I've considered this concept several times, using the analogy of a bank account to illustrate the positive or negative strength of a relationship. However I thought about the extra dimension added by self-disclosure. In one sense, it's kind of a multiplier. In the event I self-disclose to someone when I'm overdrawn on their account, they might use that information against me, or at least think less of me. On the other hand, being open with someone who views me positively will likely add depth to our relationship.

There's a saying somewhere about sharing joys and dividing sorrows. Someday I'll take the time to research the origin. (Google says it's from Sweden, but in 2022 we have to take Google with a grain of salt.) 

Building on my new understanding of the concept of capitalization, by disclosing my positive experiences I can increase the joy of my relationships. It's not clear to me whether capitalization builds trust as much as other self-disclosure methods. Those make me think of credit. It's possible that I have a positive relationship with another person, that is, they think well of me, but when I'm open with them and reveal my vulnerability, they trust me more. It's like they are willing to lend to me on top of what they already "owe" me. I am not sure if this is an added dimension or an additive effect. What do you think?