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 probability that openness will improve a relationship rather than harming it:

  •  Openness must stem from a desire to improve your relationship with the other.  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.
  •  Aim at creating a shared understanding of your relationship.  Share your thoughts and feelings with each other and clarify your perceptions.
  •  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 guarantee 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. Although the discussion may become intense, spirited, angry or even tearful, it should be non-coercive and not attempt to get the other to change. Each should use the information they see fit.  The attitude should not be “who’s wrong or who’s right? but “what can each of us learn from this discussion that will make our working together more productive and more satisfying?” As a result of the discussion, one, both, or neither of you may act differently in the future.  Each, however, will act with fuller awareness of the effect of their actions on the other as well as with more understanding of the other’s intentions.  Any change, thus, will be self-chosen rather than to placate or submit to the other.
  •  Timing is important.  Reactions should be shared as close to the behaviour that aroused them as possible, 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”.
  •  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 one time.
    • Paraphrase the other’s comments about you to make sure you understand them as they intend them.  Check to make sure the other understands your comments in the way you intend them.
    • Statements are more helpful if they are:
      • Specific rather than general.  “You bumped my cup” rather than “You never watch where you’re going”
      • Tentative rather than absolute.  “You seemed unconcerned about the situation” rather than “You don’t care about the situation and never will!”
      • Informing rather than ordering.  “I hadn’t finished yet” rather than “Stop interrupting me”
  •  Use perception-checking responses. This helps to insure 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:
    • Judgements about the other.  “You never pay any attention”
    • Name-calling, trait labelling. “You’re a phony.” “You’re rude.”
    • Accusations – implying undesirable motives. “You enjoy putting people down.” “You always have to be the centre of attention.”
    • Commands and orders.  “Stop laughing.” “Don’t talk so much”
    • 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:
    • Behaviour descriptions, reporting the specific acts of the others that affect you.
    • For example, “You interrupted before I had finished my sentence”
    • Describe your own feelings. “I feel annoyed.” “I like what you just said”

You should try to describe your feelings in such a way 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.”

Colin Noyes

Colin is the Director of ResourceZone International. He has thirty years of ministry experience as a pastor, college lecturer and consultant/coach to consultants, denominational leaders and local church pastors. He can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Colin Noyes

Colin Noyes is a Brisbane (Australia) based coach and consultant with extensive experience in the areas of organisational health and growth, change management, leadership development, recruiting/staff development and coaching. Read more

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