Top techniques on how to get loved ones to open up

Coaxing children and loved ones to confide their true feelings can be challenging. But it's a skill that therapists use every day. They share their tips and techniques with Lena Corner

How do you get someone to reveal their innermost secrets? Or get a child to tell you what's really bothering them, or a friend to spill the beans on the reality of their relationship issues?

Getting people to open up is a real skill. Breaking down barriers and unearthing the absolute truth is something that therapists and counsellors train for years to do. In a recent issue of Psychology Today one psychotherapist with a lifetime's experience, wrote of a syndrome he described as "doorknob revelations" – the tendency of a client to drop a bombshell or reveal the most extraordinary intimacies just as their hand was on the door ready to leave.

It is invaluable observations like these that can help us to break down barriers, encourage communication and get to the truth. Here a group of therapists and other experts reveal their top techniques on how to get people to open up.

Build up trust

Building up trust with the person you are talking to is the most fundamental thing you can do. "It's unlikely you will ever get someone to open up to you just by asking them to," says clinical psychologist Anita Abrams. "Why should they trust you? Why should they reveal their most inner secrets to you? The first thing you will be faced with is defences. The history between you both has to be one of complete trust and very often it takes a disproportionate time to build up this relationship."

Martin Lloyd-Elliott, chartered counselling psychologist and psychotherapist, agrees. "Almost all research on what makes therapy work says that it's the quality of the relationship between client and therapist. It's about creating a space where someone feels safe enough to risk telling the truth about themselves and know they won't be judged or shamed."

Pick your moment

It's well documented that a good way of talking to children, adolescents in particular, is while driving along in the car. That way you have privacy, as well as a captive audience, but you don't have to maintain awkward eye contact. Abrams suggests it can also be useful to pinpoint a particular time of day when issues are easily discussed. "For younger children it could be bath time," she says, "and for older ones it could be five minutes reading before bed or finishing their homework, you could spend that time in their bedroom quietly having a word." Whenever you choose to do it, it's crucial that this moment should be one-on-one and uninterrupted. "It's very important for parents to have one-on-one time alone with each of their children separately. People are quite different when they are alone. Any child will value it and they will open up. It can be a revelation."

Remove your own authority

Always remember you are simply trying to get them to tell their story. Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling Psychotherapy, uses a summarising technique where he puts their words into his mouth. "I would say something like, 'it seems to me you are saying this. Am I right?' Never speak from a point of authority. It's their show; it's their story. You are simply there as the prompt."

Focus on the unspoken clues

Analytical psychotherapist Elizabeth Meakins believes that the things that go unsaid can be just as important as what is actually said. "People communicate through words but there are so many other ways," she says. "Body language, moods, even things like the need to arrive early. All are so important."

Hodson agrees. "Home in and focus on the unspoken script," he says. "People give off so many clues, that are multiple and multi-layered – body language, posture, speech patterns, accents, speech rhythms, breathing patterns, jiggling of knees, eye contact, inability to make eye contact. How someone tells a story is also a giveaway. There are certain story styles that suggest very quickly that certain things must have happened and there are certain story styles that are full of denial."

Don't be afraid of tears

Remember some people cry at the drop of a hat, so never shy away if someone starts crying. With a child, says Abrams, it's always worth trying to decipher what the tears actually mean. "Is this a drama queen? Are they trying to deflect attention? Or, have I hurt this child in some way?"

Keep your own reactions in check

It is important to be aware of the effect you are having on the person you are talking to. One thing Hodson was taught was the importance of maintaining his demeanour no matter how startling the revelations. "When I was telling my supervisor, as part of my training, the most desperately shameful things I have ever done she would sit there simply saying, 'Aha', in just the same way as she did when I said I'd caught the bus to the therapy session. Thus it was implied what I was telling her was just part of the human condition and doesn't mean you are a devil in any way," he says.

Abrams agrees. "You must be self aware. Are you coming on too strong? Are you being judgemental in tone? Are you putting on a particular face you do when you are suspicious?

"You must make it easy for the person to talk to you as a reliable and secure ally."

Tell the truth

How can you expect someone to tell you the truth if you aren't completely truthful back? "Whenever my clients asks me a question I will always tell them the absolute truth," says Lloyd-Elliott, "so I always caution them before I answer and say be mindful of your motives for asking me in the first place because I will always be brutally honest."

Keep your promises

"Honour your confidences," says Abrams. "You have to build up a reputation of being trustworthy. Don't rush off to the teacher and say: 'It was he who took it.' If you make a promise it has to be kept – cost it what you will. One promise that you might like to make is: 'I will always believe you as long as you tell me what you believe happened.'"

Silence is golden

Finally, Elizabeth Meakins points to the words of influential psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who said we have to remember that people have a right not to communicate. "It's not just about getting people to open up and talk, but it's about allowing people the space to become conscious of the stuff they don't necessarily want to open up about," says Meakins. "The onus is on a talking cure, but I think cure, if there is such a thing, often comes form a quiet acceptance of stuff that doesn't need to be said. Sometimes it's important not to share."

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