How to Get People to Open Up
As a coach, I can do my job a whole lot better when my clients feel comfortable sharing themselves with me. But I’m not the only one. You need this skill, too. Whether you’re an HR manager interviewing a job candidate, an attorney questioning a potential juror during voir dire, a financial planner advising a paranoid client, or anyone else who has to deal with real human beings, you need to know who you’re talking to if you want to be successful.
The key is to provide enough safety so that the other person feels comfortable in your presence. Many professional situations seem to be set up to do the opposite, however. In this list of “15 Control Tactics of Difficult People,” 7 of the first 8 on the list sound like normal operations for panel job interviews, jury selection, going to the doctor, meetings with upper level management, etc. Yikes!
In fact, many organizations purposefully try to intimidate prospective employees in job interviews to see how they handle stress. During “stress interviews,” the interviewer may be indifferent, rude, or downright hostile to throw the candidate off his game. One blogger wrote, “A stress interview is a perfect way for Human Resources to eliminate candidates who are overly sensitive, who cannot think critically in unexpected situations, and who have low stress tolerance.” For most professions, this is a terrible idea. The parameters of a job interview rarely match the parameters of the actual job—it’s an apples and oranges comparison. Purposefully sending your candidate into fight-or-flight only makes you come across as unprofessional (or even abusive) and can harm your reputation as an individual and a company. In addition, how a person handles unexpected rudeness demonstrates only one tiny sliver of the skills and characteristics they may need to be a good employee.
This doesn’t just apply to job interviews, though. Whenever you’re trying to get a good “read” on someone, whether you’re asking questions at jury selection, assisting clients, or going on a first date, you’ll get much more useful and reliable information if you can reduce the other person’s stress levels. Instead of intimidation, build trust and rapport in order to get to know the person and make wise choices for yourself, your client, and everyone involved.
Here are three things that cultivate a safe and comfortable atmosphere and invite others to open up:
Interrogations and stress interviews may (or may not) break people down so you can get what you want out of them, but for most interactions, coming from a place of curiosity will open many more doors. Expressing interest without judgment invites others to let down their guard. Most people want to be seen, known, and understood—they leap at the chance when it feels safe.
To express curiosity, avoid raised eyebrows and use a more Approachable voice pattern. Instead of looking for the “right” answer, look for information. What might seem like a “wrong” answer can give you valuable insight; with a “wrong” answer, you can learn whether or how to proceed, what you need to modify, and form a more accurate assessment of the person you’re dealing with.
If you want people to share themselves with you, you need to be willing to share yourself with them. I’m not referring to sharing information. Rarely is it necessary, or even advisable, to give others the same information they are giving you. For example, as a financial advisor, you need the details of your clients’ finances to best serve them, but you wouldn’t share the details of your own with each of them!
Share yourself. Show up. Be present. Be real. Share your time, your energy, your personality, your presence. Shut off the mental chatter, look people in the eye, smile, and listen.
Open Body Language
Beware of nonverbal barriers. Crossed arms are the most common nonverbal barrier, but try to reduce the number of obstructions between you and the other person: desks and tables, laptops, a purse or briefcase … the list is endless. Create space between you and the other person. Invite them, nonverbally, to join you in conversation by keeping your arms up and open or by your sides.
It takes effort to create a safe atmosphere, especially in situations that are already loaded with stress and anxiety. But when you do, connection increases, information flows more freely, and you are better equipped to make good choices.