Everything I learned from analyzing my relationships for 6 months
“Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something, and has lost something.”
— H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
How good is your ability to open up and deeply connect with other people? You can easily answer this question by thinking back to when and how often someone said one of the following sentences to you:
- “You’re the first person I have ever told this.”
- “You’re the only one who understands this.”
- “You’re the only one I can really talk with about this.”
If this is stuff people say to you regularly, congratulations: You certainly know how to open up other people and connect with them deeply. These questions reveal that someone found a confidant in you — a person they can trust and be honest, open, and vulnerable with.
These are sentences that I have heard several times in my life, both from close friends and also from acquaintances and strangers that I have just met on that very day. I always noticed that people do confide in me easily. I used to think these were just coincidences — being in the right place at the right time.
I also noticed, however, that this ability to connect deeply with other people, is the lifeblood of all the important relationships in my life. That’s why I did a six-month retrospective on my relationships. I wanted to examine how these connections and relationships started and how I can consciously take all my interactions to a higher level.
This revealed two significant things:
- Most people have “shadow” parts they reveal only to very few other people.
- True connection takes place only if you find your way to these shadow parts of another person—by seeing and accepting them for who they really are.
When analyzing the most vulnerable moments I had with others it also became clear to me that these moments of vulnerability, opening up, and connection are not due to random coincidence. There is, rather, a certain behavioral pattern you can control and that creates a sense of safety and protection for the other person.
The Two Conditions
There are two vital conditions for the advice I share in the following paragraphs:
1. You need to be ready for this
Before you encourage someone to open up to you and to get under their skin, know that you have to be ready for this, too. A lot of people carry deep issues, and once they are ready to pour it all out, it can be very draining emotionally. There is nothing wrong with setting boundaries. If you are not in a state to hear about people’s traumas, that’s OK: Don’t encourage them to tell you.
2. You have to use this for the good
This is not a “social game” where you learn how to make more friends with some clever lines. Please stop reading if you are trying to “pick up,” manipulate, or otherwise play with other people’s vulnerability. If you want people to open up and trust you, do your best to be worthy of their trust and never take advantage of it. Furthermore, you don’t want to miss the real benefits of being a trustworthy person with deep connections.
The Holistic Benefits of Deep Human Connection
Noah Eisenkraft and Hillary Anger Elfenbein, professors of organizational behavior, link the ability to make others feel comfortable to a personality trait they call the affective presence. The study found that each person givesoff a certain vibe, an emotional impact they have on others, regardless of how they are feeling.
This means that you can be in a happy-jolly mood but still have a negative emotional impact on others. The same is true the other way around: People with depression can still have a positive emotional influence on others. There really seems to be an emotional signature to our way of being, which can either make people feel safe and good or put them off.
Apart from the affective presence, however, it doesn’t say what exactly people are doing that puts others at ease and makes other people trust them. This article, though, gives you my personal formula to become a trustworthy person in others’ eyes, allowing people to be vulnerable with you and to create deep and lasting connections.
Ever since Harry Harlow’s (in)famous monkey experiments, there is no doubt that connection and intimacy are vital for our health. But apart from surviving, trustworthiness and being a natural confidant also help you thrive.
You become better at calming others and helping them deal with their uncertainties. You also learn to be helpful by supporting and encouraging the people around you, even if you cannot fix their problems. Having just a few people deeply confiding in you also has a significant impact on all your other relationships: You learn to understand others’ emotions, even if you are not going through them yourself (that’s empathy). As a result, you learn to embrace diversity and are able to connect with people that might be completely unlike you.
In short: You become an overall more likable human being around whom people feel like they can be truly themselves.
In his book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff,” famous psychotherapist Richard Carlson writes that “[b]eing listened to and heard is one of the greatest desires of the human heart.” Remember thiswhen you’re in doubt about your ability to connect deeply. Everyone has the desire to open up, be vulnerable, and to establish deep connections with others.
The Mindset and Stages of Emotional Connection
In the course of my interactions, I have found that there is a prerequisite and then two main stages of deep emotional connection.
The prerequisite is a specific mindset that’ll make you an overall more trustworthy person.
Stage 1 is where the interaction between you and others takes place — the stage of encouraging others to open up and to confide in you.
Stage 2 is the stage of creating deep and lasting connections that’ll help you strengthen these relationships and acts of vulnerability.
I will walk you through them step by step.
Prerequisite: Adopt a Genuine Mindset of Being Non-Judgmental
The world is a harsh place. Judgment is everywhere, and you are probably no exception. Previously a legit survival instinct, today, judgment is the number one obstacle to meaningful connections.
If people feel judged by you they will never trust you with anything. However, being non-judgmental is so much easier said than done. We judge people because of their clothes, their opinions and beliefs, and everything else in between.
Being non-judgmental doesn’t mean that you have to agree and be on the same page with anyone. It simply means to give others the benefit of the doubt and — instead of assuming that people are lazy and act badly on purpose — believing that everyone is genuinely trying to be the best version of themselves.
Here are some tips to quiet your judgmental voice a little.
Stop the superficial first
Simply stop judging how people dress and look. This is what we judge most often, and it’s nothing but time-consuming, unnecessary, and fuels low self-esteem, the beauty industry, and unrealistic standards of beauty. Try to become more conscious of how you feel about someone before interacting with them and question what that feeling is based upon.
Think of your worst 15 minutes before judging strangers
See it this way: If we would be judged by our worst 15 minutes, we would all be monsters.
The next time you catch yourself about to judge how someone behaves or acts, think of your own worst 15 minutes, how others would have perceived you, and how that would feel. In other words: Be gentle to strangers—you never know what they are going through.
Question your story about that person
Acknowledge that you never know the whole story of someone and their particular situation, even if it’s your closest friend or family member. You will never know what that person is truly feeling and how you would make decisions if you were them.
Of course, you will never be completely free of judging others. It’s a basic instinct that helps us navigate other people and the world and what is and isn’t good for us. You should absolutely draw conclusions for yourself about other people’s behavior that affects you. Being non-judgmental is about forming no opinion about how other people look and what they do when it has not so much to do with you.
How To Make Anyone Open up to You
The non-judgmental mindset described above needs to be the basis for any deep and opening conversation you have with others. There is no shortcut around it.
The steps that follow now are about making others open up to you afterward.
Step 1: Establish a space for a private talk
Very few people will feel comfortable talking about their inner world to multiple people at once, even if it’s their closest friends. That’s why setting the right premises is crucial. It has to be just the two of you talking. This doesn’t mean there cannot be other people and even friends around (like at a bigger gathering or party), but it must be just you who is listening.
Step 2: Open up, be vulnerable, and share your own mess
Yes, you! If you want other people to be vulnerable with you, you must be willing to be vulnerable with them. Deep connection happens over the rough stuff in life. Every single one of my very deep conversations started with me sharing something messy that the other person wasn’t aware of.
How you do that is situation-dependent. If it’s a close friend, you can probably just burst out with something that you know relates to their life, too, in some way. If you are just getting to know someone, wait until they share something vaguely negative or a struggle of their life, then share one of yours that relates in some way and is possibly even worse.
The above advice goes against every self-improvement book that tells you that you should listen without saying anything or relating the stuff of others to yourself at this stage. I disagree. I have found that people are more than happy to hear that they are not alone with their struggles, that similar things have happened to others and that they are not weirdos and don’t have to be afraid to talk about their life, because other people do it too.
The deep listening comes at a later stage. At this time it is about putting the other person at ease, and being at ease yourself, and being okay with your problems is a great way to do so.
Person 1: I had an awful sleep last night; I just couldn’t fall asleep until 3 a.m.
Person 2: That’s awful. I know how it feels. I had severe phases of insomnia and even felt like going crazy at some point. It’s the worst thing.
Person 2 does two things here: He shows an understanding of a seemingly small problem Person 1 has. At the same time, they open up about a deeper, relating issue they have themselves.
Most conversations would stop at “That’s awful.” One like this gives instant depth to the situation and will put the other person at ease.
You needn’t have experienced the same thing to show empathy. Person 2 also could have responded, “That’s awful. I usually fall asleep right away, but I got very sleep deprived when we had our baby, and it’s the worst.” The key is to empathize—not trivialize, not try to one-up the experience, or give advice—but to show that you can share in what they are feeling within your own experience.
Step 3: Don’t be afraid of asking intimate questions
Some questions are considered to be inherently taboo, depending on the situation. I argue that there are none or just very few taboo questions if you ask them the right way and don’t force someone into the corner with them.
Most deep conversations stop because people are so afraid of digging deeper, don’t want to be nosy,or feel uncomfortable with the vulnerability being served to them on a plate. If a person got as far as sharing their secrets or inner struggles with you, it is very unlikely that they will be scandalized by you asking further questions. Quite the opposite, I have found that people feel rather relieved because you give them a kind of permission to talk further and show them your interest in what they have to say.
In continuing the previous example, person 2 might ask, “Is there something on your mind that was keeping you up?”
The Four Components of Deep Connection
At this point, you have found your way through to empathic communication with another person. They are opening up to you and confiding in you. By being vulnerable yourself, you gave them a reason to trust you and share details with you they are usually not comfortable talking about.
Maybe you as well have found someone you can share your stuff with. You have learned something new about the other person and can now see that there are endless possibilities for making heart-to-heart connections.
Still, the most important part is yet to come. Having a good deep conversation is great, but it’s the long-lasting connection that matters.
The next step is also a lot harder than just making other people confide in you in the first place. Most people will be happy to talk to someone openly once you have established a free, judgment-free space for them. The true connection with you, however, happens only if they feel good about themselves afterward — if they feel like they have trusted and confided in the right person.
I have found that a deep connection has four main components. These are listening, hearing, understanding, and validating.
“Being listened to and heard is one of the greatest desires of the human heart. And those who learn to listen are the most loved and respected.”
— Richard Carlson
Component 1: Listening
Earlier I wrote that making people open up to you in the first place isn’t as much about deep listening as it is about finding a connection and a way that they can relate to you. Once someone has become vulnerable with you and is sharing difficult stuff about their lives, once you have asked pressing questions that others are afraid to ask and are receiving answers to them — then is the time to truly listen.
True listening is about making a conversation entirely about the other person, even in your mind. This not only means that you don’t interrupt with your own stuff, but that you direct your full attention towards the other person without thinking about what you can say next or how this relates to you.
Component 2: Hearing
Good listening is only half of the story. It is hearing the other person that will really count. If you are wondering about the difference, imagine reading a book as an example: There is a giant difference between reading absent-mindedly and reading a book with a pencil in your hand and highlighting and taking notes at the most important parts. The latter is about really interpreting what the book is trying to communicate, instead of just reading with a wandering mind.
If you have trouble truly hearing what other people are trying to communicate, imagine having a pencil in your hand and ask yourself what you would highlight and why when they are talking.
One way to do this is the classic technique from active listening of paraphrasing what the other person is saying and saying it back to them.
Person 1: I can’t believe she did that. She doesn’t respect me at all!
Person 2: By doing that, it seems she doesn’t respect you.
People do notice when they are being truly listened to and heard, and they notice as well when they are not. That makes all the difference in an unsettling act of vulnerability for them.
Component 3: Understanding
“The other person is always right.
Always right about feelings.
About the day he just experienced.
About the fears (appropriate and ill-founded) in his life.
About the narrative going on, unspoken, in his head.
About what he likes and what he dislikes.
You’ll need to travel to this place of ‘right’ before you have any chance at all of actual communication.”
— Seth Godin
Seth Godin brought true understanding straight to the point, but to further clarify the concept: When talking about feelings and personal experiences, there is no right or wrong. Indeed, the other person is always right about their perception of how things unfolded, even if it fundamentally differs from how you would experience the very same thing.
That’s why you should never judge or correct someone’s inner voice — not even to yourself. Acknowledge that everyone experiences their own truth.
All the problems we’re dealing with are real. No, most of us are not starving or experiencing gross oppression or prosecution. Our lives are safe. Even so, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have the right to experience emotional pain. Each person’s brain creates their own benchmark for worry, happiness, panic, sadness, and all the other feelings based on their personal experience and immediate environment.
We do not only want to survive but thrive. If you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, physiological needs (the need to survive) and safety needs are only the bottom — the foundation upon which everything else is built. What follows is love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization — vague terms that are different for each individual, but nevertheless always present.
What’s more, keep in mind that we cannot choose our feelings about a particular situation. Yes, we can change our reaction to them and what they do to us, but it takes practice, and not everyone is there yet.
The bottom line of understanding is: Just because someone is surviving doesn’t mean they’re thriving, and it does not mean they are not allowed to feel bad or complain.
Component 4: Validating
Finally, validation is your reaction to people’s vulnerability. While listening, hearing and understanding are mostly about you being quiet and approaching deep conversations with the right mindset and attitude.
Validation is your verbal feedback to the other person, and it is what makes or breaks lasting connections.
Validation means telling the other person that what they are experiencing is right, normal, and OK and that their feelings are justified. Most people (probably including you) beat themselves up not only about their problems, but also about their negative reactions to them. That’s why, to deal with any problem, we have to deal with our own conscience first.
While you often won’t be able to directly solve other people’s problems, the bigger step towards creating meaningful connections is validating the other person’s right to feel the way they are feeling and to practice understanding towards their reaction.
That’s why, before jumping to conclusions and/or giving advice, you want to try to take a step back instead. Most people don’t expect others to solve their problems; if they do, they will ask for your advice specifically. When people are opening up to you about their inner world, what they are really looking for is validation — the feeling that their feelings are being understood and justified.
This consists of three main steps:
- Identify a specific emotion the other person is feeling.
- Name that emotion.
- Validate that specific emotion verbally.
Here are two examples to demonstrate this process:
A friend of yours is complaining about her career and work situation:
“I thought I would reach middle management by now. That is why I took this job in the first place. It’s an OK job, but I don’t love it. It doesn’t fulfill me in any way. At least I want more responsibility and scope of action.”
Now, there are endless ways to react to this, but only a few are helpful if a deeper connection is what you are looking for.
What your friend is feeling is a certain form of frustration.
“Ugh, this sounds really frustrating.
I totally get that. It sucks when we feel like we’re not reaching our goals, even if we’ve just set them for ourselves.”
That’s it — this is all that it takes to make the other person feel understood and validated. From here they are much more likely to elaborate further, ask for your advice, or simply keep talking and feel connected to you. They feel understood (or they have an opportunity to clarify or correct your misunderstanding.)
Here are some examples that have the opposite effect:
“Come on, you’re fine! It could be a lot worse. You have a good salary, and reaching middle management is not everything in life!”
“Look at all the positive stuff! At least you have an OK job!”
“Don’t worry about it too much. You’ll get there eventually!”
While all of these can technically be true or well-meaning responses, they do nothing to help the other person feel understood and validated; they might even make them feel like they are complaining too much, or encourage them to shut down rather than open up.
Suppose that you are talking with a person that is feeling bad about their appearance, although you think they look great.
“I feel like I have gained weight, my skin got worse, and I really don’t have the confidence to go on a date these days, although I know I should if I don’t want to end up alone.”
That person is experiencing insecurity.
Ugh, that’s bad. I get what you mean, sometimes it’s really hard to feel good about yourself.
I think it’s completely OK, and you obviously don’t feel like dating on such days or weeks.
“Are you kidding me? You look amazing! I wish I looked like you.”
“YOU feel like you gained weight?! Look at ME!”
“Come on, there are enough guys out there who don’t mind a few extra kilos.”
It should obviously be the goal of the other person to see things more (body-)positively, get away from feeling frustrated to taking action and changing their situation, but they already know that; everyone already knows this. If taking action was the main issue, nobody would ever complain in this whole entire world.
When we are opening up to others, we are usually not in search of advice and motivating calendar mottos but understanding. Which is good news, as being understanding is a lot easier than solving problems.
What if you just don’t get it?
While the above examples are pretty common. there are plenty of situations where you won’t be able to relate because you
a) simply have no idea what it feels like, or
b) actually think that the other person is whining and complaining too much.
What if you have no idea what the other person is going through?
Some problems are worse than the common pains of everyday life, and luckily most people don’t have to experience them. Struggling to have children, losing someone beloved, or being seriously ill for example are (luckily) not common problems everyone can necessarily relate to.
While you probably won’t be able to give advice, you can still validate the other person by showing them that you do understand their pain, even if you cannot grasp it and that their negative feelings are at a non-judgmental, safe space with you.
What if you feel annoyed by the other person’s problems?
Yes, sometimes we feel like people simply complain too much, especially if they do it repeatedly over an extended period, over the same problem without taking any action. As with anything else in life, know your boundaries. Practice common sense and don’t be afraid to let the other person know how you’re feeling about this. If you’re annoyed from the start on the other hand, then this is probably someone you don’t want to deeply connect to, and that is also OK.
Putting It All Together
In the end, connecting with other people and pretty much anyone you meet boils down to the following key ingredients:
- Being a genuinely non-judgmental person
- Creating space for a private talk
- Your own readiness to be vulnerable and open up to others
- The four stages of deep connection which are listening, hearing, understanding, and validating
If you see it that way, there is so much about our relationships that are entirely in our control. This is good news, as this means that we all have it in us to go beyond the superficial and establish deep human connections. If you take care of your own behavior first, limit your judgments as much as possible, and go around with an open heart and mind, people will be naturally drawn to you.
The Long-Term Results and How You Can Start Creating Deeper Connections Straight Away
Taking my connections with others to a more conscious and intentional level changed my human relationships in a positive way. It helps me be a lot more in control about my boundaries—whom to open up and whom not. It also helps me tremendously in strengthening all my relationships, be it with friends, family, or romantically.
I also figured out how little actual advice people usually want and expect from the ones being closest to them. If you are unsure about where to start, here are two things that you can do immediately:
- Decide that you will not judge anyone for anything today, and be mindful of it. At the end of the day, review how well you did in not being judgmental. Then do it again tomorrow—and after.
- Think of the next few one-on-one exchanges you will likely have.
For each one, decide on sharing one vulnerable thing about yourself that you don’t usually talk about just like that and see what happens.
You don’t have to follow through with all the steps above every time. Always start with the first steps, see what happens, and how far things go.
Remember that what your friends, partners, and family are looking for is being listened to, heard, understood, validated, and — most of all — not being judged about what they feel.
This is great because, even if we don’t have all the answers, what we all do have is two ears, a heart, and a muscle for empathy that we can train. That’s all it usually takes to make any person open up and feel deeply connected to you.
“Connection is the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued.”
— Brené Brown