Breakdown in Communication: When Self-Disclosure Halts a Conversation

I’ve seen this approach work, but more times then not, I’ve seen it flop miserably:

One person is sharing something that is emotionally significant, a sharing that in some way makes her vulnerable emotionally (“I had to put my mother in a nursing home last year. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, but she couldn’t care for herself anymore”). And then the listener responds with what he believes is an emotionally equivalent story of his own—(“I know what you mean: My father had bronchitis last April. He’s fine now, but boy, was it rough for a week or two”)—a sharing that fails to address what the speaker has just disclosed.

To share or not to share, that is the question?

Self-disclosure (sharing your own experiences as an empathic gesture to make the other person feel less alone in his/her anxiety or pain) can be a powerfully connecting experience if handled correctly. We can feel more deeply understood by a well-timed and relevant self-disclosure.

But self-disclosure can easily derail communication and lead to a significant breach of empathy. In these instances, sharing your own experience as a way to make another feel understood can go awry for the following reasons:

  • You fail to directly comment on what the other person shared before communicating your own experiences (“That must have been so difficult for you; I’m so sorry to hear that… Are you OK?”);
  • Your disclosure is egocentrically motivated (“I hurt too; listen to me now!”)–in this instance, there is little or no intention of making the other person feel understood by what you are sharing;
  • What you communicate is in no way perceived as comparable or relevant by the person who just made himself vulnerable by what s/he initially shared (as in the example above, where the man who felt his father having the flu is emotionally equivalent to having to place a parent in a nursing home).

So if you are someone who likes to share your own experiences as a way to empathically connect with your spouse/partner (or a friend or family member), try to be mindful of the real impact your sharing is having on the other. In other words, don’t assume your story is what the other person is needing to hear at that particular moment—one way to achieve this end is to directly ask how the other perceived your self-disclosure: Was it helpful? Or did it make the other feel more alone in her/his pain and vulnerability?

Here’s to making healthy communication a regular part of your relationship!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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