Everyone talks about how “openness” is important in communication, but what is openness? What does it mean “to be open” when we communicate with others?
We have to think of openness in at least two ways:
Openness in communication — the willingness to share and to be changed by the other — is key to a relationship's development of depth.
At an intimate level, radical exposure and change is what communication is really all about — that is, if you want the relationship to succeed or if you want to get to any depth. This is how relationships form.
What do two people say to one another? Or not? What do two people talk about? And not? How are those two people exposed to each other? In what ways?
This isn't to say all relationships should have openness and depth; in superficial relationships, the entire game is different and true openness isn’t really our goal. On a surface level, we feign openness towards one another all the time. “Hi, How are you?” (When it’s just a formality.)
This is fine. Not all communication is intimate. But in places where we seek depth, we need openness, and so understanding what that is can be quite useful.
Let’s talk first about openness with respect to acts of talking.
When it comes to being open when we communicate — and at this point, I’m really only referring to openness in a sense of sharing or speaking — what are we talking about?
Openness, at some fundamental level means what you reveal (or are willing to reveal) about yourself to the other person. Every relationship has different boundaries for what is acceptable to share. Some things are appropriate for “work” or “home” or with the doctor or among our friends, etc.
We tend to categorize groupings of relationships in different ways in this regard.
Even further, we can think of every relationship as having its own contours. That is, it’s not so much that “we’re open” or not, but that we grow into ways of sharing or not sharing with others. These trajectories of our relationships follows a path and every relationship is different.
What do you share? With whom? What do you talk about? What stories do you tell? Do you share things from the past? Or do you talk about the future?
Do you ever share everything? Doubtful.
What topics are fair game? What are off limits?
There are many important questions to consider.
Every time we speak we open, in a sense, and our words and actions change others. These changes are usually very small to almost seemingly nonexistent, but they layer and fossilize. Nothing seems to change but eventually everything is different.
Everything we say, everything we do, even things we don’t do, has the potential to change the person across from us. Our actions change others. Our communication changes others.
Openness is also about willingness to be changed. Vulnerability. It’s not just about sharing things. If we’re not, at some level, receptive or willing to be changed by what the other person is saying, well, then you can’t call yourself open, I don’t think. Many people are closed-off, though virtually no one would ever tell you as much.
Along with a recognition that what you say changes the other person should come a willingness to be changed yourself. These two are tied together and this willingness to be changed is the aspect of “openness” that few people take the time to see. We get trapped in our weird little worlds so much that we can get closed off from others.
Being receptive and willing to engage others (or not) impacts the relationship just as what you choose to share (or not share) impacts the other person.
This is openness.
Openness is a battle with two fronts and we ought not think about it just as sharing, but as vulnerability as well.
Is openness, conceived of in this way, a trait? Or a skill? Or is it something beyond either? Certain people certainly seem more predispositioned to sharing and forthrightness, just as there are those seemingly predispositioned oppositely.
To me, openness is significantly about curiosity. We say things and see what happens. We interact with others and gauge reactions. We sometimes open ourselves to other people to learn from them, to hear their stories, to glean from their experiences, and move on to the next thing. That’s how communication goes.
Can curiosity be cultivated in others? We sure should hope so. Or can only their attention be drawn? We should hope not.
I don’t know the answer, but I believe there to be some wiggle room there. It’s always possible to take that leap to say something and share, or to sit quietly, listen, and be vulnerable to someone else.
How can we create conditions where openness with someone else can be fostered?
These are the ongoing questions we must ask ourselves as our relationships unfold before us. What will you share? What will you be open about? How are you willing to be changed? What are you willing to learn?