Self-Disclosure: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right? Are You an Open or Closed Book?

Self-disclosure is the process of revealing your inner self to another person. It helps with self-acceptance (esteem) and confidence as people form positive impressions of people who give something of themselves. Getting the balance right is important – the ‘Goldilocks Principle’ – Too much, too little or just right.

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We describe people as ‘closed books’ who give nothing of themselves away. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the people, who go for total, no-holes-barred, openness. Rushing up to strangers in the library and offering to show them your intimate operation scar and confessing your darkest secrets is hardly likely to win you friends, although it may influence people to want to avoid you. So when is enough, enough?

In an earlier post, I offered Tips for Making Small Talk, Confidently, including why we should engage in small-talk and how to do it right.

Self-Disclosure Quiz

Here’s a short quiz to explore self-disclosure issues. Rate each of these statements on a scale from zero to ten, where zero equals ‘have never mentioned to anyone’ and ten equals ‘I have disclosed everything about this to everyone I’ve met’. This includes status updates on social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.

  1. ___General worries (money, health, wealth)
  2. ___What really gets on your nerves
  3. ___Things that make you happy and bring joy to your life
  4. ___Areas of yourself you’d like to improve (fitness, health, confidence, skills)
  5. ___Dreams, goals and ambitions
  6. ___Sexual activity and love life, including graphic details
  7. ___Your weaknesses and negative character traits
  8. ___Hobbies and interests
  9. ___What makes you angry and what happens when you are
  10. ___Things in your life you are ashamed of or feel guilty about.

Scoring the Self-Disclosure Quiz

This quiz is only intended to stimulate thought and discussion. It is not a scientific assessment. The cut-off points described below only give general feedback. If your score is close to the edge of a range, then also look at the other band too.

 Zero – speaks for itself. You are a closed book, inside a pad-locked buried chest, with a prison built on top of it.

 1 to 20 indicates a closed person who doesn’t like to give much away. Sharing something with others provides an opportunity for feedback. Focus on less personal areas and make small disclosures. Hobbies and goals are a good place to start.

21 to 60 indicates a moderate level of self-disclosure. Just be aware of higher scores and don’t be over-familiar with unfamiliar people. Scores towards the middle of the band indicate a balance between your private self and public openness. If your score is below 30, also read the feedback for the lower band.

 61 to 81 indicates an open person with high levels of self-disclosure. Some of these topics may make others uncomfortable or cause the judge you harshly or take advantage of you. Openness is often a good thing provided the other person can handle it, wants to handle it and you can trust them. Spare a thought for the feelings of your listeners.

90 to 100 indicates that you are very open. In fact, there isn’t much you won’t disclose and are happy to do so with anyone who will listen including people who’d prefer not to receive so much information. Beware of becoming like the celebrity reality TV stars who live their lives like an open wound. Focus on the more neutral areas for disclosure and the personal stuff more sparingly and with fewer people. Some things are better kept to ourselves, and one or two trusted friends. Beware that your self-disclosure doesn’t become habitual dumping on other people for free therapy.

What is safe for self-disclosure?

Obviously we have different levels of self-disclosure depending on the degree of intimacy or closeness with people. So begin by thinking of making small-talk with strangers. Consider how much self-disclosure would constitute general chit-chat and also think about at what point it would definitely be TMI (too much information).

Using another ten-point scale, assess the safety of each of the above topics, where ten equals ‘totally safe’ and zero equals ‘Shhh! Don’t tell a soul’.

If these scores match roughly with your first set of scores, your disclosure level for this topic is about right. However, if there is a gap between the two sets of scores then you need to make adjustments. For instance, if you rate sexual activity as a 5 for safety but a ten for disclosure, maybe it’s time to keep a few details to yourself.

Repeat the exercise for friends, people you are dating, partners and colleagues. That way you will get an idea of how to strike the right balance. When we feel an instant connection with someone, the tendency is to mistake this for intimacy and tell all. However, this immediate connection might be because this person reminds us of something else. It’s best to remember that a new acquaintance is still a relative stranger no matter how the sparks fly. It’s also important to remember that friends and partners are not just sounding boards or dumping grounds for your dark secrets and issues. When we feel that we really must disclose all, perhaps it’s better to engage a professional stranger (counsellor or therapist) to tell all.

For more information on first impressions, small-talk and self-disclosure, check out Unlock Your Confidence ( To read a sample visit Amazon UK or Amazon USA). Or, see other blog posts on confidence-building and life-coaching by Gary Wood.

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is the author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution-focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

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Tips for Making Small Talk, Confidently: Why do it and how to do it

Subscribe to Dr Gary Wood's psychology and coaching blogSome people complain that small-talk is superficial and pointless. Often ‘not seeing the point’ is about ‘nor knowing the rules’. You may worry that you’re being boring or too banal or to confessional and controversial. You may not know what topics to choose and what to avoid. Small-talk is a key building block in building relationships. It all begins with ‘a bit of banter’ or ‘chit-chat’ to ‘pass the time of day’. Connecting with other people in a positive way is a way of boosting your resilience and confidence.

This post offers some tips and pointers for confident small-talk skills (adapted from Unlock Your Confidence), which are essentially the same as a basic grounding in communication skills. (There are also several links to posts containing supporting information).

What if I’m too shy to initiate small-talk?

The keys to learning any new skill are practice and relaxation. Often people who claim not to be very good at making conversation just need to practice in some low-threat situation. The easiest way is to ask for directions in a supermarket or ask someone’s opinion about a product. I’m particularly good at reading maps, contrary to the male gender stereotype, I’ll just stop to ask directions. When I visit a new place I check it out on-line to find recommendations of places to eat and drink. However, many of the best information comes by asking the locals. People like to recommend good places and warn you about the ‘not so good’. People like to share their knowledge.

Relaxation is the cornerstone of elite performanceIt’s also the basis of building confidence and esteem. It’s the ability to control your own physiological responses. A few deep breaths are often all it takes. If you initiate a conversation in a relaxed state, the other person is more likely to match this state. If you both feel comfortable the conversation flows. So focus on putting the other person at ease too. This is a key principle in my confidence building workshops. If we focus on putting the other people at ease and building confidence in them, this rubs off on to us.

It helps to practice some form of relaxation technique or breathing technique regularly and frequently. The more you practice, the more it is likely to become a habit, or ‘second nature’.

Small-talk is not about ‘just filling the space’

When I started contributing to radio features, I was very aware of empty airspace. Radio presenters are aware of this and use the discomfort of the contributors to let them chatter away and fill the airspace. On one occasion, with a rather ‘difficult’ presenter, I realized that the responsibility for the dead airspace was his. I resisted the temptation to fill the space and just kept to what I was comfortable saying. I’d made it clear beforehand that I don’t gossip about celebrities and yet he insisted on asking about a particular celebrity. I just ‘stuck to my guns’ and he owned the responsibility for the dead space and asked me a question I could answer.

We are much likely to get the ‘verbal diarrhoea’ when we are nervous. Take a few deep breaths. Any question is a two-way street and it both people share in the responsibility for the ‘awkward silences’. When we feel stressed, the silences seem longer. When stressed we talk faster. Just remember that it’s okay if there are a few gaps. Every conversation has a little variation and changes in pace. It doesn’t have to be a ‘wall of sound’.

Small-talk is also about listening not just talk

Listening is a core communication skill. People often overlook this. Rather than filling the space with our own words you can give the other person a chance and ask a few questions. A ‘bore’ is jokingly defined as ‘a person who wants to talk about her/himself when you want to talk about yourself’. As a general rule, if you have spoken about yourself for 60 seconds then you have already been speaking too much. An easy way to include the other person is just to tag on the words ‘and how about you?’

The great thing about small talk is that it can take unexpected ‘twists and turns’ if you let it. It works better if you don’t have an agenda and just see how things go. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t get to make all of your points. So be flexible. There is a temptation, when the other person is speaking, to just ‘screen for keywords’ so you can prepare your next contribution. When you find yourself doing this, it means you have stopped listening. Part of the fun of small-talk is you don’t know where it will lead.

If you lose the thread, just ask the other person, ‘tell me more about. . . ‘. Then you get a second chance to practice your listening skills!

Open and closed questions: how to move the conversation along

You have probably seen interviews of famous people where the interviewer has branded them ‘difficult’ or ‘uncooperative’. There’s a classic clip of a famous Hollywood star who mainly answers ‘yep’ and ‘nope’ to most of the questions. It’s clear that the interviewer asked too many closed questions that only required one-word answers, usually ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s obvious that if you ask someone ‘Do you like X’ you get a very different response if you ask ‘How do you feel about X?’ or ‘What’s your opinion of X?’. Asking questions with a ‘who, what, where or how‘, will open out the conservation. That’s why they are called open questions. Closed questions are all about the questioner’s agenda. Open questions help open out a two-way conversation.

Be patient: The other person may not know all of these small-talk tips

If someone launches into a monologue, just be patient. Not everyone knows the rules of small-talk. Sometimes, we just have to accept the opportunity to practice patience and practice listening skills. Of course, any experience is also an opportunity for reflection. This is important to learning any skill. So sometime after the encounter, just pause and make a few notes about how it went. There’s no need for a full-scale post-mortem. Just a couple of learning points will do.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIn my book Unlock Your Confidence, I offer a whole chapter (Chapter Four) on practical tips and techniques for impression management (making good first impressions) and communication skills including suitable topics for casual conversations and topics more likely to promote heated discussions, scare people or bore them to tears.

What are suitable subjects for small-talk?

Here are a few examples of the kind of topics suitable for small-talk:

Saying where you are from, a recent film or television programme you enjoyed, saying what you do and where you go to relax, pets, recreation interests, books you’ve read, your name, food, the weather, clothes, holidays, places to visit, theatre productions, concerts and commenting on something in the immediate environment.

What subjects should be avoided for small-talk?

Here are some topics that you should avoid:

Talking about ailments, sex dreams, religion, being a know-it-all, discussing your sex life or asking questions about theirs, talking about infidelity or swinging, asking someone’s salary, asking whether people own their own home, racism, political correctness, politics, paedophilia, capital punishment, abortion, vivisection, animal rights, pornography, discussing bodily fluids or body parts that have gone septic or the power of prayer as a tool against evil.

A good test is to consider, is this the kind of topic you would discuss over afternoon tea? Think of scones, jam. clotted cream, little sandwiches with the crusts cut-off and a nice pot of Earl Grey tea. Now add your topic of conversation. Does it go? Theatre productions: yes. Septic body parts: no!.

As a general rule, keep it positive. Yes, we all like a bit of moan from time to time, but follow the 80:20 rule. The moaning can not be more than 20% of the conversation. This is easier said than done. Once you are on a negative train of thought, it’s more difficult to switch to the positive.

Casual conversations: How to get started

Never underestimate the power of a smile. It’s an immediate signal that you are an approachable person. Of course, that doesn’t mean you walk around with a fixed rictus grin. (That’s a sure sign of something else entirely).

Assume you are meeting someone for the first time. You exchange names. That immediately leads on to ‘What do you do?’ which just means ‘what’s your job?’ It can be a little dull unless you are in those dreadful networking situations where people stand about handing out business cards and try to work out whether you are of any use to them whatsoever.

As a twist, try asking ‘How do you spend your time?’ Or ‘How do you like to spend your time?’ This gives the other person the opportunity to talk about something they like. This generates positive feelings which are to a certain extent projected on to you. Some people hate their jobs but most people love their own hobbies and pastimes.

Small-talk and body language

Probably, you will have heard of the often quoted body-language myth that words only account for 7% in any encounter. Take this with the proverbial pinch of salt. The research was carried out in laboratory conditions and may not be generalizable to the real world to the strict 7% rule that is often (mis) quoted. The research mainly applies to first impressions. It’s fair to say that if you give off the right non-verbal signals then the words are less important.

You don’t have to study a whole body language book to get the basics right. In fact, we have already covered most of it: relax and smile and show an interest in what is being said, that is, listen. If you do this then the body language will take care of itself.

read_confidence_posts_r_jus copySo that’s it. Those are the basic skills for a successful casual conversation. These also form the basics for good communication skills. Small-talk skills are a great set of skills to have. It means that you can take the lead in awkward situations, especially where people don’t know each other. It’s rare that efforts are rebuffed, most of the time, people are just relieved that someone broke the ice.

With small-talk, perhaps the most important tip is just to have fun with it.

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What next?

Building Your Assertiveness: Having Fun With Cold-Callers

It seems that nowadays we can’t walk down the street without someone with a clipboard wanting ‘just a minute’ of our time. My approach is quite simple. I just state ‘Sorry I don’t conduct any business in the street’. I extend this to people knocking on my door (‘Sorry I don’t do business on the doorstep’). However, for telephone cold-callers I adopt a slightly different strategy. In my coaching practice I encourage clients to seek out opportunities to develop life skills such as assertiveness and self-confidence. Rather than an annoyance, cold-callers offer such an opportunity.

Despite registering with the telephone preference service I still get unwanted calls. Surveys and market research is not covered (honoured) by this opt out. Of course, it should, morally speaking. Any reputable company would make the assumption that if people have taken the time to register with the service then it’s likely they don’t want to be bothered wasting time on surveys. One of my first approaches was to discuss my fees with them. This doesn’t work. Unless of course you follow up with a letter in writing to let the company know that you will charge an administration fee for future calls. You are then within your rights to send them an invoice and if its not paid, you can proceed through the small claims court. However, I digress.

Recently, I tried out a new approach which proved to be great fun. I’d decided the next time I was cold-called I was going to take the opportunity to sell my own services of coaching, training, broadcasting, writing and research. So I prepared a brief spiel and waited for the inevitable call.

The call came and was from someone purporting to be from the National Accident Helpline (NAH). In the past I have reported such calls and found that it’s common for dodgy companies to impersonate the NAH. The real NAH does abide by the telephone preference service. So I began:

Me: ‘Thank you very much for your call. It is coaching, training or research that you are interested in?’

Cold-caller: ‘Sorry?’

Me: ‘How exactly can I help you?’

Cold-caller: ‘I’m calling from the National Accident Helpline’ (lie)

Me: ‘Splendid. So is it coaching within your organization, training, researcher or perhaps you’d like me to front a media campaign’.

Cold-caller: ‘Sorry. Who are you calling from?’

Me: ‘Actually you called me and I’m trying to establish which of my services are of interest to you’.

Cold-caller: ‘Sorry. What company are you from again?’

Me: ‘Well you called me. So which of my services interest you?’

No doubt we could have continued along these lines for longer but I’d run run out of script. Next time I will run through a description of each of my services.

The value of this type of opportunity is that you have a captive audience. It’s up to you to take control of the situation and have fun with it. If you don’t have a service to promote then perhaps you could pretend to have a sofa for sale and describe it in great detail. Ask the caller what they look for in a sofa. If they are not interested then try to sell them something else. The value of this is that you get to role play for free and will probably have a good laugh too.

Speaking in public is one of the most feared challenges, so cold-callers offer a great opportunity to practice those skills too. Assertiveness and confidence are built in small steps and start with a state of relaxation. Find other opportunities in life to develop people skills, such as small-talk at the supermarket or at the bus-stop. Losing your temper or being rude is not assertiveness, it’s aggression. Just have fun with it.

I’m now looking forward to the next opportunity to practice my sales pitch and who knows I may try to sell my old chaise longue.

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