Yesterday I had an amazingly insightful conversation with my mom, which reminded me that getting close to another person is quite simple. Maybe not always easy — but simple. All it takes is the willingness to be vulnerable and disclose information about yourself.
We are used to thinking that building a sense of intimacy with somebody takes time. For some people it means years of work, breaking through their inhibitions and attuning to their friend or spouse. That’s, of course, a valid way to foster connections.
But what if I told you that there was a “human connection pill,” which allows you to achieve a deep sense of intimacy with someone within a couple of hours?
I’ve had this pill — and I really want to tell you about it today. It is called “self-disclosure” and it made one of the best evenings of my life.
It happened last summer in Berlin. We were having a rare reunion of old friends from all around Europe. We used to be a part of the same youth organization in our early 20s — but then, almost lost our connection. We were spread across different countries and that occasion to meet altogether was something unique for us.
A chance to revive the old friendships we have almost forgotten.
Two of these friends, who are into life and relationship coaching, proposed a bonding game. Since we had so little time together after such a long break, we wanted to use it to saturate ourselves with connection. A game that would help us do just that sounded like a great idea.
What we did was essentially a replication of an experiment described in a paper called The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness. In their study, scientists had participants paired up and carry out conversations based on a provided list of questions. One set of questions encouraged small talk, while the other — “deep talk” based on self-disclosure.
The study found that the pairs of strangers who spent their time together answering the “deep” questions, experienced a significant increase in the subjective feeling of interpersonal closeness — aka intimacy.
With my friends, we obviously went for the set of deep questions as well. The point was to pair up with the person you knew the least from the group and then go through the 36 questions, answering them one by one to each other. The questions were supposed to gradually take us to higher levels of intimacy.
Just for you to have an idea of what kind of questions they were, I give some examples below. For the complete list of the 36 questions, you can go here.
Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
As I sat on the grass in one of Berlin’s beautiful parks, facing my partner, I was feeling a bit anxious. How vulnerable would the questions force me to be? What if I make a fool of myself? What if he judges me for what I say? Or what if I start judging him despite my best intentions?
I guess such questions naturally arise when we meet somebody new. The potential for connection — but also for being rejected — can feel overwhelming. That’s why the fact that we had a simple, but very well-defined structure to the conversation, helped me feel safe.
I find that having a structure to abide by can, paradoxically, be very liberating. In that conversation, it certainly was. We didn’t have to think of questions, because we had them written down. All that was left to be done was to self-disclose about ourselves, listen attentively to the other person and… enjoy the process.
After going through the initial bit of awkwardness with the first couple of questions, I was all invested in our conversation. By question number 7, I could sense that there was something extraordinary going on. By question 15, I felt an inexplicable sense of attraction towards my partner. And by the end of the game, four hours later, I felt exactly the same as after taking an MDMA pill years before.
The sense of connection I felt towards not only my partner — but also other friends who were talking separately in their own pairs — grew so tangible that I thought it must have been chemical. I literally felt like I had taken something that was making me high.
In reality, I was high on human connection. I never thought something like this was even possible.
After individual pairs were done “questioning,” we all started gathering in a group to move somewhere else to eat and talk. I immediately realized that my way of conduct was not usual.
When in a group of more than three people, I normally feel quite shy. I tune my voice down and wait for other people to initiate conversation or decide what we are going to do. I switch on my defence mechanisms and do my best to hide my vulnerability, in fear that somebody may notice and exploit it.
That evening was nothing of that sort. Extraordinary things kept happening.
Shortly after terminating the experiment, I found myself talking to another friend I used to be attracted to when I was 17. We exchanged comments about how we didn’t get a chance to interact much until now. The natural response to make up for that lost time was to hug each other. So we did.
I can’t possibly explain how natural and amazing that hug felt. I was completely present there with him, open to whatever was going to unfold. I usually aim for some sense of control over my interactions with people. That time, however, there was no need to control things.
It felt like we were both so opened up by the self-disclosure exercise that there was no slightest reason to shy away from anything anymore. He kissed me on the cheek in such a sweet and affectionate way. A feeling of attraction was sparked in me. I said, with no awkwardness whatsoever:
I want to kiss you now.
It was extraordinary to me — saying something like that, without the slightest hint of fear of rejection. Just to be clear, this is not my usual style of dealing with men I fancy. At least not when I am sober. Normally, I would rather expect myself to either run away or hopefully wait until he takes further initiative.
But I wasn’t sober that night. I was literally high on connection. The rest of the night is history, but one lesson stayed with me. And it is very clear in my mind, even today.
If I want to get close to another person, I can. The shortest way I know how to do it is wisely-applied, mutual and compassionate self-disclosure.