12 MIN READ
Connecting With Honest, Personal Communication
How much personal information should you reveal at work? And how should you respond when other people "open their hearts" to you?
Self-disclosure is a delicate issue. If you get it right, it can strengthen relationships, instill trust, and boost your ability to inspire and lead.
But if you make unwise, inappropriate or untimely disclosures, or react badly when others divulge personal details, it can have the opposite effect.
In this article, we'll look at the advantages and the pitfalls of self-disclosure. We'll also explore the best ways to give and receive personal information at work.
What Is Self-Disclosure?
Self-disclosure is the process of passing on information about yourself to someone else – whether you intend to or not! The details can range from the superficial, such as your favorite food or TV show, to deeply personal information, such as religious beliefs, and big turning points in your private life.
There are two types of self-disclosure: verbal and nonverbal. We self-disclose verbally, for example, when we tell others about our thoughts, feelings, preferences, ambitions, hopes, and fears. And we disclose nonverbally through our body language, clothes, tattoos, jewelry, and any other clues we might give about our personalities and lives.
In this article, we focus on verbal self-disclosure. However, nonverbal signals are always present in our interactions, so be alert to all the different ways that you can reveal yourself to others.
Why Is Self-Disclosure Important?
Research suggests that self-disclosure plays a key role in forming strong relationships. It can make people feel closer, understand one another better, and cooperate more effectively.
Emotional (rather than factual) disclosures are particularly important for boosting empathy and building trust. And sharing your feelings with colleagues can allow you to manage your stress and even to avoid burnout.
There may also be times when you need to inform your manager or HR department about highly personal information – such as a serious medical diagnosis, financial difficulties, or a family issue. As well as keeping you in line with company policies, this type of self-disclosure is essential for accessing the support that you need.
The Benefits of Self-Disclosure
In the workplace, successful self-disclosure can help you to resolve conflict, build productive teams, and improve how you get on with colleagues, clients and customers.
Sharing personal information with someone can, in the right circumstances, make them feel trusted and important. It often helps others to feel comfortable enough to do the same – forming stronger connections and making work more enjoyable and productive for everyone.
This 1994 study shows that self-disclosure can also make you more likable. As well as improving your day-to-day interactions, this can create valuable opportunities in your career.
For example, if you're in a leadership role, self-disclosure has particular power. It shows others that you're authentic, and increases their willingness to get behind your plans.
It can also be a useful approach when you're dealing with people outside your organization. For example, showing your "human side" can create rapport with your customers, even in difficult situations. And carefully managed self-disclosure can be a powerful way to handle criticism on social media, too.
The Johari Window is a visual tool that allows you and your team to enjoy more of the benefits of self-disclosure. It’s a simple way to examine your personality, and to see how much you reveal to others. Then you can work on letting people know more, or less, about you.
The tool can also spark conversations about self-disclosure in general, and help to create a workplace culture in which everyone feels safe to share – at the level that suits them.
The Risks of Self-Disclosure
Self-disclosure isn't always straightforward. You need to know when it's right to share personal details, and how to do it appropriately. Use your best judgment in each situation to decide when to disclose information and when to keep quiet!
Even then, people's responses can be unpredictable. Their reactions may come as a pleasant surprise – or they may cause embarrassment and upset.
If self-disclosure goes badly wrong, it can do serious damage to your reputation. It can also put other people in a difficult position, if they end up knowing more about you than they're comfortable with.
And, although it may be a relief for you to get something "off your chest," the information you share can be a burden to others. It can also make them less likely to share things with you, if they doubt your confidentiality or judgment.
If you’re a manager, or if you work in HR, you need to be particularly well-prepared to handle self-disclosure. Your people may come to you with serious and very personal information, and it may come completely out of the blue. See How to Use Self-Disclosure in the Workplace, below, for advice on how to respond in a sensitive and professional manner, so that you’re ready to support people through difficult conversations.
Self-Disclosure and Disinhibition
When you're weighing up the rewards and risks of self-disclosure, there are two areas of professional life where you need to pay close attention: social media and social events.
Social media is all about sharing, so try not to hide away entirely! But it's vital that you use it carefully. Evidence suggests that people often reveal more about themselves online than they perhaps realize.
Always think twice before you post. Bear in mind that the information you share online may be seen by people you don't know. And, even if you delete your post later, it may have already been shared or saved by others.
On the other hand, social media posts that demonstrate a certain level of authenticity often generate the most interest and feedback. Your audience will likely be cynical about a profile or feed where everything seems "perfect." So, pick platforms and topics that you're comfortable with, and select the appropriate level of disclosure for yourself.
Here, as with social media, a balanced approach is key. There's plenty of scope for self-disclosure to get out of hand. However, if you come across as guarded or disengaged, you can miss out on all the benefits that come from relaxing with colleagues or clients.
Take extra precautions to stay in control of your self-disclosure. This can be more challenging in social situations, where people are less inhibited and restrained than they would be in the workplace. So, think through any potentially difficult conversations in advance. Carefully control your use of alcohol, and maintain your boundaries.
But this doesn't mean you can't enjoy yourself! You can still use social events to get closer to people and strengthen your team, without overstepping the mark.
And if you're involved in planning social events, consider the best ways to make them fun but also safe for everyone involved. The location, time of day, activities, and of course the availability of alcohol will influence how people relate to one another, what they talk about, and how they respond to the things that they hear.
Our article, When Work Involves Socializing, has more advice on getting this balance right.
How to Use Self-Disclosure in the Workplace
Here are six ways to help you share and receive personal information appropriately.
1. Wait and Watch
Start by watching the people around you. This is particularly important if you're new in your role, or if you're working in an unfamiliar environment (see our article on Cultural Intelligence for more on this). Pay close attention to when and how much your colleagues or clients share.
2. Consider Your Motives
While it's good to use self-disclosure to improve connections and build trust, be sure that you're not doing it for other, less positive reasons.
For example, don't use self-disclosure to grab the limelight, to distract attention from other issues, or to gain an unfair advantage. And be wary of sharing personal just to elicit a disclosure from someone else. People should feel safe to share when they want to – not because they are under pressure to do so "in return."
3. Choose Your Moment – and Your Method
Avoid sharing difficult or sensitive information with someone when they're short of time or concentrating on something else. Not only is this a recipe for misunderstanding, but you could also end up feeling exposed and ignored.
Arrange a time to talk when you won't be disturbed. If the opportunity for self-disclosure arises unexpectedly, think before you speak, and assess whether the timing's right.
Also, be sure to choose the right channel for your conversation. Depending on the subject matter and its impact, your disclosure might work best face-to-face, as a scheduled video call, or in an email that the other person can read when they choose.
4. Go Slowly
Sharing too much, too soon can be overwhelming. But, taking too long to communicate can create uncertainty or suspicion. Instead, open up gradually.
When you meet new people, start by sharing more superficial information – for example, your hobbies and interests – to build connections. From there, you can add more and more personal details, to deepen relationships over time.
5. Listen Carefully
When friends or colleagues share personal information with you, give them your full attention. And if you can't do so there and then, politely ask to postpone your chat, so that you can use active listening and empathic listening skills to make people feel heard and understood.
As long as your reaction is respectful, it's fine to tell someone that you need time to process what you've heard. Ask them whether you can share the information with others – and what, if anything, they want you to do in response to their disclosure.
6. Respond With Care
Research shows that self-disclosure is most beneficial when it's a two-way process. People form the strongest bonds when they open up to one another, in a way that they're both comfortable with.
However, you may be tempted to offer advice where it's not wanted. And you should resist the urge to tell your own story in response, even if you think it would show solidarity or understanding, as it risks trivializing or overshadowing the other person's news.
Instead, give people the time and space they need to share their information. And respond sensitively, so that the value you place on their self-disclosure is clear.
Self-disclosure involves sharing personal information – such as your thoughts, dreams, fears, goals, preferences, and experiences. It's an important way to strengthen relationships and build trust.
But there are risks to self-disclosure. Act with care to avoid making people feel suspicious, embarrassed, or pressurized to disclose more than they want to.
Be particularly vigilant when sharing personal information on social media or at social events, when the usual rules of communication are often relaxed.
To use self-disclosure successfully, identify how it works in your team, and choose your moment carefully. Begin with superficial details to create connections, then reveal more personal information as your relationships grow.
The best self-disclosure works both ways. Listen actively when people open up to you, and be measured and respectful in the way that you respond.
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