The Risk & Reward Of Communicating Intimately

The Risk & Reward Of Communicating Intimately

By Dr. Daniel Acuff Ph.D.

intimate Conversation


A friend of mine and his now ex-wife,

(no, it wasn’t me), listened to their marriage

counselor as he summed up their progress

after a dozen sessions:

“In my twenty some years as a therapist, I have never witnessed such atrocious, ineffective communication as I have between the two of you.”

Ineffective communication is the prime culprit in the breakdown and failure of all kinds of enterprises whether in personal relationships, business, or, as we have been witnessing – in politics and government.

This does not have to be so.

COMMUNICATING INTIMATELY: It’s not uncommon to hear a spouse complain, “My husband doesn’t really talk with me. I share something quite intimate about myself, and all I get is an ‘uh-huh’ out of him. He never shares his feelings.”

Well it could be that he experiences revealing parts of himself as “risky business”. You will see that as we progress down into the deeper levels of intimacy, risk increases…but so does the reward of deep and honest connection.

There are four levels of intimacy in person to person communication.

LEVEL ONE is what I call “superficial pleasantries.” At the grocery checkout: “How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks.” There’s no intimacy and no risk. In fact, we don’t expect the clerk to respond with something like: “Oh, well, let me tell you! I got so mad at my boyfriend this morning I threw a lamp at him. I didn’t really mean to hit him, but I did and it gashed him above the eye. Blood everywhere. Spent the morning in the emergency room. Eight stitches in his forehead. Made me late to work. Had to work overtime. My feet are killing me and my carpal tunnel hurts like my fingers were smashed in a car door. How about you? How you doin’?”

INTIMACY LEVEL TWO is communicating one’s opinion. Ralph: “What do you think of Trump? Ted: “Oh I don’t know, I…” (Ted is afraid to say what he really thinks.) “Well I know what I think,” Ralph cuts him off. “I think he’s the worst #%$@% ever and a *@%#!! besides.” Uh-oh. Did I just say what I really think of Mr. Trumpet?

Sharing your opinion can be risky in that it reveals parts of your personality, values and beliefs. It reveals details about you and sets you up to possibly be judged.

INTIMACY LEVEL THREE is the communication of feelings such as anger, resentment, hurt and fear on the negative side, and love, joy, appreciation on the positive. In a budding romantic relationship it’s risky to be the first to declare “I love you.” What if there’s no response! Other risky feelings: “I’m really hating you right now!” “When you do that it’s disgusting to me?” “You really want to know how I feel? Most of the time when we’re together I feel utterly alone.”

INTIMACY LEVEL FOUR: This is a mode of communicating that many if not most of us have never had modeled for us by our parents— the communication of deep truth. This level is the most risky and potentially life-changing of all. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?” A “yes” and both succumb to tears of joy.” A “no” and— uh-oh, awkward. The opposite: “I don’t love you anymore. I want a divorce.” Other examples: Wife: “Honey, why aren’t we making love more often?” Husband: “It’s hard for me to talk about. I’m afraid of not being able to perform like I used to. A courageous and vulnerable communication. Level four could also be reached as a gay person bravely announces his or her sexual preference. Life-changing.

On which of the four levels of intimacy do you reside? Do you take the risk of communicating at the deeper levels of feelings and deep truth? For communication to be truly effective in your relationships you will need to open yourself up. For many this can be quite daunting.


Especially in intimate relationships, but in important other enterprises such as business, or even sports, it’s very helpful and often critical to know what’s going on inside the ones we live, work and play with. Far too often days and months, even years go by and we don’t take the time to share our inner feelings, our dreams, disappointments, fears and joys.

There is a simple yet profound strategy to overcome this debilitating pitfall, and to practice all levels of communication. It will take some guts on the part of many because deep and effective communication can be very rewarding, but can also be dangerous in that it can upset apple carts.

Here is the technique. It needs to become a habit to be truly effective. Once a week, let’s say every Sunday evening, you and your significant other set aside a half hour. Sit across from each other and sustain eye contact. One of you begins, let’s say, Barbara, by simply asking the other, her husband Pete: “What’s going on with you?” Then Pete shares whatever comes up for him. Then Pete asks Barbara “What’s going on with you?” As each shares, the person asking the question never interrupts, just listens without judgement as much as possible. Alternate sharing.

The question can become more pointed as you continue. For example, “What’s going on with your feelings?” “What’s going on with you physically?” “What’s going on with you at work?” “What’s going on with you and your family?” “What’s going on with you about me?”

As I said, for many, especially those who have been holding onto deep feelings and perhaps withholds for some time, this simple exercise will take courage. But speaking your truth can also truly set you free. The challenge is for you to make this simple yet powerful technique a ritual in your lives.

A caveat: Not everything needs to be communicated. For example, if something comes up for you that could be hurtful to your partner, you must make a judgment call. Sometimes it’s wiser to hold back certain communications.

As mentioned, this technique can also be implemented in other scenarios such as business. What if every Friday supervisors sat across from individuals under their management and just for fifteen to thirty minutes asked them, “What’s going on with you?” Alternates: “What’s going on with you and your co-workers? With your supervisors? What’s going on with you regarding your responsibilities?

And remember…Communication Is More Than Words

“Words and phrases are approximately only 10 percent of the communication between intimate partners. The other 90 percent consists of body language, facial expression, voice intonation, rhythm, and physical connection. As partners talk to each other, they must be in touch with all of those parts of the puzzle in themselves, while simultaneously experiencing them in the other. Both partners must understand and accept that while they interact, both concurrently experience feelings, hopes, fears, anticipations, needs, and counterarguments or defenses, without necessarily expressing them out loud. Otherwise, both the speaker and the listener may take in the words without understanding them in the context of these variables.” (From a 2017 article by therapist Randi Gunther, Ph.D.)

If you truly are committed to improved and effective communication, the invitation is to implement and practice intimate, truthful communication in all your close relationships. The risk may be great in some cases, but the rewards will far outweigh the risks.

Ed. Note:

Dr. Acuff’s Ph.D. is in philosophy, sociology and education. He has been a seminar leader for a variety of personal enhancement courses in front of more than 3,000 participants. He is author of fifteen books including three philosophical/ spiritual works of fiction: God Lied – What’s Really Going on Here, The Mysteries of Quan, and Golf and the Zen Master. Dr. Acuff is offering a weekly SELF EXPLORATION AND DISCOVERY workshop starting April 18 at LCS. See advertisement this page.

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