Disclose Rather Than Explain
By Anthony Casperson
When I was in bible college, I attended a class called “Preaching and Self-Disclosure.” The main premise orbited around the thesis of the doctoral dissertation of the professor, who was the academic dean of the school: “Self-disclosure begets self-disclosure.” What this means is that when one person conveys a story to another, the second person will usually then relate a story of similar narrative quality from their own life back to the first person. If Jason talks about his vacation to Sarah, she will more than likely give the details of her most recent vacation as well.
The memory of this class popped up in my head while watching a movie recently. Throughout the early parts of the movie, the therapist of the main character bumbled through her attempts to help the man who was her patient. Being a relative noob when it came to helping people, because the man was her third patient ever, the therapist kept just telling him that it was normal to feel the things that he felt in his situation.
She went through the technical psychological jargon with him in her explanation. She even went so far as to try to force him into the structure of the stages of grief by saying that his calm nature toward his problem was in fact just his step of denial. Session after session, she alienated him more and more by explaining the psychology of his situation instead of helping him open up about his struggles in order to work through them.
Then came a scene where she offered to drive him home because she didn’t think it was wise for him to take the bus in his given state. (I know, it’s a not so subtle way to push the plot forward.) Anyway, in the scene he barely mentions that he broke up with his girlfriend because of his issues. She pushes, as always, like a troll through a hobbit hole. And he shuts down the conversation. Frustrated, the therapist discloses the fact that she had recently broken up with her boyfriend.
At that moment, a careful observer could see that the story piqued the man’s interest. It’s not because of the story per se, but because in that moment she showed him that being a part of a break up is a normal thing, it happens to most people. Rather than telling him that his relationship ending because of the problem that first led him to therapy was normal and not something he should worry about, she recounted her own experience.
A back and forth happened between them as they continued sharing their stories together. This then led the man to open up more in their later counseling sessions. (Though, obviously, because this is a movie, other ups and downs happen and they eventually enter into a relationship with each other, which shouldn’t happen between a patient and therapist.)
It was because of this one moment when the therapist opened up about her life, that the man began to trust her. He started to see her as a fellow traveler down this twisted path of life rather some authority figure who stood above the whole thing in judgement. This is what my professor tried to teach us. Self-disclosure is able to help others see that they are not alone as they struggle in the mess of the world. We’re in this mess together. And it’s easier to trust someone who’s lived in the mess when they offer a hand of aid.
But why is that true? Why is it that disclosing one’s own struggles is far more effective than telling someone directly what the problem is and how to fix it from an overhead view? You would think that the best path would be the shortest line from problem to solution. However, in reality, it tends that the circuitous path of self-disclosed story is the greater aid in helping someone see the truth about their situation and the options of aid open to them.
Interestingly, this comes very close to advise given to writers: “Show, don’t tell.” Rather than flat out saying, “Don was a mechanical genius, but socially inept,” introduce the character of Don by saying, “Sparks radiated from the workbench, eclipsed by the shadow of a huddled figure. The shape turned to see the new occupant of his sanctum. A muffled voice emerged from behind the face mask, ‘Hello, I’m Don. Can I help you?” His hand reached out in greeting, still holding the lit torch. ‘Oops. Wouldn’t want to make you have to use this,” Don said patting the mechanical hand on the workbench as he set down the torch beside it.”
The less direct path allows the reader to see the truth of the situation without feeling like they’re being talked down to by the author. It allows their minds to wander into the territory of when they, or someone they know, had an awkward moment. They become more invested in the character because they now share an emotional connection. The reader isn’t alone in the struggle of being a little socially awkward.
Self-disclosure begets self-disclosure because it connects us in the midst of our struggle in this messy world. The more open we are, the more honest we are, the more we can help others and be helped by them. I believe that this is part of the reason why the bible doesn’t sugarcoat the weaknesses of the people portrayed. God, in his infinite wisdom, beautifully crafted his word in such a way that we can relate to so many of the people showcased within.
If there were anyone who could properly have stood above the situations of life and given an overhead view, it would be God. But he doesn’t. He gives the stories of his people to his people so that we can grow together in him. The journey might be messy, but it’s best traveled with God and his people.
So, as we continue down this sin-twisted path, let’s be open and honest about ourselves. Disclose a story of your life to someone who needs help and you will likely see that person respond much better than if you’d have just told them the technical operations of overcoming their struggle. Disclose rather than explain. And who knows, as self-disclosure begets self-disclosure, you might just end up being the recipient of truth as well.