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Exercises in Limited Self Disclosure

Barry Greenwald, Ph.D.


To provide trainees with the experience of what it feels like to share personal, intimate, secret things about themselves. This allows them to become more appreciative of the effort it takes to share with another person, what conditions effect trusting another person, and what can facilitate and what can get in the way of the process going smoothly. It helps them to appreciate what the caller requesting help feels like.

Three separate exercises are used. The risk factor increases with each exercise. The movement is from diad, to small group, to large group.

Diadic Interview

Trainees are asked to select a partner and find a somewhat private place in the room where they can talk quietly together. A decision is made as to who will be the interviewer and who will be the interviewee.

The interviewer is instructed to really get to know the person with whom he or she is paired. The interview is to get beyond the superficial cocktail party type conversation to issues that reflect what really makes the other person tick. Hopefully, the interviewer will be sensitive and tactful in the questions that are asked.

The interviewee is to try and answer as much as possible.

Both the interviewer and interviewee should be instructed to monitor as closely as possible the feelings and reactions they have to this experience so that they can be reported afterwards.

After about 20 minutes, the roles should be reversed. Allow 20 minutes for processing in a large group afterwards. The entire exercise should take about an hour.

SAMPLE PROCESSING: What questions were easy to answer? What questions were difficult to answer? What things made you feel comfortable? Uncomfortable? What feelings did you have about the right to ask? The right to know? How did it feel being asked certain things? How did you dodge questions you didn't want to answer? What did it feel like asking? answering?

Ask the trainees to divide into small groups (5-6). Have them spend just a few minutes talking with each other. Do not structure what they talk about; leave that to them. Then ask the trainees to close their eyes and to imagine a secret that they have not told anyone. Ask them to imagine it vividly and to bring back all the feelings that surround that secret; the pain, embarrassment, anger, etc. Allow some time for this to take place. Then, ask the trainees to imagine sharing this secret with the group they are now in. Instruct them to think about their saying the secret aloud and what it felt like.

Have the trainees open their eyes. Now, tell them that at no point will they be asked to reveal the secret. There is generally audible signs of relief from the group. Find out how many imagined two secrets: one that could be told if we insisted and one that they wouldn't tell if their lives depended upon it.

Ask them to talk within the group about what it felt like to share the secret. Essentially, we are asking them to share their phantasy about the "telling." Ask them also to talk about how each person in the group seemed to relate and react to their secret.

Allow about 20 minutes for this exercise. Then bring the group together and ask them to share their reactions in the larger group.

Secret Sharing and the Empathic Experience
Pass out small slips of paper to everyone. Ask them to write a real secret on those slips; a secret that they have not shared in the past,; a secret that would be difficult to share. Assure the group that these secrets will not be associated with the writers.

Instructions for this exercise need to be very explicit. Make sure that everyone orients the piece of paper in exactly the same way. Tell everyone to print. If anyone has a pen or a pencil with a distinctive color ink or lead, tell them to use some other writing instrument. Everything should be done to protect the anonymity of the writer.

Have them fold the slips in fours and deposit in a container in the center of the room. One by one, each person draws a slip of paper and reads it aloud. After the secret is read, the paper is torn up and left at the reader's feet. The group members close their eyes until the secret is read..

Group members are told that after the secret is read they are to attempt to identify with the person who wrote the secret, to own the secret, and to respond aloud. Trainees are encouraged to respond with feelings statements that begin with the personal pronoun "I." The leader should keep the rhythm of this exercise moving along at an appropriate pace. It is also important for the leader to model responses by actively participating in the exercise.

Toward the end, the leader should ask people how well the group did in empathizing with the secrets. Again, no one is asked to reveal or own his or her secret.

Time does not always permit that every secret is read aloud. If some secrets remain, the leader collects them and tears them up.

This is a very powerful exercise and often generates a great deal of feeling in the participants. Time should be allowed to process the experience before the group disbands. It is also a good idea to return to the processing at the beginning of the next training session to be sure to catch any left over business.

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