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How to Help People Open Up When They Don’t Want To

Tips to help people feel more comfortable talking about their problems.

Key points

  • It's impossible to force someone to talk if they don't want to. They may get annoyed or simply lie.
  • Helping someone to open up requires minimizing the reasons they need to keep secrets.
  • Opening up to another person first can make them more likely to open up themselves.

There’s only one thing you need to know about making someone open up when they don’t want to: You can’t do it. Even as a therapist, it took me years to figure this out. Please save yourself some time and learn from my mistakes.

Trying to make someone open up when that’s the opposite of what they want to do is dangerous. At best, you’ll annoy them and they might lie to you. At worst, resentment can build and ruin the relationship.

But I’m assuming you clicked on this post because you want to help people, not hurt them. You’re altruistic and I admire that. There is a way to help.

Instead of forcing someone to tell you their secrets, minimize the reasons they need to keep secrets in the first place. When someone chooses to hide something, they’re protecting themselves—like a castle with the drawbridge up. If you want them to risk opening the door, you’re going to have to give them proof that it’s safe.

There are two main reasons that someone isn’t talking to you about their problems: Either they don’t want to talk to you about it or they don’t know how to talk about it.

If it’s the former, then you, something about you, or your involvement in a situation might be the reason they aren’t opening up. You could be part of the problem or maybe they don’t want you to judge them, so they’re keeping quiet. In that scenario, your friend or family member is probably feeling ashamed, afraid, or guilty.

Here are three ways to make it easier for them to talk to you about the problem.

  • Tell them how you’ll try to react. Let them know that you’ll try your best to stay calm, stay quiet, and hear the entire story. If you know yourself well and there are certain reactions you should avoid, mention those too. Let them know that you’ll avoid yelling, blaming, or trying to fix the situation yourself.
  • Show them something you used to hide. Tell them about a time you felt stressed, depressed, or confused. Pick something significant, not something like that time you asked the teacher for extra help in math class. Choose something significant that happened in your life that caused a big shift in how you saw yourself or made you do something out of character. You can lead by example instead of asking them to jump first.
  • Give specific examples of behaviors or situations that you are comfortable discussing and wouldn’t judge them for; the more taboo and specific the better. It’s helpful to say, “I could understand if you started stealing money from work and using heroin again. I just want to know," or “I won’t judge if you started having an affair with your boss.” If you overshoot the problem, then whatever the person actually wants to talk about doesn’t seem so bad. And remember that this technique works best if you use examples that you would actually understand. You can’t lie and say you wouldn’t care if they started dating their abusive ex again if you couldn’t actually accept that. You’ll have to balance being honest and being specific.

The second reason someone might avoid talking to you about a problem is that they don’t know how to describe what’s happening. They might be feeling confused or ashamed about the situation and they don’t have the words to say how they feel. Here are three ways to help them find some clarity.

  • Remind them that the two of you can talk about the problem slowly over time. Whatever the situation is, you can talk about it more than once. In fact, it’s best if you talk about it bit by bit. It’s rare that everything that needs to be said can happen in one conversation.
  • Offer to help find information about whatever the problem is so the two of you can figure it out together. You can look up information online or talk to someone else you know that’s had a similar problem.
  • Point out that talking about the problem isn’t the only option. They might find their own creative way to share what’s happening without words.

I’m sorry if you were hoping for more coercive or manipulative tactics to get people to open up. But the secret to learning others’ secrets isn't complicated: Take away the reasons to hide. And then, why not open up?

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