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How to Get Someone to Let Their Guard Down

There's a fine line between intimacy and manipulation.

Simon Long, who makes motorcycle parts of out fiberglass in Melbourne, Australia, doesn't have time for conventional friendships. "One big sad for me is that I meet people I really like, and know that I won't have any time to go further with them," he says. "I'm stuck in a shallow pool."

So Long, who's moved 14 times in the last ten years for his business, has developed an intimacy shortcut. "I like to do a bit of a mentalist thing on the people I meet," he says. He calls it "clicker training," which is based on a dog and horse training technique by the same name: You give them a treat whenever you make a clicking sound, so they learn to associate the clicker with good behavior. You can then reinforce good behavior by rewarding them with a click when they do something right.

Popularized by animal behaviorist Karen Pryor in the 1990s, clicker training is a highly effective positive reinforcement tool for animals. But can it work on people, too? Turns out, clicker training is actually based on psychological principles first explored in humans. "We took those concepts and adapted them for use with animals," says Ken Ramirez, CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training. "So there is no question that they can be used with people." There's no magic in the clicking sound itself though, Ramirez notes. You can "use a wink, a nod, or just about anything the learner can easily perceive" to reinforce behavior. (And if you're human, those things will likely work better than actual clicking.)

Long's "clicker-style affirmations" include nodding, saying "yep," and even clicking his tongue when people divulge personal details. "I have a lot of non-word sounds, like Homer Simpson's 'd'oh,'" he says. Even pauses are deliberate. When there's a lull in conversation, Long smiles, makes eye contact, and waits. "This is a training click to say that I will follow the conversational thread wherever they want to go."

Research suggests he's on to something. "There's definitely a technique that can change our own behavior and the behaviors of others," says Alan Kazdin, a Yale psychology professor who teaches a course on how to change human behavior. "And it's systematic, and it builds habits, and the research shows that it changes the brain." Indeed, Long's tactic is perhaps unknowingly based on operant conditioning, which essentially says that if the consequences of an action are bad, we probably won't repeat it; if they're good, we will.

Here's how Kazdin says you can apply it in conversation: Pave the way for an intimate interaction by modifying your tone of voice or modeling vulnerable behavior. This is called the antecedent. Don't demand to know why people feel a certain way. Don't pry. Just start talking. Ask gentle questions.

As the conversation unfolds, reinforce their emotive statements with affirmations like nodding, leaning in, interested facial expressions, agreeing, and asking questions. This human version of clicking is called crafting. Giving particular attention to someone's I-statements, like "I feel," "I want" and "I believe," will increase their likelihood of recurring.

For Long, a perfect interaction involves many different emotions, like happiness, sadness, and sympathy. So he tries to respond to the conversation's emotions as much as its content. Conversation crafting isn't rocket science, but it's nevertheless under-taught and under-used. Lots of people "never [learned] in school to listen and respond," Long explains.

After a while, the theory goes, others' openness will persist even once you slow down or stop deliberately reinforcing it. Eventually, people will feel comfortable sharing their deepest facts and feelings with you.

Conditioning works because it's subtle and supportive. Too often, Long has observed, we try to "punish people into compliance, instead of clicking them into it." We try to force them open. But Kazdin's research repeatedly shows that strategic reinforcement works better.

Even conditioning done right, however, is not always beneficial. "It is not necessarily desirable, or good, for many people to open up at all," Kazdin says. Modern psychology suggests that "dungeon digging," as it's called, can actually make people feel worse; sometimes deep-seated emotions are best left deep. "The cathartic view has its value … But not for everyone."

Moreover, if your aim is authentic intimacy, conditioning people to spill their guts is insufficient. Even Long, who dreams of crowdfunding a commune, concedes that clicker training can fall short. "Quite a lot of people consider me to be a valued friend without me having the same sense of having my needs met," he says. Quick conditioning may, at times, short-circuit reciprocal relationships.

Ultimately, while clicker-like conditioning may sometimes induce intimacy, there is no shortcut. Kazdin recited the famous lines from Fiddler on the Roof: "Do you love me?" Tevye, a poor milkman, asks his wife. She replies that she's lived with him for 25 years: "If that's not love, what is?" There is no substitute or trick for time.

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