This piece was originally published in 2020 on Medium.
Immediately upon gathering of a group of twelve strangers in an emptied hotel room, our facilitator urged us to “be vulnerable.” She depicted this vulnerability as torturous — and obligatory. I would be spending eight hours over four days with this group, focusing on connection and personal reflection. I didn’t know anyone. My ignorance turned into ire: what a lazy and self-interested request! Rather than doing the hard work to create trust and connection among the group members, the group leader was indicating a self-congratulatory, low bar for measuring the success of her own facilitation: “If people share raw emotion, I have succeeded.”
A few weeks later, at a candlelit gathering of thirty people for an actual discussion about “human connection”, our host immediately vowed inclusivity and anonymity. He gently invited us to share without hesitation, and to “be vulnerable.” Although rankled by his rhetoric, I accepted what I imagined was his intent: indicating that this was a safe space in which people could choose to be vulnerable, however we define it. He had done the hard work of setting the stage by disclosing the agenda, warmly welcoming us, introducing the participants, and indicating utmost respect for people and their privacy.
Leaders have explained to me that when they ask people to be vulnerable they are asking for “candor” and “openness.” But why are leaders (and this includes any kind of group facilitator) beseeching others to be vulnerable? What is the ultimate goal? To what do they aspire? Do they find gratification in leading such conversations? Do they think openness will result in efficiency and high performance? Do they wish to encourage openness as a contributor to and an indicator of trust? Or have they considered none of this and are swept up in a problematic fad?
If you are asking people to be vulnerable, do not assume your intent is understood. There are variations on vulnerability and clarity of intent is essential. There are important differences between demonstrating a willingness to be open to changing one’s mind, unfurling emotion, and being honest.
You may see this as a semantic argument. But words matter. Emotional exposure is different than vulnerability. Emotions include awe and passion as well as shame and fear. For many people, vulnerability is not a choice. Victims are vulnerable. Climate change and poverty make people vulnerable. Both youth and old age render people vulnerable. Anxiety and grief can make people vulnerable.
Yet too often, we are being urged by managers, coaches, group facilitators, and team leaders to be vulnerable. As in,
“Our ground rule is: Be vulnerable.”
“Be vulnerable so we can get to the good stuff.”
“I can’t help you unless you are willing to be vulnerable.”
Again, these ill-defined requests are invasive and lack virtue. The last is extortion. Admonishing someone to show vulnerability is asking them to play defense — and inviting others to play offense. It is disempowering to the receiver. In fact, on the fourth day, one woman in the hotel room was attacked for her honesty. That facilitator did not suggest and support vulnerability as a means to possibility and human connection. Her abusive admonishment called upon a more dangerous definition of vulnerability: the risk of unfortified attack.
We don’t become less vulnerable when we are told to be vulnerable. In fact, by succumbing to the vulnerability fad and telling us to be vulnerable, misguided leaders are often making us vulnerable.
Telling someone to “be vulnerable” doesn’t create the ability, or provide the space, for them to do so. If you have to prod individuals to be vulnerable then you haven’t built the environment in which they can be.
If you are a leader looking to foster connection through the elicitation of vulnerability, do the hard work first: create psychologically safe spaces. Spaces in which we can be confident that we will not be harshly judged by colleagues, leaders, and superiors, or suffer for honest and open emotional expression. Before urging vulnerability, leaders must first encourage respect, transparency, and listening in pursuit of understanding.
Leaders may show their own vulnerability and imperfection to encourage openness. Modeling vulnerability is crucial to delineating what you mean by the term. Manifesting vulnerability is a compassionate contribution to the creation of psychological safety and the convening of inclusive and innovative communities. (Intermittent attention to psychological safety negates the presence of such safety.) Modeling alone is not enough: it must co-exist with clarity of words and actions.
By exhorting vulnerability in others, leaders and facilitators may be exploiting status. “If you have some power,” said Toni Morrison, “then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” If you want openness from your employees or group members, say so. Explain why you are asking for it and how you think it will benefit both the group and the individuals in the group. Aim to minimize emotional risk and to maximize consideration and care among group members. Invite and build trust among people whose dignity and agency are respected. Create a safe space in which we can, indeed, be open with you and with each other. Create a space in which we can choose to be vulnerable.
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