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Can showing vulnerability make you more resilient?

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Let's start 2019 with a story (I love a good story!):

In my role, I lead a number of different programmes and they typically begin with an introduction where I headline the process and how the next few days of the module/s are going to work.

This can be addressing an audience size of anything from 14 to 120 participants and is an opportunity to really set the tone for how well the entire programme will be received. It is a widely held belief that it is this introduction that can make or break a module - no pressure!

The first time I was asked to do this (admittedly a few years ago), I was feeling seriously daunted by the whole process. I was introducing a three-day workshop to a large group of engineering graduates who had recently begun their careers with a major construction company.

The messages reverberating around my head were "You're going to let the team down!" "You're not good enough!" and my favourite "You're 40, what are you going to tell this room of 20 somethings?"

Needless to say, I clenched my fists and survived...

Later in the day I was with my assigned small group of six graduates and we were doing a feedback activity where I asked them to write down on a post it something that they thought someone else in the room needed to hear.

One of them gave me this:

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And I still have the original post it after all these years!

In typical Facilitator fashion, I'm going to ask you a series of questions:

  • When was the last time that you felt vulnerable at work?

  • How did it feel?

  • What were the messages that you told yourself?

  • How did you cope with those feelings and messages?

  • Did you talk to anyone about it?

  • If you did, who and why?

  • If you didn't, what stopped you?

The post it note that I had been given had 'unhooked' shame from vulnerability for me!

I had unconsciously exposed my vulnerability to what I perceived as potential ridicule and the author of that post it's empathy had allowed them to see that and support me. Between us, we had created an environment where we felt able to be vulnerable, not only in words, but in actions.

It's a widely held belief from a number of sources (Robertson and Cooper, Clarke and Nicholson, Steve Radcliffe - to name a few) that one of the key tools that can allow us to become more resilient is establishing and engaging with a strong support network.

Put simply, the ability to talk to someone about what is happening for you and have them genuinely listen to what you have to say.

So, how can you establish this support network?

You need two things:

  1. the ability to be vulnerable, and

  2. the ability to 'be with' vulnerability (to demonstrate empathy)

Namely, being truly open with someone and also being able to be with someone when they are being open, without either rushing to fix it (being 'rescuer' or 'problem solver'), or wallowing as well.

Let me leave you with three questions to consider:

  • When did you last feel vulnerable? How did you cope and how could you manage that behaviour differently?

  • What behaviours are you role modelling? Do you first look to shame others?

  • Are you listening, or solving first?