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Can showing vulnerability make you more resilient?


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:


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?

Training versus Facilitation... and why you care!

Some practical guidance for recognising the difference, and what happens when you get it wrong!

For those of us in professional HR/ learning & development, this is a well- worn discussion, but I wanted to take a moment to share with a broader audience the difference between 'training' and 'facilitation' and why it matters, especially if you have a hand in designing, procuring or commissioning L&D solutions.

For years now in my practice as a learning and development professional, working with companies large and small and at all levels of seniority, I have tried to put as much distance between myself and 'training' as possible. The accusation that I am a ‘trainer’ has always felt almost demeaning.

However, there really is a place for 'training' and 'trainers', and as I look back I have often, rightly, been in that place. The problem with 'training' is that it suggests a very old-school approach to helping people grow. It suggests that power sits primarily with the trainer as the source of knowledge and answers. The trainer typically has every minute of the session planned and controlled so that it feels 'on rails' and there is very little, if any, room for emergent discussion. It will often look and feel as though the trainer is putting on a show and he/she is clearly the dominant presence in the room. He/ she will often be thinking about things like ‘keeping up the energy in the room', managing the physical space and keeping delegates engaged. Training is the right style where the learning is at the level of facts, knowledge or skills development and/ or the working group size is larger than about 10 people. For many of our graduate development programmes, this is absolutely the more effective and appropriate style.

Facilitation, on the other hand, is the appropriate style where the session needs to be focussed on emergent exploration of a problem or situation. The session will be far less structured - typically the facilitator will have prepared a few models, approaches or questions to help the group explore the question in hand - and the role of the facilitator is to provide direction, focus and 'ways of thinking' for the group dialogue. Unlike the trainer, the spotlight should never be on the facilitator. Facilitation is the right style where the answer(s) to one or a few relatively complex problems lie within the group themselves. Our recent work with the OSCE was more towards the facilitative style.

A lot of good work and investment can be undone very quickly

Perhaps unexpectedly, facilitation is the more complex and demanding skill. There is relative safety in knowing and controlling a day's training schedule, whereas it takes a good degree of confidence in your breadth and depth of experience and ability to manage a complex problem-solving discussion amongst a group of (typically senior) people to help them come to a useful resolution. Facilitation is analogous with group coaching, as training is to teaching. At Interaction, we regularly give each other feedback and proactively develop our skills so that we are able to range across this spectrum effectively, and we have a large pool of associates who are able to operate at both ends of this scale.

Getting this wrong is like to make for a painful and ineffective mismatch

Getting this wrong is likely to make for a painful and ineffective mismatch. I have known many 'trainers' come awkwardly unstuck in front of smaller, more senior audiences, and 'facilitators' fail to have any impact where a more dynamic and controlling style was required. Of course, skilled practitioners are able to adjust their style across the continuous spectrum from facilitation to training to best suit the audience. Just make sure that you have a good match, or a lot of good work and investment can be undone very swiftly.

What do you stand for?

We ran a session last week onpersonal brand’ as part of a graduate development module and it was fascinating how people engaged with it and worked hard to capture the many elements that make them who they are – and what they feel is important for others to recognise about them. In other words, the reputation that they would like to have at work.

It struck me how important the concept of ‘the shadow you cast’ is and how it’s something that doesn’t have a defined start and finish time. Perhaps at the start of your career it’s important to give this some thought as working within a team and organisation becomes a day-to-day reality. However, in many ways, in order to land a job in such competitive times, people have already given some thought to their personal qualities and what makes them stand out. The challenge then is to make this a reality and live up to your employer’s expectations – and this is when the timing of a session like this with graduates combined with good levels of business feedback will help take this thinking to the next level.

However, the interesting thing about ‘personal brand’ is that as people get more experienced within an organisation, it’s something that often gets overlooked. For me it still merits the same level of scrutiny and focus – even with more senior leaders. The old adage that ‘it’s not just what you know but how you do it’ is one that holds true for all of our careers, yet sometimes it still needs a timely development session to remind us that this is ongoing work that requires ongoing focus. So when we run similar sessions with senior leaders, they often say how refreshing it is to have time to give this proper thought – and almost always they identify an area that merits further attention and focus.

For me the moral is we never stop learning about who we are and how we come across. What’s important is that we retain an active curiosity in how important this is to our effectiveness at work.

How do feelings impact performance?

How important are our feelings at and towards work? At the Association of Business Psychologists Conference this year Rich Cook of JCA Global asserted that only a small minority of the workforce feel positive and engaged at any one time, and as a result, the vast majority of people at work could be compared to a car traveling with the handbrake on.

How people feel at work affects how they behave

By identifying and exploring feelings and behaviour at work we can make valuable changes. With the creation of a supportive environment and opportunities to experience what different behaviour feels like and looks like we can discover the impact we have, and are able to have, with others.

Through intelligently designed training programmes we support business needs to stimulate development through real experiences that bring about behavioural change.

Get in touch now to discover what we can do for you.

The training venue - does it matter?

“Terrible – dowdy – heating all over the place!   Identical lunch for 3 days.  Wi-fi poor.  No natural light, rooms miles apart, car parking extortionate AND dirty!!”  You may not have heard all of these grievances post programme, and possibly not all at once, but they will probably sound all too familiar if you’ve ever attended or delivered a training programme. 

Can the venue impact the programme?

We deliver programmes in many types of venues: hotels, conference centres, clients’ premises – sometimes the choice is out of our control.  If the venue does not meet expectations, it can most definitely have a detrimental impact on the outcome of the programme.

Think about when you go on holiday – imagine arriving at your accommodation after a long drive or flight for example, upbeat and hopeful, and eager to get your holiday started.  You’re excited as it’s the start of a week of relaxation, so you approach the reception desk to check in and are greeted by a rude receptionist who makes you feel like you’re ruining their day.  How does that then impact the rest of your trip?  Does it make any small issue during your stay seem more significant?  Do you find yourself focusing only on the negative?  Are you ready to jump on Trip Advisor and share your horror story with the world?!

Perhaps less dramatically, it’s the same when we deliver a programme.  Quite often delegates will make comments regarding the venue in the post-programme evaluation, even if the question is not venue related.  Things like the syndicate rooms being far away from the main room, the food being below standard or unhelpful staff for example (I could probably fill a book with negative venue comments).  This can all contribute to how a person evaluates the programme overall.  Their comfort, the amenities and most certainly the quality of the refreshments play a big part of their overall training experience.

For a facilitator to spend much of their time trying to solve venue-related problems and appease disgruntled delegates doesn’t seem the most valuable way to manage their time; we do our best to smooth things over (but we can’t always work miracles).  This kind of unwelcome distraction during a programme can mar the entire experience for everyone.

So what can we do?

  • Give the venue the feedback in the moment – they can’t improve if they aren’t informed and most venues would care about receiving a negative review
  • If it’s a venue you will be returning to because of a bulk booking, make friends with the events team.  If you can get them on your side, you may be able to engineer the best training rooms, a better lunch, even the best bedroom for yourself J
  • If the venue is booked by a third party, let them know if the venue needs to be avoided in future
  • Keep a list of venues to be avoided and why
  • Keep a list of the decent venues too – and let them know!  There’s nothing like great feedback through Twitter or Facebook to build networks and good working relationships.

There is only so much we can do to reduce the impact of a bad venue on the programme outcomes, but we can certainly try and mitigate the risk.  We might not be able to manage a ‘dirty’ car park but we can surely influence what’s on the menu to ensure a contented group of delegates!