Vulnerability as strength

  • Mental Health

While it might seem like a contradiction one of the most powerful things a person can do is show weakness. Often we feel the need to fight to survive when the best strategy would be to show vulnerability.

Let me be clear, I'm not talking about serious life or death situations where maintaining a veneer of strength is crucial for survival. Those situations are different and that is not my focus today. I want to share with you how challenging myself to be vulnerable has helped me tremendously in my personal relationships, in my career and in my expression through music and writing. A meditation on the strength found in vulnerability.

There are a few arenas where vulnerability is rewarded in our culture but we don't really acknowledge it for what it is. Think of one of your favourite singers. Maybe they brought a tear to your eye with a performance so pure you felt it in your bones. Have you ever stoped to think about why they were able to affect you in that way? It's at least in part because they expressed something about themselves so directly and so honestly that you felt it. Sometimes you see yourself in what they said. Other times it's a friend. Or was it your grandpa? Perhaps it was a feeling you've never had, but now you've had a potent sip.

Whatever it was they made you feel, they did it by being vulnerable. They made you, someone they don't even know, feel something incredible.

These days it almost seems obvious that vulnerability is going to help you in your personal relationships but why then is it still so hard? Being vulnerable often involves admitting that you don't know something. Or telling someone you made a mistake. It can mean the start of a years-long journey of self-discovery, pain and ultimately growth, after admitting to someone you've known intimately that you had it all wrong and want to fix it more than anything. It can mean admitting you feel like you have failed and are worth nothing.

But in the midst of all that discomfort and apprehension there's a shinning jewel. Everyone wishes they could be vulnerable. Everyone wishes the world could understand how they feel. I've learnt that if you stand up and tell your story, warts and all, people will respond. Just like that song that still brings a tear to your eye, seeing someone put their heart on the line in a genuine effort to communicate their needs moves people. And if it doesn't then it should. The more people behave as if vulnerability is a strength, the more empathy we will build and the better our communities, our companies and our world will become.

An area where the prevailing wisdom on vulnerability is less clear is business. Too often I still see the antiquated attitude that in order to succeed in business, and in life more generally, you have to abide by some dog-eat-dog, zero-sum dogma rearing its head from the darker parts of our human nature. This idea is not only depressingly cynical but it goes against what we know about humans as a social species as well as ignoring real world examples of where taking an empathetic, people-first approach to a problem resulted in a better solution for all.

If you are truly customer obsessed (and if you aren't then why aren't you?) then your most potent tool is empathy and vulnerability. In order to be truly open to feedback your whole company needs to approach customers from a place of vulnerability and ask them something like: "What is it that we're getting completely wrong that you'd like us to know about?" Without a foundation of vulnerability and empathy activities like user research and sales are nothing more than a theatrical exercise on the path to profits.

But what about your day to day work? Do you want to build a better relationship with your team mates? Do you want to have a better connection with your reports? Do you want to feel like you fit in and are represented in your company culture?

The quickest and easiest way to get a connection with someone is sharing something personal about yourself. But it doesn't have to just be about your past, or your life outside of work. You can take the principle of vulnerability as strength into your daily work. Why worry about what your boss is going to say if you don't get that project done by the end of the month when you could show vulnerability and say something like:

I'm feeling really stressed about this project coming up and I think I need some help to get it done. Can you help me?.

I'm going to go ahead and give you some career advice and say if you get anything except for a variation on "I'm sorry to hear that, how can I help?" then you might want to consider your options. Any business or organisation that has to ask their employees to sacrifice their wellbeing in order to be successful, has failed. As an employee being vulnerable about what you need in order to work and live a happy life is a shortcut to finding out if an organisation's culture is for you.

As someone that doesn't have children of his own I want to finish with some questions for those of you that do. Do you think we talk about being vulnerable enough with our children? Do they think they need to be as strong as you thought you needed to be? Do you think they should?