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Why Vulnerability Matters

“Just picture everyone naked.”

This folkloric public speaking hack has always seemed curious to me. While I’ve never heard any real live person attest to its effectiveness, the regularity with which it’s offered as advice, at least on old sitcoms, is reason enough to give it some thought.

Specifically, I’ve wondered why looking out at an audience of your naked peers would melt away anyone’s nerves. Though I’m not sold on the method, I do have faith in what I believe is at its core—vulnerability. In this case, your audiences’. Their vulnerability puts you at enough ease to present, which itself is a very vulnerable act.

To succeed, one must be willing to both be vulnerable and create space for others to be vulnerable with you.

This begins to get at why vulnerability is increasingly touted as an essential part of a successful and happy life. To succeed, one must be willing to both be vulnerable and create space for others to be vulnerable with you.

If there’s one person associated with the study of vulnerability today, it’s Brené Brown. She has written several books on the subject and her 2010 TED Talk is one of the most watched TED Talks ever. What she says is that most, if not all, of our essential needs, such as love, a sense of belonging, and creativity require that we “lean into” the “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” that come with being vulnerable.

Vulnerability is what gives space for empathy.

That isn’t easy.

Vulnerability often entails sharing something for which we feel shame or inadequacy. Pretenses of superwomanhood aren’t welcome here. But this same vulnerability is what gives space for empathy. Fact is, everyone struggles with something. Opening up about what some of those things are encourages empathy as others see their own struggles, and in turn themselves, in us. This is what ultimately spurs connection.

It’s not all personal struggle. There’s also the vulnerability we feel when confronted with unknowns, like when the familiar first butterflies we feel for a potential special somebody start to flutter. If you share how you feel, you risk rejection. If you don’t, you may miss out on something beautiful.

The latter option is what you already know. It’s comfortable in that even though your angst remains, it’s the same angst you’re accustomed to. The former is a prospective rollercoaster, from the delight of being brave enough to say how you feel to the nauseating anxiety of waiting for their reply, to either the skyrocket or death drop that follows depending on their response. It’s a lot. The draw of a less tumultuous option is understandable, but, repeated often enough, leads to living on empty.

Creating a culture that makes it safe to be vulnerable is a duty of modern business.

One of the more difficult places to be vulnerable is work. In trying to prove ourselves, while being measured by how well we do just that, there’s a temptation to quell anything that can be interpreted as weakness or incompetence. Working our hardest to avoid or hide mistakes is part of this performance. But in doing so, we also crush creativity, team cohesion, effective communication, and respect for balance.

Being able to ask for help at work is a vulnerable act. Trying something new is a vulnerable act because we can’t be assured of the outcome. If we are to expect innovation at work, this risk is necessary. Creating a culture that makes it safe to be vulnerable is a duty of modern business.

Again, none of this is easy. Even in the pursuit of vulnerability as an ideal, there is nuance. Dr. Brown is careful to clarify that it is not the same as “unfiltered disclosure.” It’s not about telling everybody all your business. Vulnerability without situational awareness can be dangerous. It’s worthwhile to calculate the risk.

Cultivating trust, then, becomes an important element. It also leaves us with a chicken and egg scenario because the development of trust requires many small and large instances of vulnerability.

This is where courage comes in.

Thoughts? Suggestions? @WomenWerk #WWBlog

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