Maybe what we need is more “active” vulnerability

I have been thinking a lot about trust this week.

I am thinking about the group of people who bared some of their rawest parts of their hearts in an exercise we did about values and our thresholds of tolerance for being challenged. About the peers who are processing some major life events as they figure out solutions to shared issues. I am thinking also about some really honest candid conversations about hurt with a couple of friends. And also friends who have rallied fiercely for my work and stretched me far outside my comfort zone.

I have been thinking about trust because there is something powerful about being trusted. 

(My brain goes into default research mode when faced with strong emotions and so the only way it knows how to process all the overwhelming trust has been to understand it.)

It is well-known that trust is founded upon vulnerability. It has taken immense vulnerability for all of these people to trust me, and I am amazed at their ability to trust my intentions – not just with the intensely personal information they shared but also to allow me to process this with them.

What makes that trust possible, I have been wondering.

Our history, for sure. It is where we learned that we could trust each other reciprocally. But there was something more I couldn’t quite place.

So, I went back to my notes about vulnerability last night and coded my journal for the kinds of vulnerability I have experienced and shared through last week. Some thoughts from that exercise:

I usually categorise vulnerability through three levels of criteria:
(a) the kinds of information you share,
(b) how much you have processed that info and how much hold it still has on you, and
(c) the kinds of unknowingness/ uncertainties/ risks that that sharing brings.

In the notes from last week though, I saw something else about these categories. (I not sure if this is the right way to frame it, but let’s, for now, call it this -)

I noticed that there is an active and passive vulnerability I experienced:
Passive is me sharing my stories of struggle, active is struggling about these stories *with* you.
Passive is me sharing a live video of the messy basement of my thoughts, with the risk that you may judge me, I may get trolled, etc.
Active is me inviting you into that basement and asking you to sort it out with me.

I call it passive because this kind of vulnerability puts the ball on the other person’s court to respond – and that is no doubt filled with risk. But I call it passive because that risk also feels sort of controlled risk – there is a relatively smaller number of possibilities about what can emerge within that interaction and one has a better (if not a complete) idea about what one expects, what the boundaries are. There is also a clear subject and object of that risk.

The active one feels more uncertain. There is an active collaboration — I am making sense of this, thinking and feeling along with you — and there is a more direct way that the other person can bring and unload their baggage into this process. The goal of that shared process can also be more difficult to define. And while the passive process feels like a test of the trust, this is the kind of trust one would need to hire someone or partner with them – in some ways the “consequences” of that sensemaking are also shared.

Here’s another example: Passive is Instagram while Twitter is a more active vulnerability.

Instagram is where people share stories that are often vulnerable. The new trend about sharing pictures that challenge stigmas, the stories of HoNY where the stories albeit extremely intimate and daring, have been processed to some degree to allow that sharing. This is powerful.

But vulnerability looks slightly different on twitter. There are unfinished thoughts. The things you are sitting on and don’t have a fully formed opinion about yet. Of course, the levels of processing still vary, but there is some degree of invitation for mutual interaction with strangers about the things you are thinking about. I am always amazed by the number of posts I see of people shifting their minds, even by micro-degrees when presented with other perspectives. It is still shared experience like instagram, but it’s a different kind of sharedness.

 

Here’s why I think it matters to make this distinction:
I have been thinking a lot about a conversations I have been having lately around care. I have been hearing a lot of leaders speak about struggling with care. Several of them spoke about creating cultures where they could speak about their struggles with the teams and the ways in which they normalised asking for help. This is a long way from old leadership models where leaders were supposed to have all answers and certainty, and so super super useful.

But my observation is that these leaders struggled with active vulnerability. They struggled to struggle with the others – be it the other leaders or their teams.

My hunch is, that’s what makes a lot of difference – and that that is where the current vulnerability conversation sometimes feels short.

A lot of resources around vulnerability help with passive vulnerability.
Here are ways that you can share your stories better.
Here is a list of questions you can ask your date to improve vulnerability (I very vocally dislike the 36 questions of love – this is a large part why).
Leaders, these are ways that you can be transparent with your teams.

And to a large degree, they even work. There are ahas, tears, hugs and some walls brought down.

But a lot of this can often become performative. Ahas are not equal to transformation. Walls coming down doesn’t mean one is invited inside.

I constantly hear experiences of people feeling manipulated through these kinds of stories. A lot of the social justice space relies on these stories – which is one hypothesis for the why identity politics plays out the way it does here. Why certain kinds of shared experiences and often valued over shared stakes.

And, I think if we need to get through the current crisis together – we are going to need more than that. Not just in our organisations. Across the board. We are going to need to expand the context, add more stories to it and understand them in relation to each other – and hold all that messiness all at once, and we need to do it with each other. This is more than just acknowledging we don’t have answers. It is more than just collaborative processes. It is more than sharing knowledge and resources.

Active vulnerability is about inviting each other to add their jumbled layers of muddled meaning to our own tangled ones – and then working through that chaos with each other.

I believe, we need that desperately. And that (and how I’d love to be proven wrong here!) we are  staggeringly unprepared for it.

I say this also knowing that active vulnerability is HARD. Especially when in so many of our spaces, so much of one’s identity in that space is derived from one’s opinions and stories. It is hard also because it is harder to teach, quantify, control and measure. I have lost clients because of that last thing, I know!

But I believe we need more active vulnerability if we are to really get through. It’s the difference between diversity and inclusion, between fitting in and belonging. It’s what allows power with to happen.

Someone said in a meeting recently – “it is a lot easier for me to see how we could both be wrong. I am struggling to see how we can both be right”.
Imagine having more of the latter in times like these…

 

Jayati Doshi
08 May, 2020. 14:46pm. India.