Annette, the interim CEO of a mid-sized marketing company, was struggling to find the best way to deliver a speech to her employees in which she’d have to reveal some bad news about their insurance coverage. “I’m anxious about this,” she said in our presentation coaching session. “In the ten months I’ve been with this company, I’ve grown to care about the people who work there. They feel more like family than employees! Which makes it even harder to tell them they’re going to have to take on more of the expense for their insurance. But if we don’t work together to take that step, we could potentially put the whole company in jeopardy!”
The sincerity of Annette’s words touched me, and I told her so. “I wish I could tell them what I just told you,” Annette sighed.
“Well, why don’t you?” I asked.
“Because I’ve never spoken to them in such a personal way before!” Annette replied. “They’re used to my being — I don’t know — a little more formal and removed as a leader. What if sharing what I’m feeling makes them lose respect for me?”
I told her I doubted that would happen and that it was worth the risk. Annette took a deep breath. “OK,” she said, “I’ll give it a shot.”
We put a simple, heartfelt speech together, which Annette worked on until she knew it inside out. On the day of the presentation, Annette was very nervous; but she was also resolved to speak honestly and directly with her employees, even if it was scary.
The email she wrote to me after the speech was over-the-moon. “I looked them in the eye, I told them how I felt. And it was so hard. I felt so raw and exposed! But it also felt good to be so honest with them and to not have to cover up what I was feeling. And you know what? So many people came up to me afterward to shake my hand, hug me, and thank me for being so real with them. That’s never happened before! It feels like some sort of invisible barrier went down. And now we’re all working together to make the best of this financial challenge.”
I wasn’t surprised.
As a presentation coach and trainer — and a professional singer and actress — I’ve experienced and witnessed the magical bonding that happens when you choose to reveal yourself fully and honestly to your audience. I call this the gift of vulnerability. Because when you take the risk of showing up as a genuine, even flawed, human being, you give your audience permission to do the same in return, which increases trust and cements the connection between you.
That said, for most people, the idea of vulnerability as a gift flies in the face of reason: Are you kidding? They think, rolling their eyes. Vulnerability is a weakness! Why, in heaven’s name, would I take the risk of exposing my tenderest parts and open myself up to being hurt? We fret that if we share our true feelings or big ideas, we might be ridiculed or rejected. We worry that if we disagree with our colleagues, they might not like us anymore. If we’re not absolutely-one-hundred-percent-perfect, we’ll disappoint people. These concerns are particularly true for women who are relational by nature and fearful of doing or saying anything that might damage a friendship or a business relationship.
Because revealing ourselves is so scary, we opt instead to hide.
We hover in the safe zone, far away from the murky middle of discomfort — the icky, vulnerable space we must dare to inhabit if we want to go head-to-head with the stuff that scares us. The murky middle is that heartbeat-pounding place of not knowing, where anything can happen in the name of learning and growth. Any time you learn a new skill, break a habit or do (or say) something that is outside your comfort zone, you step into the murky middle. You stepped into the murky middle of discomfort as a baby, when you learned how to walk (and fell on your diapered little bottom a gazillion times). When you learned how to drive – remember the first time you steered your car onto a freeway on-ramp? Every time you tell your life partner or work colleague what you really think, instead of what you think they want to hear. You step into the murky middle of discomfort when you declare your fee to a prospective customer and wait, in silence, for them to reply.
Because we don’t like feeling exposed, out-of-control, or vulnerable, we often either try to move quickly through the murky middle of discomfort or avoid it altogether. The fear of standing stressed-out and sweating in the murky middle while other people are watching is, for example, why people run the other way when they’re asked to speak in public or engage in a difficult conversation.
You can be courageous and scared at the same time
Here’s the irony: the more willing you are to risk being and feeling vulnerable with others, the easier (and more fulfilling) it gets. I learned this in my early years as an actress in New York City. The more I stepped into the murky middle by taking the risk to reveal my true colors (my perspective, my way of playing a character, my real and unadorned self) on stage, the more comfortable, relaxed and authentic I became in front of an audience. My teacher called this willingness to drop your emotional armor and genuinely reveal yourself to your audience, “showing up.”
It’s not easy, and it takes a whole lot of courage. The good news is that you can be courageous and scared at the same time. Just ask any soldier facing down the enemy in battle, or anyone who has ever said, “I love you” for the first time to someone who makes their heart go pitty-pat.
“You can’t fully grow and contribute behind armor.”
You won’t get comfortable with anything that makes you uncomfortable unless you risk feeling uncomfortable. This means being willing to drop your protective armor and step vulnerably into the murky middle — again and again. Is this easy? No. But it is essential if you want to grow forward as a leader and human being. As sociologist and author Dr. Brene Brown writes in her book Dare to Lead, “You can’t fully grow and contribute behind armor.” In an article in Forbes Communication Community, Dr. Sharon A. Porter, CEO of Perfect Time, concurs, “Until you experience discomfort, real growth and development do not exist.” Comedian Jerry Seinfeld puts it like this, “You have to be comfortable that it’s gonna hurt!”
From a communication standpoint, allowing others to see and hear your “real” self can feel like the ultimate risk. And yet, the more willing you are to reveal yourself — by, let’s say, sharing your honest feelings or perspective in a conversation, speaking up in a professional meeting when you usually don’t, or admitting you’ve made an error — the more you’ll build a bridge between you and the person (or people) to whom you’re talking. This will pave the way for deeper and more genuine relationships.
That’s what Annette discovered when she took the risk to speak from her heart to her employees. Not only did her honesty and vulnerability allow her tough message to be more readily received, it set the stage for a new way of communicating with her employees that continues to generate a deeper level of mutual trust and respect.
What about you?
What kinds of situations or conversations do you tend to avoid in order not to feel vulnerable or reveal your vulnerability to others? How would it be if you waded willingly into them, embracing the vulnerability of the murky middle in the name of learning, growth and a deeper connection with your audience of one or many? How do you think that might change the depth and breadth of your relationships? With your patients, your families, your friends, or your colleagues? And are you willing to consider that risking being vulnerable and real with another person might be the greatest gift you can give them?
Dare to give the gift of vulnerability to the people in your life who matter to you. Because, as Annette discovered, it is the gift that keeps on giving.