By Daniel Kingsley
Vulnerability is the essence of connection, and the connection is the essence of existence.
In vulnerability, we find the courage to be real.
Vulnerability is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of courage and authenticity.
So, here’s the thing. Being human is vulnerable. It is physically vulnerable – we could be hit by a bus or come down with a debilitating disease at any time. It is economically vulnerable – most of us could lose our job or employment, putting us in real difficulty. And it is emotionally vulnerable – there are plenty of people out there who are going to reject us, or are all too willing to judge us.
And yet most people, most of the time, go around trying to pretend to the world that they don’t feel vulnerable. Covering up their vulnerability. Putting on a show of being confident and in control, even when they don’t feel that way. Mainly because they believe that they will be judged as “weak” by others if they show their vulnerability.
The result of this, is that we are a society of people who are vulnerable, and yet look around and see other people who are apparently invulnerable. This makes us feel even worse about our vulnerability, because we believe that we are the only ones who are vulnerable. We believe we are “broken”.
The fact is that our vulnerability isn’t a sign of our brokenness, it’s a sign of our humanity.
The best leaders know that confidence is not the absence of vulnerability, it’s the ability to be okay with our vulnerability, and that of others. Not to allow it to define us, but not to dismiss it either. It is simply part of who we are.
And our vulnerability is a feature, not a “bug”. Understood and looked after correctly it helps us to relate with others.
Vulnerability connects us
Whether we are a leader, a speaker or both we need and want connection with those we are interacting with. A speaker needs connection with their audience in order for their message to really land. A leader needs connection with those they are seeking to lead, in order that they may potentially be willing to follow them. As human beings, connection is one of the things that we crave with each other. At some level, we need it for our survival. We certainly need it in order to thrive.
In order to have connection, we need a degree of intimacy with those we wish to connect with. We need to let them in. This requires us to let our guard down, at least a little. And when we let our guard down, there is the possibility we might get hurt. At the very least people may see “the real us” and they may judge us. They may even shun us; and that feels scary.
This is simply the price we must pay for connection – the willingness to be seen (to some degree) how we are, and the vulnerability that comes with that.
True connection is only possible through vulnerability.
I’ve just finished watching this year’s edition of the TV dancing competition Strictly Come Dancing, which I love. I’ve been watching it for many years. The competition this year was won by the wonderful Ellie Leach and her partner. Ellie is a great dancer (check out this video of her final dance), but she was only the second best dancer this year (at least technically speaking)*.
What is almost always true on Strictly (and other similar competitions) is that the technically best dancer is not the one who wins the public vote. The dancer who wins, is the one who was best able to connect with the voting audience at home. And that requires a degree of vulnerability. That’s what connects with our hearts. That’s what makes us care and invest in them. The winning dancer has skill, yes. But they also have courage and approachability. We can see them as human and identify with them. I didn’t vote this year, but if I had, I too would have voted for Ellie. In showing her courage and vulnerability she won my heart.
How much vulnerability?
There is certainly such a thing as “too much information” when it comes to vulnerability. When you are getting to know, a new friend, or a potential date, it usually doesn’t pay to tell them your life story, your greatest setbacks, and your deepest, darkest neurosis. At least not at the start! In a friendship, ideally, what happens, is that one party, lets their guard down a little, and the other reciprocates. And gradually, in this way, we “de-armour” together.
When I’m leading a workshop, the amount of vulnerability I’m willing to show on the second day, is considerably greater than the amount of vulnerability that I’m willing to show in the first hour. This is completely appropriate.
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, said the wise person, is the person who is able to hit the target. (He was talking about an imaginary archery target). Not shooting too high, not shooting too low, but hitting the bull’s-eye.
In any given situation, the right amount of vulnerability is whatever is appropriate with that audience in that particular moment. This is not something you can work out intellectually, but if you are in good connection with your audience, it’s something that you can feel intuitively.
The performance coach, Livingston Taylor likens a performer in front of an audience as playing a game of “Simon Says” with them. You are doing something, and they are responding. Similarly, in a leadership position, whether you are speaking or not, it’s always down to you to be the one to let your guard down first. You can’t expect that of your audience or your followers. You let your guard down a little, which allows your audience to relax and let you in a little, which allows you to let your guard down a little bit more. And in this way you go down gradually together.
How to take care of your vulnerability
Strength, courage and confidence are therefore not the absence of vulnerability. They come from being okay with our vulnerability and taking care of it.
So…How do we do that?
I find it useful to liken the vulnerable part inside us to a child. Psychologists and psychotherapists talk about “the inner child “and this attitude is what they are speaking about. No matter how big, successful or important we are, there will always be a part of us that feels vulnerable and childlike. The secret is that this is completely normal, and we need to look after that part the way we would look after a child.
We need to listen to that part and find out what it’s worried about. We then need to empathise with it and validate it – tell it that it’s feelings make sense to us. Finally, we need to offer that part warm reassurance that everything is okay, that they are okay, and that everything is going to be (one way or another) okay. This is an operational definition of how to have compassion for ourselves, and I’ve written about it in detail here.
The bottom line is, we would find it quite easy to do this for a child we know, and with practice, it’s actually pretty easy to do it for ourselves, once we realise that we need to.
I very much hope that as a result of reading this article you’ve realised not just how normal your vulnerability is, but how valuable it is. I want to live in the sort of world where people are real with each other and kind with each other. And this is the start of both. I wish us all the courage to share a little bit more of our vulnerability in the world.
If you’d like support in doing this or with any connected issue, I’d be delighted to work with you in a one-to-one coaching session, or feel free to join us on one of our authentic public speaking courses in London.
* The dancer with the best technical ability this year was Layton Williams. (He had 4 perfect scores in the competition and more 10s than anyone else). In my judgment, the reasons that he didn’t win were that (a) he had less of a “journey”, starting off the competition at a very high level and (b) for most of the competition he covered a large proportion of his vulnerability with sassy bravado. This “front” faded towards the end of the competition, but people had largely made up their minds by that stage.