I love finding inspiration in many places. Input is one of my favorite strengths and so I am a huge fan of TED talks. One of my favorites is the 2010 talk that Brené Brown did in Houston on the power of vulnerability. In many ways, this talk became an important catalyst in my personal and professional life. If you are interested in seeing this amazing talk you can see it here.
Vulnerability and strength were antithetical as I thought about my leadership. As a woman I was taught that I needed to be tough-minded and to show my tender side in my work-life would be perceived as weak. As an educational administrator, I worked to refine my hard skills while often burying my vulnerabilities. I grew up wanting to be Superwoman though I have learned that this archetype is not reasonable or attainable. As I discovered on my leadership journey, vulnerability is not only courageous but a necessity.
Dr. Brown writes in her new book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, “vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences,” (page 12). As I thought about my life, I found that I felt most connected when I let my vulnerability shield down. When I dared to show my true emotions, I connected with someone in a deeply meaningful way. While it was Brené Brown’s vulnerability that resonated with me in her TEDx talk, I worked hard not to show the same vulnerability to my co-workers, family and friends. I came to recognize that I was drawn to vulnerability in others but repelled by own. What was courageous for others was perceived weakness in me. Though I craved the honest connection with people, I felt less than adequate when I showed my vulnerability. Moving beyond this enigma would require active work on my part. I dug deep to find the courage to drop the shield. This shield helped ensure that when I felt hurt or scared I became defensive and angry. I wrote a separate blog about my journey overcoming hurt and anger. I learned I needed to be more than open to be vulnerable. I needed courage “be in the arena”. Watching from the seats and cheering others on is playing is safe and not being vulnerable.
Daring to be vulnerable is not easy. Below are a few techniques I rely on to keep me in the arena:
- Being present in the moment. Though at times it is not easy to resist the urge to multi-task, I try to stay in the present moment. It means setting down the iPhone, closing the laptop or iPad, and giving the person my full attention. I use good eye contact. Though it is not always easy to do, genuine eye contact connects me to the other person and conveys non-verbally a level of openness.
- Actively listen with my ears and heart. People want to be heard. Active listening is not just a cognitive exercise. It means hearing what the person is saying both verbally and non-verbally. It also means, when appropriate, connecting experiences. It is powerful to hear and know we are not alone.
- Stepping away from the podium. One of my biggest fears is public speaking. This fear grows exponentially when it is in front of peers. As an introvert making speeches before large audiences is terrifying. I often got through those moments by using a death grip on the podium. The podium acted as a shield (and as we have already established I am comfortable with shields). It was not until I left the podium and my notes behind that I was truly vulnerable. In those moments with a few PowerPoint slides as guide, I talked about how the people in a regional housing association taught me what it was to be an engaged professional. I was as vulnerable as I had even been in front an audience. I spoke from the heart and shared my experiences. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. We have different podiums that we use to shield us from connecting with our audience; be courageous and step out from behind them so we can connect genuinely.
- Being comfortable with silence. Because I am in go mode or I have a long to do list, I often forget to be comfortable with silence. When there are breaks in speech, I work to fill them with an answer or suggestion. The space between and breaks within conversation are important. It allows both people to breathe and think about what is being communicated. I have to work daily (realistically with every conversation) to not step on others words or begin my input before the other person finishes.
I continue to look for ways to be open to showing vulnerability and connecting with those around me. Whether it is with a parent on the phone or with a teenage daughter as she struggles to understand middle school relationships, how we allow ourselves to become vulnerable looks different for each of us. My journey with vulnerability continues to evolve. Even as I typed the title of this blog, I felt a wash of fear come over me. For a moment I allowed my shield to engage before I intentionally decided to go for it anyway. Vulnerability is important and crucial to my growth as a person. There are times when I dare greatly and times when I retreat behind my shield. Old habits are often hard to overcome. I can write with certainty that the moments that I dared greatly and chose to be in the arena and vulnerable have changed my life.
How do you show vulnerability and what impact has it had on your life personally and professionally?
Laurie A. Berry is the Director of Housing and Residence Life at the University of Southern Indiana as well as a doctoral student in Educational Leadership at Indiana State University. She can be followed on twitter @LaurieABerry.