Vulnerability and DEI Work

Vulnerability is putting yourself out there without the expectation of reciprocation.

Vulnerability is necessary when having conversations with people that don’t look like us, behave like us, or seem to have a lot in common with us. That is precisely why vulnerability is hard. It is in our survival, our fight or flight wiring, to not trust those that do not look or behave like us. Vulnerability doesn’t mean taking life or death risks, it is freely admitting mistakes, showing signs of weakness, saying I don’t know, or asking for feedback and really wanting to hear it.

Vulnerability-based trust

There’s no way to predict when it’s safe to be vulnerable. You can’t plan a vulnerability time block on your calendar. You can’t script a vulnerable conversation with your family but you can model vulnerability and hope that others follow suit, and accept that they might not.

Vulnerability is a choice, a necessary choice for DEI to work.

It is impossible to be supportive of someone different from you if you’re not willing to be vulnerable. Vulnerability and trust are necessary for a healthy ally relationship. If you have a low level of vulnerability, you likely have a low degree of trust. When you have a high amount of trust, you likely have a high ability to be vulnerable in the relationship.

“Remember teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” – Patrick Lencioni

Several years ago, when I first started my DEI training business, I pursued my Master Coach Certification. As part of the process we had to learn a new way of communicating to shift from an advice-giving mindset, to promoting a self-discovery mindset (more on Coaching in Chapter 7). I thought that I had it all figured out, but I quickly realized during our role play exercises that I did not. I asked a lot of leading questions, I tested a lot of my assumptions, and I centered myself in the conversation too often. I had to unlearn a lot of unhelpful behaviors that had taken root in me as a child and into adulthood. Putting myself out there, with the potential to fail, felt very vulnerable.

The instructor for our class used the phrase “dancing in the dark” to describe the experience of learning new things as an adult. I still think about this when I resist being vulnerable and struggle to put myself out there, even though I know it’s the right thing to do. For me, dancing in the dark is letting someone else blindly take the lead, and then taking turns following each other’s lead, even though you don’t know where you’re going. You may not be sure what the final outcome will be, or how others around you are perceiving the dance, but you’re dancing nonetheless.

DEI is a vulnerable dance in the dark.

I would be remiss if I did not again mention Brene Brown, thought leader on vulnerability and shame. She has an infamous story in her book “Rising Strong” recounting the time she wore a speedo. She described that when she and her husband, Steve, were taking a swim in a lake together and she was in her Speedo. She was proud to be what she called “rocking her Speedo,” but to her dismay, Steve did not seem to notice. The story she was telling herself, that she calls the Shitty First Draft (SFD), was that he did not like her Speedo. She later discovered that he was simply focused on the task at hand, swimming, and wasn’t thinking about her and her Speedo. It wasn’t about her.

We often think people are thinking about us more than they actually do. We think that everyone is out to get us, if only they understood us better, or recognized us for all the things that we’re doing, we would feel validated. The problem is that most people are doing the same thing. They are thinking about themselves. The key with vulnerability is accepting it is not about you and whatever SFD is playing in our mind is likely to be untrue. If we put our cards on the table, others will likely follow suit. Vulnerability is rarely met with a lack of vulnerability.

When your vulnerability is not reciprocated, there could be a few potential reasons. Most often, the other party feels insecure about their lack of knowledge or experience in the conversation. The antidote is finding out what information the person needs to better understand the subject or what might help them become more curious. Another reason is a lack of trust.

Trust has a reciprocal relationship with vulnerability, so to build trust is to build the vulnerability muscle.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Teddy Roosevelt

One exercise I love to do during DEI training is to have everyone pull out a piece of paper and list the people in their life that they admire the most. Then, think about the common traits that they share. We prioritize a basket of three to five common traits. Almost always, the traits of trustworthy, vulnerability, and/or authenticity, or some form of these words will appear on the list.

What’s next?

Want to do better, and not sure where to start? That is why we developed the Lead Like an Ally virtual self-paced training program, perfect for organizations struggling with accountability for diversity. You can also check out all of our other virtual and live program offerings.