Most workplace problems are relational problems, and are at the root of staff morale issues, absenteeism, and low productivity. We want to feel passionate about our work, because we recognize how much time and energy we will spend in the workplace. However, as personal investment in the workplace increases, so does vulnerability, because when something is important we feel vulnerable. This can happen when we believe in what we are doing, it can happen because the people we work with become important, and it can happen just because of the amount of time we end up spending at the workplace, as routine integrates more deeply into our lives.
As vulnerability increases, so do organizational/relational problems, because we don’t know how to handle our own vulnerability. We feel vulnerable, and react to our own vulnerability in predictable ways, by hiding, pretending, strategizing and defending. This vulnerability is connected to emotional unfinished business from our past.
We are born into a family, often to well-intentioned and imperfect parents who were raised by well-intentioned and imperfect parents. At some point in time, something painful happens, often with the people who love us, and this ‘happening’ lays the foundation for all the difficulties we end up having in relationship with others. We develop a ‘basement’ in our psyches, which exists at an emotional rather than an intellectual level, because our primary operating system when we are young is emotional. We take on ‘suspicions’ about ourselves, fears that we are not good enough, unloveable etc. and develop masks and strategies to defend against these fears about who we really are.
These strategies end up creating the problematic dynamics that undermine an organizations overt power structure and goals. The following 5 skills offer a way to address vulnerability in the workplace in an emotionally responsible way. People and organizations thrive in a positive, honest, supportive atmosphere.
Skill #1: Containment
Containment refers to your ability to feel, and particularly to feel uncomfortable emotions, before you act. When something happens that triggers us, too often we react, because that trigger seems to just ‘pull’ that reactive behaviour from us. We have to learn to create a space between the triggering event and our reaction to it. In our work, we often advise people to ‘sit in your anxiety’, meaning feel it rather than try to fix it. It is scary to feel those uncomfortable feelings because we are so convinced that something bad is happening. We are convinced because in our past something bad did happen, and so now we react to our own fear instead of proactively addressing whatever is actually happening in the present.
The practice of containment, of not reacting, requires emotional awareness as its foundation. There are any number of simple emotional awareness meditations on the internet which assist in becoming aware of the felt sensation of a given emotion. The more practice you have in simply allowing your felt experience, the less these emotions will drive you in your daily life. You will recognize them when they occur, instead of having them set off an internal alarm that then activates a patterned behaviour. The act of labelling a feeling decreases the intensity of it, allowing you to do something proactive rather than reactive, which leads us to our next skill.
Skill #2: Reflect Vs. Reload
As we move through life, we constantly encounter situations that fire off a predictable reaction: we are ‘triggered’. We all have our unique triggers, because we all have our unique life experience, and only those that resemble the difficult aspects of our past in some way will be a ‘trigger’. When a trigger activates a particular feeling, and you are able to contain your experience within, it is an opportunity to reflect (instead of reloading your familiar strategies). The feelings that surface in a moment when you are triggered are a window to the past. In those moments, someone is knocking on the door to the basement of your psyche.
When we are triggered, we are using the current situation to prove our fears. This doesn’t mean that difficult and upsetting things don’t happen, of course they do. But if the current situation is a spark, our past is like gasoline that we throw on top of that spark. Human beings are capable of handling even the most difficult losses and events if we resist the temptation to draw negative, destructive conclusions about them. The point in reflecting is to turn your focus inside, rather than continuing to focus on what is happening outside of self as an explanation for your pain.
When we contain our feelings and reflect, we have a chance to ask ourselves some very important questions such as:
What do I fear is happening?
Therefore, what do I fear this situation means about me? Is my fear true? (NO!)
What can I take responsibility for?
Conversely, what will I not take responsibility for?
Skill # 3: Vulnerable Communication
Vulnerable communication is the art of telling the truth without blame. Rather than hide, pretend, defend or offend, the goal is to communicate honestly what is happening inside. Vulnerability invites connection, because when we are legitimately vulnerable we are being real. What we are believing in our vulnerability may be mistaken (when revealing our fears about self), but it is attractive because even so others are seeing your real, unhidden self. We will never be attracted to masks and strategies in the same way. Vulnerability is key to real, healthy relationships.
The degree to which you bare your soul to any one human being is a judgment call, but we all need relationships in which we can let our most tender parts be seen. It isn’t healthy to ‘overshare’ in a relationship that has not earned your trust, and at the same time trust is a process that evolves out of risking vulnerability. Relationships develop into vessels of transformation when one person takes a vulnerable step, is met by the other who also takes a step, and so on until a bond of trust is formed.
Healthy, emotionally responsible, vulnerable communication exists along a spectrum that starts with stating a relationship intention, moves to taking accountability and ends with transparency. The first two of these can be done in any relationship, including at work.
The first pre-requisite for vulnerable communication is a positive relationship intention. If you are speaking just to be ‘right’ about a person or situation, it isn’t vulnerable, it is defensive. So every vulnerable communication should start with a declaration of what you want in your relationship with this person; for example: “I really want us to have a good working relationship”; “You are important to me as a friend,” etc.
The next step in a vulnerable communication is accountability. Here you are focusing on your own contribution to the relationship dynamic you are wanting to speak of, and owning that. Accountability should have the feel of an ‘admission’; for example: “I have been thinking about what happened the other day, and I realized that I was making you wrong. I’m sorry. I want to try and listen to what you have to say.” It is not only appropriate but necessary to be accountable as a starting point for any conflict resolution.
The pre-requisite for vulnerability in any potentially difficult conversation is that you have to be willing to be wrong. This doesn’t mean that you are wrong, but you must be willing to be wrong. If you can maintain a position of being willing to be wrong, you will stay open to what is actually happening, in the present. It is a way of alerting yourself to pay attention. If you aren’t willing to be wrong, you are in defense. You won’t be open to any new information, won’t be seeing the person in front of you accurately, and will be invested in justifying your position.
At the end of the vulnerability spectrum, where we feel the most risk and invite the greatest benefit, is transparency. Where accountability has the feel of an ‘admission’, vulnerable transparency has the feel of a ‘confession’. Transparency means that you are revealing yourself at your most tender place, and inviting the other to see and know you there. This will involve telling the other about who you are, and the history of what you are feeling and believing about yourself at the trigger point. The degree to which it is appropriate to be transparent depends on a number of factors such as how much trust is present, and whether the role you are in with that other person allows you to ‘lean’ emotionally.
In our experience, however, transparency is appropriate in far more circumstances than people are typically willing to consider. If we are ever going to change our culture to one where everyone’s vulnerability is welcomed and safe, we are each going to have to do our part to step outside of our comfort zones. While it not might always be appropriate to fully allow your felt sense of vulnerability into every relationship, it is always appropriate to share the wisdom of your struggle, meaning you can talk about your own vulnerability and what you are learning there. You can talk about the basement, without actually opening the door to the basement.
It is imperative that we differentiate ‘victim’ communication from ‘vulnerable’ communication. Victim messages do not invite, because they contain an underlying message of blame: ‘you did this to me!’. They are about the other, not self. Using words like ‘hurt’ or ‘disappointed’ are tricky, as it is so easy for another person to hear ‘you did this to me’. Vulnerable messages convey more of a, ‘this is where I am living inside of my basement; it isn’t your fault, you are just knocking on the door’.
Skill #4: Doing 100% of your 50% in every relationship
If every relationship adds up to 100%, a healthy relationship stance is when you practice 100% of your 50%—no more, and no less. When you practice more you are overfunctioning; when you practice less, you are underfunctioning. This applies both to the nuts and bolts concrete tasks of a home or workplace as well as the psychological/emotional life of that relationship.
Doing 100% of your 50% means showing up fully, yourself, doing the tasks that are yours to do, and backing away from minding another person’s business. It means being, yourself, what you want the relationship to be, considering self and other equally. It means identifying what you will take responsibility for, and what you will not take responsibility for.
For overfunctioners, this means not taking responsibility for someone else’s problem. Overfunctioners must turn and face their own anxiety, addressing their own fears rather than shifting the focus onto the other. We must address our fear of ‘not being good enough’, which won’t even surface as long as we are focussed on the other not being good enough. For underfunctioners, this means stepping up, instead of using the avoidant/distant tactic that is often so automatic.
Skill #5: Asking for Help
At our healthiest, human beings are interdependent creatures. We are already connected, and we function at our best when we are operating in connection in an emotionally responsible way. When we get into trouble, this means asking for help. This might mean asking for honest feedback from a friend or co-worker on how you handled a situation, and then going back based on what you learn and doing some clean up. This might mean taking a workshop, or getting professional help. None of us know what we don’t know. Change requires new information.
There is a big difference between asking for help and asking for rescue. Most of us ask for rescue: “Rescue me from my pain by not doing things that will trigger me. Instead, do things that will fill up the sense of lack I have inside me. Tell me how wonderful I am. Be the good ending to my bad story.” The rules we establish in our relationships are rescue devices, designed to help us avoid our pain and anxiety. Our comfort zones are the same. Asking for help is “Help me with my pain by reminding me that my fears are not true. Help me to challenge them, and get bigger than them instead of staying in my comfort zone. Remind me that I am already enough, as I am, and I will do the hard work of learning to believe that.” When we are vulnerable and asking for help, people want to give, and evolution occurs.