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.