Against Vulnerability

To me, vulnerability means weakness and fragility, being a target for harm and humiliation.

When people are advised to be vulnerable, it seems they are being encouraged toward — even to proclaim — a willingness to be attacked.

Despite my disdain for the word, it is increasingly popular. Brene Brown’s 2010 TED Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” is the 4th most popular TED Talk ever, with over 18 million views. Her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, is in the top 175 books sold on Amazon.

Yet I recoil when communication, public speaking, leadership, and story coaches tell people to “be vulnerable” or “show vulnerability”. I picture a man getting kneed in the groin and doubling over in pain; a woman so publicly belittled that she, too, doubles over in pain. And I picture people in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, fighting for their lives in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

For many, vulnerability is not a choice. This advice to be vulnerable can be pompous in its assumptions, and often patriarchal and privileged. Failure chic is giving way to vulnerability chic, and neither is appropriate for people with already tenuous relationships to economic security, health, or political power. Advising already vulnerable people to be more vulnerable should be ill advised.

A friend defines vulnerability as “sensitive from exposure (good and bad, depending on context)”. What if, instead, we thought about vulnerability as sensitive to exposure?

What if being vulnerable meant we are truly curious about the ways our communication is perceived and the resonant experiences it triggers?

Each of us has the capacity to be changed by a story that we hear, watch, or read. To temper my disdain for the word’s popularity, I propose to understand it as the ability to be changed by the ways in which other people react to one’s own story.

Thirteen years ago, I managed a large project for the Ford Foundation, publicizing grantees in their religion and society program, all of whom were evangelizing for religious pluralism. Diana Eck, a Ford grantee and author of the seminal A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation, explained to me that religious pluralism does not mean, “I tolerate/accept/respect your religion.” Rather, to Eck, pluralism meant, “I am actively willing to be changed by what I hear and learn from you.”

Amardo Rodriquez, Professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies, in A Story from Somewhere: Cathedrals, Communication, and the Search for Possibility, offers a similar definition of communication “that speaks to my own potentiality, complexity, and diversity. That is, one that speaks to the possibility of communion rather than merely accommodation of differences.”

Imagine communication this pluralistic. It embraces confidence and intent. It respects the planning and preparation of what one will say. It does not require rawness or nakedness or unmasking or peeling back layers (all definitions of vulnerability offered by friends). Communication this pluralistic means we are willing to accept that we have no control over how it is ultimately perceived. In fact, we relinquish control.

This kind of communication and storysharing allows for risk — but not the risk of unfortified attack. It is the risk of possibility, of not knowing what you are going to trigger in return. It is possessing the confidence, self-knowledge, and bravery to listen and accept (although not necessarily agree with) the listener’s perception. [I am not advocating for the acceptance of admonishment, abuse, shaming, or exploitation. These behaviors are never to be tolerated.]

Short of shouting “Fire!” we have no way to ensure that our communication will be heard and understood by every listener in the manner to which we intended.

Your audience is going to show up with their own interpretations and perceptions. Their experiences — their beginnings, middles, and ends — are different from yours, and are going to uniquely intersect and interact with your communication. You can research, you can plan, you can practice your communication; you can and should prepare to the best of your abilities. If you are doing it right, your audiences will show up, be present, and engage with what you are saying. After all, you invited them in.

In November, I heard Will Boast read from his new book, Epilogue: A Memoir. The autobiography explores his having lost his mother to cancer while he was in college, his younger brother shortly thereafter in a car accident, his father to alcoholism, and his discovery of a step family. Boast said that often after a reading, audience members will approach him, thank him for his book, and then tell him harrowing stories of their own losses. He said that is often too much for him to process, and just wants to walk away. I am shocked by his admission.

In October, I presented part two of a program I had previously presented to hundreds of members of a state’s nonprofit sector. Both programs focused on the role of story in leadership and communication. At the start of the luncheon break, a woman came up to me and said, “I remember when you were here last, because I have a three-year old son. And following his birth, I had debilitating postpartum depression. PTSD, suicidal thoughts. But I managed to attend your session. And, as a result, I went home that day and told myself a new story: that I could be the person I had been.” She softly cried. “Because of you, my son was not harmed.”

This was — still is — a lot for me to process.

And I am guided in processing it by remembering these wise words from Professor Rodriquez:

Communication is about our being vulnerable to the humanity of others. Being vulnerable means being open to the interpretations, experiences, understandings, and even confusions and frustration of others. It also means recognizing that our own meanings, interpretations, and understandings will never exceed the world’s ambiguity, complexity, and mystery.
Moreover, in foregrounding the notion of vulnerability, this emergent definition of communication places the burden of communication on us. …
It obligates us to help each other understand our interpretations and orientations, regardless of the differences that seem to hopelessly divide us. We have to own our own ways of encountering others.

Ownership. Obligation. Own what you are saying. Own the intention behind your communication. Own your physical presence, and the space you are occupying. Own your capacity for facilitating transformation through your communication. Having invited people to listen to you, you are ethically obliged to graciously listen to them. Own your openness, even your shock and discomfort, to the multiplicity of responses you may hear in return.