How to Respond to the Early Signs of Vulnerability to Boost Psychological Safety

“I might as well shut up because you people don’t get me. I must be stupid.” These were the frustrated words of one participant in a training I conducted some time ago. My role was to guide the participants in developing their entrepreneurial competence. We were brainstorming on how to bring the participants’ entrepreneurial ideas to life when the angry participant – let’s call her Julia – made the comment.

A long silence followed. As the silence was prolonging, Julia became anxious and started collecting her stuff from the working table.

“Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.” I replied. “It seems we have a misunderstanding. The good thing is that we are all here to learn and maybe help others get insights. How about you explained your concern one more time? Maybe in a different way this time?”

Julia straightened her posture and continued the dialogue. She attended the training till the last workshop. Thanks to her, I became aware that vulnerability is at the heart of a psychologically safe environment. To signal to others around you that you are emotionally wounded, you must take a leap of faith and trust that they will care about your affliction.

The psychologically safe environment is gradually and effortfully created thanks to those participants who are the first ones to dare to speak about their concerns and perceived personal limitations to reach a goal. Should the audience be insensitive, you withdraw like a tortoise in your shell. But if the audience is showing that they care, you accept that you have a shell to carry and maybe start planning alternative paths forwards your destination point. As for Julia, by the end of the course, she got empowered to start looking for a team with which she could build a start-up.

To cultivate an authentic culture of vulnerability, positive and responsive relationships are needed to help the group members realize that others can be trusted. Here are three key elements to create responsive relationships between leaders and members of the group:

  • Exercise empathy – Look beyond the possible signs of hostility or dislike and bring to awareness the journey of the respective person. What kind of experiences might she have had recently, which influenced her perception and interpretations of what’s going on in the group?

During my short interactions with Julia, I came to understand that she was going through a rough patch. Her mind was cluttered by the indecision of going entrepreneurial, as a single mother in a country, which was not her native country.

Moreover, she had joined the entrepreneurial course somewhere in the middle. Hence, she may have felt occasionally that she didn’t belong to the group.

  • Communicate with clarity – First, show appreciation for others’ courage to speak up about perceived flaws. Second, remind the interaction rules of the team. For example, when I start a new training, I dedicate 15 minutes discussing the rules we’ll play by. And three of the rules are to be kind and constructive with others, and honest to your emotions and thoughts. In moments of possible conflict, I bring out to attention the expectation to respect the rules. Third, keep focus on the common goal of the group and what is the problem that each individual wants to solve.
  • Reciprocate others’ vulnerability with your vulnerability. Initiate one-to-one conversations with the person who dared to talk about her vulnerability. The intention is to form a candid connection and concomitantly be mindful to send other signals establishing your competence. (Adam Grant, 2014, Give and Take, Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.)

At the end of the workshop, I had a chat with Julia to get to know her equally much as I knew the other participants. How did she feel about being a mother? What drove her into looking into other career options?

At some point during our chat, I told her I sometimes feel I’m not communicating clearly enough. Whenever I feel that way, I’d go ahead and say “I’m sorry. Please let me rephrase.” I thus related to Julia’s feelings by admitting I can also fail in getting others. At the same time, I shed light on my purposeful and constant focus on formulating my sentences so it can be easier for my audience to understand me. (Heidi Grant Halvorson, 2015, No One Understands You and What to Do about It).

Julia’s spirit livened up. So did mine.

In personal interactions, in between the seconds of disconnection and connection, we have the fleeting pause of vulnerability. Maintaining a good level of sharing doubts, frustrations, and anxiety in a group resumes to the hard task of being sensitive and taking a break to stay with the vulnerability instead of going ahead with the next topic on the agenda. Through empathy, clear communication and reciprocated vulnerability, group leaders can influence the engagement of members to do the best work that they can possibly do.

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