One of my clients brought up the topic of vulnerability and trust between people at work. He described how he felt pressured by his superior to be more vulnerable in the confrontation than the other was willing to be. As I processed our conversation later, I had some additional thoughts I wanted to share with him and with you.

Vulnerability that you offer voluntarily is different than vulnerability that is required of you by a colleague or superior. The effect of these two situations on building trust is different and requires a different pathway to establish it. There is a difference between you bringing up a personal problem or error on your own initiative and someone else pointing it out to you on their initiative – in the latter, you are obligated you to deal with the confrontation on their conditions, not yours. Voluntary vulnerability (or humility) is much easier on the giver and builds trust between the two people far better than imposed vulnerability does.

Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash

The best kind of voluntary vulnerable sharing comes when you are concerned that you a problem you take ownership of is negatively affecting the other person and you care enough to show that you are aware of its possible negative effect on the other – it demonstrates self-awareness and other-awareness.

The best kind of imposed vulnerability (someone imposing their negative feedback upon you or requiring that you confess) is when the feedback giver genuinely cares for your well-being and is hoping the disclosure will be useful to you, that you will welcome it and put it to beneficial use in modifying your behavior. In the best kind of imposed vulnerability, the giver offers the information and then supports your autonomy in how you will handle and respond to that information.

Trust is well-built when done gradually, in increments, not all given up front, though some initial start-up trust is often necessary or asked for, to get a relationship going. You make an offer of voluntary disclosure or vulnerable sharing and the other handles that in a safe and respectful way. It is not the single act that creates high trust, but your consistent experience of vulnerable sharing that is met with respectful handling by the other. The more positive interactions of vulnerability you have in the bank of experience, the more likely that relationship can handle an occasional rupture-and-repair of trust.

In the best scenarios among peers, it is an exchange where each person reciprocates some vulnerable sharing and respectful handling. In a power-differential relationship, the least that is required is the consistent pattern of vulnerable sharing (by the lower-power person) and respectful handling (by the higher-power person) – child/parent, student/teacher, patient/practitioner, employee/manager, etc – to establish some hierarchical trust.

Imposed vulnerability is easier to receive and deal with when those in the more powerful positions are: a) consistent in handling that disclosure with respect and confidentiality, and b) are voluntarily vulnerable more than they expect of those below.


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