I’ve been thinking a lot about transparency and vulnerability lately. Transparency is just like it sounds; it means you are honest with others about your true thoughts and feelings. Vulnerability means that you are willing to share certain thoughts and feelings that might put you at risk of being emotionally hurt by someone else. Transparency and vulnerability go hand in hand; it’s easy to be honest about things that don’t put us at risk; it’s much tougher to be transparent about those things that could mean that we get hurt by doing so. When we are transparent and vulnerable with others, it typically builds trust, because others feel that they can be transparent and vulnerable in return.
To give you an example: When I first starting working on my self and my leadership, I knew I had to start practicing both transparency and vulnerability. Transparency is pretty easy for me—I’m a pretty honest guy with a pretty poor filter. But vulnerability is tougher. Growing up, I figured out how to be strong and how to protect myself emotionally, and that meant shutting down my feelings and building some tall psychological walls. To be a better leader I was going to have to figure out how to be less defensive and more open, and yet still be strong enough to not drive my emotional car in the ditch. (And better yet, not run over someone on the way).
I decided to start practicing by sharing personal stuff, like how I grew up or what I was afraid of. I even started to share how I was feeling. In business, we are taught that emotions are bad, even though we all have them. The only permissible emotion is optimism, and that only in small doses (Yes it is the end of the world . . . maybe we can improve our margins by selling fall out shelters and food to the survivors. It’s going to be great!)
The tougher test was at home. At the time I was a new father, and was still learning how to be a dad. I was feeding my son one Sunday morning when my wife—who is also pretty honest with a poor filter—came down stairs, took one look, and snapped “Don’t feed him that!” Of course, what I heard was “Don’t feed him that, stupid. You are a terrible father. A trained monkey could do it better.” Usually, I would snap back—I hate feeling stupid, and it drives my car into the ditch faster than anything else—but this time I decided to practice my transparency and vulnerability.
Typically, I tell people “don’t worry about hurting my feelings, I only have one, and you’re not going to hurt it.” Instead, I looked at her, took a deep breath, and said, “Honey, when you snap at me like that, it makes me feel incompetent, and all I want to do is to be a great dad. You hurt my feelings.”
Now some of you are probably thinking, “What a wuss. I would never say the f-word.” (If I was reading this, I’d probably be thinking that, too.) But something magical happened. My beautiful wife, strong and independent as she is, started crying. She didn’t want to hurt me. She was tired and cranky and didn’t want to snap, but couldn’t help herself. She thought I was a great dad.
In that moment, I learned two things:
- Vulnerability is not weakness. It actually takes a lot of courage.
- It’s amazing how quickly a little bit of transparency and vulnerability can patch up a relationship.
Eight years later and I’m still practicing being transparent and vulnerable. It’s still not easy. I’ve gotten better at sharing, but I still use verbal jujitsu to avoid talking about my true thoughts and feelings, especially when it’s risky to do so. But nearly every time I take a risk and am transparent and vulnerable, it comes back to me in trust, care, empathy, and best of all, stronger relationships.
Like anything, it’s situational. You have to choose your moments and a little bit goes a long way (the last time I told my wife she hurt my feelings she told me to get over it and stop being such a baby), but if you are looking for a way to strengthen your relationships and build trust, there’s no better approach.