Vulnerability as a Skill

“The Power of Vulnerability” is my latest post on Big Think.  We don’t often think of vulnerability as anything other than something to be avoided.  Yet, communication cannot work effectively if none of the parties involved is willing to relinquish some power.  Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues developed a perspective on communication which included recognizing utterances as complementary or symmetrical.  If two people are constantly trying to one-up each other, retaining power over the direction and nature of talk as well as the relationship, then disagreement, argument and even dissolution of the relationship are almost inevitable.  When people engage in some degree of complementary interaction in which power is occasionally given to the other person, then listening and learning from each other is given a chance.

Here is where vulnerability comes in.  If you must always be in control or be right when interacting with others, unless they are obsequious, in awe or frightened of you, the likelihood is that they will either resist by countering your one-up moves with their own (symmetrical), retaliate in some way, or leave the relationship entirely.  The skillful communicator knows that other people must be given a chance to be right and to lead conversations.  Being wrong or not having seen what the other person provides, and admitting that, can do wonders in opening communication and improving relationships.

And so, it pays to look at how you talk to others — even to children.  It’s easy to fall into habits of being in charge or, as discussed in the Big Think blog, defensive routines.  In my studies with colleagues at UMass Amherst and in subsequent books, problematic patterns are often called “unwanted repetitive episodes” (URPs).  The most effective way to break out of such patterns is to say something slightly different — to utter the unexpected.  It’s fascinating to watch how even small tweaks of our normal modes of interacting with others can change the entire course of conversation and even of relationships.

We are constrained by others in our lives, by their communication choices.  This is especially true at work if bosses are overbearing.  But we always have the prerogative to extricate ourselves from such ruts.  First, you have to notice you’re in them.  Then the fun and benefits begin as you alter what the other person expects you to say or do.  This is not manipulative.  It’s engaging in thoughtful instead of  reactive communication.

Rather than get angry at someone with whom you disagree, occasionally saying something like “I’d never thought of it that way” can do wonders.  “I can’t say I agree entirely, but I see your point” is another option.  Sometimes the other person will attempt to draw you back into the URP or routine, because that is what they know when communicating with you.  So, it may at times take a couple or several  unexpected comments to change the course of conversation.  Skillful communication requires having the patience to do this and taking the time to practice.

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