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The Magic of Vulnerability to Transform Conflict

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

Do you know how to transform conflict?

On today’s new The Beauty of Conflict podcast episode we are sharing with you one of two magic ingredients that we think transform conflict.

These ingredients are vulnerability and curiosity. They can transform any disagreement or conflict situation in such a way that you get deeper into what's going on and can transform the dynamics in a heartbeat.

In today’s episode we dive deeper into vulnerability specifically and share why it has bottom line results for businesses and personal relationships. Susan even shares an intriguing story about why she relates to Stitch from Disney’s Lilo and Stitch movie.

We hope that you get from this episode that vulnerability really is fundamentally critical to your relationship to yourself, or what we refer to as “the Me.” It's also critical to “the We,” the relationships that you have both personally as well as professionally on your teams.

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Full Transcript:

CrisMarie: Today, we are going to talk about, I think two... but we have two magic ingredients that we think transform conflict, and that is vulnerability and curiosity. And, we're going to at least start with one, vulnerability, because we think it is a magic ingredient that can transform any disagreement, conflict situation, in such a way that you get deeper into what's going on, and it can transform the dynamics in a heartbeat.

Susan: The way that we define vulnerability is really taken straight out of Webster's, but we think it's a very good explanation, which is, the willingness to expose one's self to danger. Another definition that comes from Brene Brown, who's done a great deal of research in this area, is very aligned with this, and her definition is risk uncertainty and emotional exposure. That idea that vulnerability is fundamentally a part of our life all the time, whether we like it or not, we are actually vulnerable creatures. Our willingness to allow for that vulnerability, to experience that vulnerability, we acknowledge it to each other, is pretty critical to building resilient, healthy relationships.

CrisMarie: But I think it's that people tend to think that, “Well gosh, if I just get comfortable with vulnerability”, and we're here to let you know, it never really gets comfortable to be vulnerable because that's the very nature. You're going outside your comfort zone. You are being vulnerable, and you are on the edge of risk, uncertainty, emotional exposure. You are exposing yourself to danger. You could get rejected. People may not like it. I used to ask Susan, we were doing our 10X Talk, and we did our dress rehearsal and the woman said, “You're talking about vulnerability, right? Well, you're not showing up very vulnerable.” I'm like, “Why do we need to be vulnerable?”

Susan: After that little pep talk from our couch, we went home, and we talked about it, and we were all ready to go, we get there the next day. It was the day of, and you're like, “Do I really need to bring up vulnerability?” I was like, “Oh my God!”

CrisMarie: Do I need to show up vulnerably?

Susan: Yes, and it was so funny. I was like-

CrisMarie: I don't have any good childhood experiences where being vulnerable really worked for me. I think that's pretty common, however, now as a full-sized adult, me being vulnerable, there's a different, I'm not looking necessarily for you to take care of me when I'm vulnerable. It's more, I'm willing to say what's really happening for me. What I'm really wanting or what I'm really feeling, or really thinking, and in that, there's some internal power, even if I don't get the response I want.

Susan: I was thinking about you, and I don't know if you've had a chance to listen to our episode where we did some interviewing of each other around this notion of conflict. CrisMarie talked about her experience of getting on the rowing team at the University of Washington, and when you went out with the 110 women... First off, that's a vulnerability move, right there. You showed up knowing that you weren't particularly athletic, but, secondly, and the story goes, the coach came to her, because she really wasn't 5" 8"... she was supposed to be 5" 8". The coach said to her, "Do you want to be a coxswain?" You said...

CrisMarie: "No! I want to row!"

Susan: You don't recognize that, but that was a huge moment of vulnerability. And I think-

CrisMarie: She did actually turn around, as if I didn't exist to her, but I didn't let it bother me. I appreciated it.

Susan: Sometimes we aren't even aware of when we have made a choice to be in the service of vulnerability, and other times, we've done so much to protect and armor ourselves from exposing any of that vulnerability. That's really the challenge. I think in the business world, in particular, business leaders kind of grow up being told, "Don't let them see you sweat", and I remember early on in our coaching, we worked with this gentlemen. He was a very... Jake. Jake. He was very high-powered in the world of sales, and had been into a number of organizations at a very high leadership level. Because he could go in and make things happen. He was struggling at this point in his career, because he was opening a particular part of the business in a new part of the country, and he was struggling with some decisions to bring the people he needed up to speed.

CrisMarie: Well, I think as he was leading, as opposed to singularly performing, he had to actually lead a group of people, and that was different.

Susan: He was now in this role of leader, and he needed to develop and influence these other people coming up. It was such a mind switch for him to get to, “Okay, I'm not going to be able to do that by doing it for them, or trying to control them”, and the level of vulnerability that it was going to take for him to step back and let them fail, and then still go in and coach them, and-

CrisMarie: Well, and I think... Susan, tell me where I'm wrong, but I remember when we were in to do a two day off-site with him. He wanted us to help him develop his team and get a strategy. When he actually stood up in front of the room and said, "Hey, I'm not good at this", that was huge for him. I think it surprised his time, because he was a physically imposing guy. He was a great sales guy, so he was slick. Everybody thought he had everything together. For him to actually acknowledge, "You know, this is new for me. I want to do it well. I brought Susan and CrisMarie in here to help me and to actually give me feedback." What it did, people would be like, "Oh!" I think they were a little shocked, but it allowed them to then show up as not so perfect, which I think before, they were just like, "Oh, can I please Jake? Is Jake going to pick me?" That sort of think. I think it really shifted those dynamics.

Susan: It did. We had the opportunity to coach Jake early on, and then he brought us in a few years later in front of a big-

CrisMarie: Like 100 people.

Susan: A big, large part of the organization, and the first thing he talked about was how he had to learn to appreciate vulnerability. It was such an amazing thing to hear him be up on this stage in front of all of his organizational leaders and telling them the importance of vulnerability. I was so moved by how he had really gotten it.

There's a few keywords in our book, and one of those keywords is vulnerability. Sometimes when we're teaching or when we're doing it in a leadership development, we've had people ask us, “Could you just take that word out?” Which is really kind of funny. It's like, “No!”

CrisMarie: We are really talking about vulnerability, and one of the biggest compliments we had is, we were working with the vice president of a software company, or she's more than that... she's just below the executive team. She said “I read Brene Brown's book, Daring Greatly, and I'm like 'I get the concept of vulnerability.'” She said, “and then I read your Beauty of Conflict-Harnessing Your Teams Competitive Advantage, and that told me how I could show up.” I just thought that was such a nice compliment. I really appreciated that, because in our book we talk about the importance of it. We tell the Jake story, many other stories of how...

Think about this in your own lives. The relationships you have the closest contact, or loyalty, to, I'm going to guess they're not to the super, awesome, always perfect people. They're the ones that actually say, “Hey, you know what? I made a mistake. I don't know how to do this. I need help, or I'm sorry.” Those sorts of words that let people know, “Hey, I'm not invincible. I'm actually just like you.” Which we all are just like each other.

Susan: One of my favorite movies, it's a Disney film... Is the movie Lilo & Stitch. I don't know how many of you have ever seen it, but for a lot of my life, I think most people who know me and have seen me in some other context would equate me to the character Stitch. Stitch was a bit of a hot head. He'd come down to the planet and want to kill everything, because of all this stuff that had happened. There was a lot of me, based upon my life experience and what had gone in my world, where I learned to be very defended. Anger is a good thing, because then they're not going to see that you really care. Just look tough, and you can pretty much get through anything. A little different than the business concept, don't let them see you sweat. This was more like... just look like you could beat somebody up. [crosstalk 00:10:16] So if you need to know context, watch Stitch.

Really, it took me the longest time to realize, in my life, so much of that was just a protective armor. See, here's why I fight for reactivity sometimes, because we argue about it. It's that my reactivity really surged me with something that helped me survive in a world where I didn't know how else to do it.

CrisMarie: Well, it sounds like it kept people away. It kept you safe. It was a survival tool that worked.

Susan: It's not that I really want to get rid of it. I actually want to be able to embrace that reactivity as a resource, because sometimes, it gives me an alarm bell. I'm in it, and I get... Now if I could turn towards that part of me that's reactive and find out what's going on. That's my responsibility. It's kind of that reactivity gives me an invitation to make a choice.

CrisMarie: I remember a time we were presenting, again, speaking at a large corporate event. There was, I don't know, 150 people in the room, and we're talking about some of the tools we're talking on this Podcast. A communication model we call Check It Out that we talk about in our book. We were talking about it, and there was a gentleman in the back, and he was, "I don't think this is a good idea. I think this tool is really..." Susan, you started to get-

Susan: I started to actually banter with him about that. I would say I really wanted to make him wrong in that moment.

CrisMarie: They got into a bit of an argument across 100 yards.

Susan: Then, the shocking part, to me, was CrisMarie, I thought for sure she was going to make him wrong as well, but instead she turned to me. She just looked at me, and she said, "What are you doing? What is-"

CrisMarie: I said, “What is going on for you Susan?" We're on a stage in front of people.

Susan: At least I realized I was in full reaction mode, reactivity mode, and I had a moment where-

CrisMarie: Now when you say full reaction mode, you were just more in your defensive mode. You were defending. People don't know what your reactive mode is that are listening to this. You were more arguing with him, trying to prove your point. He was then bouncing off against you. Well, reaction can make it sound like you were screaming and yelling, which you weren't.

Susan: No, but I had... yes. I had been in my... this person, I need to defend and protect this vital-

CrisMarie: Model.

Susan: Model. I got that I was coming across in a way that I was actually defending the model, which I was like, "Wow, that's interesting", and I had a moment where I just dropped.

CrisMarie: Well, when I asked you that, you did.

Susan: I said, "You know, really, here's the deal. This is nothing to do with... I am fighting for this model, and I'm fighting for it because my life depended on it, and it changed the course of my life, and I do believe in it. I'm getting into the wrestling match with you because that's how passionate I am about it, but I don't need to do that." I think I actually teared up. I was really mad at CrisMarie for making me cry. She did not make me cry.

CrisMarie: She doesn't tear that dramatically-

Susan: I don't tear up. That would be, definitely, my level of vulnerability. It was significant. It shifted the entire direction we would have gone.

CrisMarie: Yeah. The gentleman came up afterwards and talked to you about it.

Susan: Yeah. I think up until then he would have absolutely no interest in even considering that this model was useful. I think he at least was like, "Wow. Hmm. I'm interested. I don't whether I agree", but I could tell that the actual vulnerability was what kept him engaged and willing to kind of consider.

CrisMarie: That's an extreme example, and your willingness to go there in front of an audience is very different than most people would want to do. We even work with couples, and it's hard for them, just like it is at times between you and I, when it's like, "I do not want to admit that I think you're right, right now. I'm going to fight for my opinion, or whatever it is. I don't want to drop my position."

Susan: You bring up a funny point. Having done a lot of work with couples, and this was both from working individually with couples, but much more now in working in groups with couples... When someone says, "We're both getting really defensive here." I'm sure I have done that with us. The realization that, there's really no vulnerability in that. There might be a hint, because you're sort of saying, we're doing this together. The vulnerable thing would be to say, "I'm getting defensive." It's so different.

CrisMarie: To talk about yourself, even if you do think your partner is getting defensive, if you are defensive to drop in and talk about yourself. That's really the vulnerable move. I could even say, "I think you're getting defensive. I know I am defensive right now." That would even be...

Susan: That would be a step closer to vulnerability with a slight shield in front of it. As long as we're in it together. I know when I do that I'm doing it because it is so exposing to just say, "I'm defensive." It's much easier to throw it over... "You're defensive right now."

CrisMarie: In front of that room, or when you do it, or when I do it, there's this power that comes from just acknowledging what is inside of me. Not trying to change you over there, but just standing in... There's a congruency that happens inside of me where I'm not so dependent on you agreeing or your reaction, because I'm speaking my truth.

Susan: This may take us down a conceptual road that is not as valuable as some other things, but I'm going to go here, and you can steer me back. The way we approach this vulnerability is we talk about it from the use of a continuum, which I think is valuable, that the other side of vulnerability is really control.

CrisMarie: Two ends. Two poles.

Susan: This continuum is all about how we choose to deal with our own sense of helplessness. We are, innately, helpless. Coming into this world we're that way. We're born that we.

CrisMarie: We need to have somebody take care of us for the first nine months. We're definitely going to die, and we don't know when.

Susan: Usually, when that time comes, we're pretty helpless.

CrisMarie: That's true.

Susan: In the final moments of that. Actually, throughout our lives, we are... This is how come I love horses. Horses are also very vulnerable. We are like them. Even though we have the potential to be predators and can fight and control our world, to some degree we're also prey. We are not going to get out of this alive. We are always faced with, what do we do with our own sense of helplessness. We have a choice. Sometimes we can try to control the world around us by-

CrisMarie: Which has been my strategy, for sure.

Susan: Most western culture teaches us to try to control things. Get the right answer.

CrisMarie: Look good.

Susan: Be the best in the room so you can have the role, the prestige, the stability. Those are all on that side of control and power. Getting power over the world around us. That's the way we navigate that sense of helplessness. There's nothing wrong with that as a choice. The problem is when it's the only choice we know, and it's the choice we do without any consciousness. It then becomes something that is very fixed and rigid, and actually can dampen our-

CrisMarie: Our life energy. It definitely feels like when that's the only choice I can make, there's no flexibility to be vulnerable. No one I can be vulnerable, or it's too painful to be vulnerable, and I've got to get control. When it's so rigid like that, that's when I think disease sets in and all sorts of stress starts to happen.

Susan: This other side of that continuum around the vulnerability is that when you actually drop in, what happens is, instead of trying to control the world from the outside, you're actually accessing a sense of strength and stability from the inside. Now, the problem is, that isn't necessarily going to control the world around you. So you are coming from a place of exposing yourself., bringing yourself forward. Which can seem counterintuitive when you're facing danger. "Oh, why would I expose myself?" Yet, it is a choice in a situation of helplessness to be able to access more of your own resources. Because when you drop in, you could potentially come up with a different solution. You're not as fixed on right and wrong. You're actually more likely to go from your instincts versus just what you've been told.

CrisMarie: I think when Susan says drop in, what you're saying is, drop in into your body and talk about how you're actually feeling. I'm uncomfortable right now. I actually don't know the direction we need to go. There is this accessing my resources, lining up with congruent communication, and I feel more whole even though I haven't necessarily managed to control my environment so you think I'm great.

Susan: There are times for being in control. There's appropriate times for taking charge.

CrisMarie: I want my doctor to be in control when they're operating, or my Uber driver-

Susan: You bring up a great point. In an operating room with your physician you want them to be in an ability to control, be in their role, in their expertise, but, CrisMarie, when you're not in that place you actually... When my doctor would step out of surgery or they're looking at their numbers, I wanted them to be vulnerable and say, "I don't know the answer here. I actually don't." It's so rare...

CrisMarie: Some people may think, "Oh my gosh! I'd never want my doctor to say that 'I don't know the answer'. If they're-

Susan: I think that the only reason why you don't want your doctor to say that is because you want to have some belief that you have control of the situation.

CrisMarie: I just want to acknowledge that. I think you felt more the doctors that were willing to say... I think was the woman doctor you talked about on an earlier episode that said, "I don't know what to do here." You really connected to her, and it felt right for her to... you didn't feel like somebody dictating to you.

Susan: What I go was, "Oh, there's this other person over there who doesn't have the answer but is very interested in trying to facilitate finding a potential path through this." It was a very different relationship that I could have with her. For one, I could tell her, "I'm afraid that there's not an answer either", or "I don't really know what answers that are...". So often when we put ourselves in roles or in having to get it right or wrong or that, we actually take away that human element and that uncertainty and that place where we just can be with each other in a very different way.

CrisMarie: The benefit of being with each other in a very different way is that you access more resources. You access more information and solutions, as opposed to just staying in the role. When you stay in the role, you're not dealing with all of... I keep saying the word resources, but there's just not as much access. When somebody drops in, there's the emotional connection that occurs when somebody is more vulnerable, because they're usually in their body and that transmits at a human energetic level. That percolates more connections that we can come up with.

Susan: I would go so far as to say, when I'm in that place, I am able to access a much broader sphere of possibility. Call it spirit. Call it universal. Call it whatever you want. If I am more grounded in here, and not pretending that I-

CrisMarie: Here, in your body?

Susan: In my body, that I know everything, but I'm actually in my uncertainty. I actually, then, have an openness to receive information from all sorts of different possibilities. It's going into the woo, so we don't necessarily need to go there, but that is a possibility.

CrisMarie: Showing up vulnerable, whether you're at work, or in a couple... we're not saying you want to expose, and talk all about your relationship stuff at work. It's more, what are you willing, in a tough situation, to actually drop in in that moment and talk about what is happening for you as a way of transforming the dynamics. You keep taking in breaths so I think you want to say something.

Susan: Well, I was just thinking. I think we do define this pretty well in the book when we talk about it's the access from how much is hidden to how much is real, and are we open to sharing. Because so many times in a situation, I might be willing to say I'm angry about something, but I'm not willing to say that I feel hurt about something that occurred between you and I. If I brought that to the table it might really help [crosstalk 00:24:28] the person, you understand, in this case, why I'm having such a strong reaction to something. For me it's been helpful to really gauge and think on a scale from hidden to open, where am I on this curve.

CrisMarie: We were facilitating a two day off-site with more of a college leadership team, the head of the university, and one of them had some tough performance issues. During the off-site he got really upset. He stood up. He was pounding and yelling. We talk about this in the book. Just pounding and yelling. We interrupted him. I think Susan, you did at one point and said, "You know, I'm curious... what is driving? What is making you so angry?" Because you didn't have an agenda, you weren't his teammate or anything like that-

Susan: I think because I honestly, in that moment, wasn't thinking he was wrong. I really wasn't doing it from, "You can't do this!" It was more like, "Why are you doing this?"

CrisMarie: He actually dropped in, and then acknowledged and revealed "I just feel like everyone's going to blame me, so I'm going to get in trouble, and I'm ultimately going to get fired." When he said that, he stopped defending against what we said. We said "You still may want to actually listen to the impact of your failed project on the rest of the team as a way of resolving this." It settled the dynamics down. The team actually realized, "Oh, that's not where we're going." I think they actually would have fired him had he not dropped in and acknowledged that, and then they were able to talk about the situation and learn from it and do it differently. He actually stayed at the university and was highly successful.

Susan: It was a big moment for him to drop in and just acknowledge that, yes I did make some mistakes, and I'm so terrified of talking about that. It was really what it came down to, and this shows up in a lot of the work in the medical model. There used to be a lot of lawsuits that would come about when a physician would make a mistake. Now, what they discovered was that the doctors that could avoid those lawsuits were actually the ones that could have a conversation with whoever was involved, the family, the person, and let them know that they made a mistake. That vulnerability was the key to how well that conversation went, and that that was what really controlled the legal battle that pursued.

CrisMarie: Or not.

Susan: Or not. Some of those things were big, high-stake things. Life or death.

CrisMarie: When somebody acknowledges a mistake... if somebody is pretending they didn't make a mistake, then we kind of want to prove that they did, versus if somebody acknowledges. Now, also, we can get to the other extreme where people are just like, "Well, I made a mistake. I'm sorry. Oh, I made a mistake. I'm sorry." They're really not addressing the issue-

Susan: That's not actually vulnerability. Just to be clear.

CrisMarie: That's kind of one manipulation. That's not what we're talking about. We're talking about when you're in a tough situation, can you actually talk about what you're feeling. So, it's about dropping in and talking about, "I'm uncomfortable. I made a mistake. I don't know how to do this." Even as simple as telling someone, "I love you", revealing what you really feel.

Susan: It's really not just the negatives. Sometimes people are more afraid to... Very rarely do I let people know that I deeply care. That may sound odd, but there was a reason for that. There's a lot of vulnerability for me in actually making the choice to express that, and often, if I check in underneath some of my more guarded, protective behavior, there's this deep caring that I'm not expressing and not adding to the mix. So, it's been helpful.

CrisMarie: For me, it's about being willing to get angry and show somebody my anger, and if I don't, if I implode my anger, then that shows up in my body as illness. I had back injuries, allergies, all sorts of different things that cleared up when I started expressing and was willing to, one, me feel my feelings, but even share that with another person.

Susan: We hope that you're getting that this ingredient that we've been talking about now, this idea of vulnerability, really is fundamentally critical to your relationship to yourself, or what we refer to as, the me. It's also critical to the we, the relationships that you have both personally, as well as professionally on your teams. How real are they? How well are you able to show up with vulnerability? Finally, in business itself, that it really is critical. This notion of vulnerability is important in all three of these arenas.

CrisMarie: Well, it helps people connect to you as a leader and trust you and recognize they don't have to be perfect to, which is really what creates that loyalty and people leaning in and bringing up their whole selves to work. Which is what you want them to do so they say what they really think, feel, and want. You get their best ideas, so the team gets the best solutions.

CrisMarie: Vulnerability has bottom line results for the business.

Susan: Yes, and we will be talking about the other ingredient... on another episode.

CrisMarie: Curiosity.

Susan: Curiosity, coming up. One leads to the other quite naturally.

CrisMarie: Yes.

Susan: Thanks for joining us.

CrisMarie: Take care.


CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

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