Work Smarter//

How to Have Vulnerable Conversations As a Leader

Creating a workplace that fosters openness and diversity starts with asking difficult questions.

Svetikd/ Getty Images
Svetikd/ Getty Images

I’d like to have a different conversation with you. 

Growing up, I lived in a neighborhood with people of color. I was white. The only white kid. There were times I was beaten up for being white. Despite what was occurring in my world, I didn’t decide that people of color were bad. Even as a kid, I knew it wasn’t about their color; it was about the person choosing. And, I knew it did not have to be this way. I knew that this was not the world that we could create. I knew there was a different possibility. Can you relate?

If you turn on the news for just a few minutes today, it is apparent that there is a lot occurring in the world. Stress from the effects of COVID-19. Anger and hatred over recent events. Riots. Protests. Violence. People are hurting. People are frustrated. People are confused. 

And I think a question a lot of us are asking is: what can I do about it?

First, acknowledge all of those things that are going on. Acknowledge that people’s responses are appropriate and embrace those that are hurting. From there, let’s use what is going on in the world to see what else we can create. There are a lot more of us that desire to create something greater than those that desire to hate and separate from each other. 

One of the gifts of the Civil Rights Movement is that it empowered people to know that their voice mattered and that they were creating a change. With the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, JFK and Bobby, we, collectively, lost our leaders. It was as if those seemingly-superhuman people that came here to lead us out of the struggle and separation were taken from us, and many had no idea where to go from there. It appeared that those that desired a divided world had won. The world kept going, albeit with a somewhat diminished sense of hope for a different future.

As “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people [sic] to do nothing.” And, here WE are. If you’re reading this, you’re probably someone that desires change. And yet, the world has changed. Perhaps because of their absence, or, as I personally believe, because we, as a people, we’re not willing to take up the gauntlet. But…what if it’s not too late? What if it were available to us now to become the leaders of our own lives and in our sphere of influence even if that sphere is only one person? What if we all started choosing the things that would create the world we would like to see? 

When I talk about being a leader, I am not talking about someone who has or requires followers. From my perspective, a leader is someone who does not buy into the latest thing they hear or read. They don’t get sucked into the latest drama. A leader looks for possibilities where others see only problems. A leader asks questions, rather than coming to conclusions, as a way of knowing what else is possible beyond what the current reality is.

Here are my top 3 tips on being the leader that creates a greater future for us all:

1.    Ask questions to create the possibility for the world you would like to see.

The next time you turn on the news or have a conversation with a neighbor about the turmoil of the world, rather than buying into the fear, panic and frustration, stop and ask a question. Consider asking, “What else is possible? What is it going to take to change this?” These questions do not have to be asked out loud, nor to anyone else, especially if the person you’re talking to has no capacity to choose a different point of view. Instead, they are asked of you (and whatever it is you trust in to create a greater world) by you.  

And ask yourself daily, ”Are my words, actions, and choices creating the world that I would like to create?” Be patient, vulnerable, and honest with yourself when you ask. And if you realize you’re not choosing with your words and actions to create the world you would like to see; you could ask these questions:

  1. What actions can I take, what choices can I make, and what words can I use that would create the world I’d like to live in?
  2. What would it take for this to be easy?

You know that old saying “Ask and you shall receive?” It actually works. Every real question you ask opens a doorway to new possibilities. Every conclusion you come to cuts you off from everything that doesn’t match that conclusion. 

So, if you decide, conclude, or judge, (they’re all the same) that the world is “going to hell in a hand basket,” that’s all you’re going to see. Get some fire-retardant underwear, because the point of view you take creates the reality you live. It’s not the other way around.  Remember the movie Forrest Gump? He’s a great example of this idea that your point of view creates your reality. I personally admire that character. He lived his life from something I like to call “Interesting point of view.” It’s a seldom-chosen view of reality that great leaders in times of great change have.   From interesting point of view, you neither align and agree, nor do you resist and react. Alignment and agreement are the positive polarity. When you align and agree with a point of view, you make it solid and real. For example, if someone says to you, “You’re a jerk!” Alignment and agreement is where you make their point of view real. And you buy it as yours and take it away. In the example above, alignment and agreement are, “OMG, I’m a jerk.”

Resistance and reaction are the negative polarity. In order to resist and react to anything or anyone, you must have aligned and agreed with whatever they had as a point of view in the first place.  Leaders know what is true for them. Leaders don’t buy into the latest thing they hear or read and believe it to be true. Leaders ask questions. Leaders look for possibilities.

2.    Communicate with kindness and gentleness.

The world is currently filled with fight but that doesn’t mean you have to join the fight. Fighting against never creates more possibilities. Fighting against makes you a victim to whatever you are fighting. Choosing FOR possibilities creates more possibilities. When you next encounter the fight, take a moment. Look at the reasons for choosing the fight but instead of engaging in the fight, choose the path of kindness, choose the path of gentleness, choose the path of possibilities.

3.    Vulnerability is key.

Vulnerability is often seen as a weakness when in fact it is a strength. Vulnerability is the place of not having no walls and no barriers. If two people are uncomfortable with each other, perhaps they come from different backgrounds or maybe they have very different points of view on various topics, one person choosing vulnerability is all it takes to change things. If you, as the leader of your life will show up and be with the person you are with, with no walls, no defenses, no need to be right, no need to fight, the energy of the situation changes.

One of the greatest examples of this right now is the police who face the protestors and take a knee. This is vulnerability. This says, “We are here. With you. We get that you are angry. We get that there has been injustice. We do not desire to fight. Let’s find a way for us to embrace each other and create something different for our future.” In these situations, the protestors have been responding by hugging the police. The fight ends. Now we don’t have a protest. We have a possibility.  In the movie Tomorrowland there is a question that is asked. “There are two wolves who are always fighting. One is darkness and despair. The other is light and hope. Which wolf wins?” The response, “The wolf that wins is the wolf you feed.”

There is plenty of darkness all around. There is plenty of light, too. Ask questions to create a possibility for the world that you would like to see. Don’t engage in the fight. Choose to be vulnerable with everyone and everything. In so doing, the wolf of light and hope is fed, and we begin to create the greater possible future for the good of us all. 

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