Some time ago I was approached by a person who’s been studying and teaching Nonviolent Communication in China for some time. He posed a simple question: “What is the difference between honesty and vulnerability?” Although I had been thinking about this area of human experience for some years already, I didn’t have an immediate and crisp response to give him. How on earth could I differentiate between the two? And what happens when authenticity, or transparency, which are also close cousins, are added to the mix? I couldn’t find my way through it. And, more than anything, what’s the point of making all these distinctions if they don’t translate, in the end, into actual practices we might embrace in our lives? After all, the purpose, as Marx reminded us a long time ago, is to change the world, not just to understand it. What can I tell the person in China, myself, anyone, about what practices can support us in moving towards a more collaborative future?
In particular, I want to know, and to be able to teach others, how to discern what to say and how to say it in each moment based on what is most likely to support the purpose at hand and to do so with the most care possible.
Some years ago, I had an amazing little conversation with my nephew Yannai, who was then about twelve. As I was about to drop him off at home, he made an off-hand remark that when he was interacting with people his age or in the theater context, he spoke differently from how he spoke at home. Something in how he said it made it clear that his language at home was more his “base”, and how he spoke with his friends was more of a choice he was making. “Don’t you feel inauthentic with your friends, then?” I asked. “Not at all,” he answered, and added: “I do it simply because it’s more comfortable for them, and then it’s also more comfortable for me.”
Knowing how different it is for me, how much such choices, to me, feel like a form of inner death, I reflected deeply on this difference, and came to a startling conclusion: what makes my experience so challenging, so “inauthentic”, is the fact that throughout my childhood I was given the message that how I was was not acceptable to others. Within this fundamental message about me, I never knew how to find room for choice. For Yannai, however, who always grew up knowing that who he was was always fully embraced, the option of adapting can completely feel like a conscious, chosen, path based on care for all.
Is there a difference between Yannai’s choice and the kind of inauthentic role-playing we so often do that hides our true selves? What is it that makes it authentic for him while for me it wouldn’t have been? In this moment, my sense is that his way of approaching the situation was akin to choosing which knife to use for cutting vegetables (speaking with his same-age friends) and which for spreading butter on bread (speaking at home). Both are authentic choices because they flow from within, without fear or constriction.
How far can we go in the direction of full honesty and still be protected within the shield surrounding our vulnerability? What do we gain – or lose – by stepping into more vulnerability? In which contexts does it make sense to do so, and for what purpose would it be?
Choice in Speaking – the Role of Vulnerability
Since my overall commitment is to acting in ways that attend to as many needs as possible, for as many entities as possible, I find it essential to respond with choice rather than react from habit, impulse, or emotional intensity. This is where the limits of honesty, un-tempered by vulnerability and care, become apparent.
Here’s a brief excerpt from an email I received some years ago from an apprentice, let’s call her Rachel, who was wrestling with the question of whether there could ever be “too much” transparency. She was reflecting about a moment when someone in a group she was leading asked members of the group to say “how it was for each of us to listen to what he said.” Instead of her usual practice of thinking carefully before responding, Rachel had “a lot of buried ‘stuff’ in [her] life which came spewing to the surface.” To her own and others’ surprise, her “response was very violent and ‘abusive.’” In reflecting about the outcome, Rachel’s conclusion was that “if I allow myself to be transparent, this could happen again. I wanted to be transparent, but not THAT transparent.”
I share Rachel’s concern about her way of expressing herself which, as she herself suggested, ended up being directed at the person, with an intensity of grief, despair, and rage that had nothing to do with him. I don’t share her analysis of what it all means, and the difference seems important enough that I want to say more about it as part of my overall hope of moving in the direction of greater collaboration and trust between people, individually and in groups. For me, the issue is more about what kind of transparency and honesty rather than about how much. The reason this feels critical is that I so deeply want to transcend the either/or that so many of us carry: either you are honest, or you are caring; you can’t be both. This either/or results in many of us choosing to not tell the truth, while others choose to tell the truth at cost to others’ well-being, whether intentionally or because we have too much emotional charge to be able to choose. Neither spells the future I am aiming for.
Overall, I rarely if ever choose to express undigested raw emotional reactions, especially when I am in a position of leadership. The only instance when I would intentionally choose to share my feelings in this kind of way is when I trust the true desire of the other person to hear them, along with their capacity to take them in without cost to themselves or our relationship. This is why it’s rare. Most of us have had so much pain about criticism, blame, anger, and even strong anguish or helplessness, that we simply are unable to take them in without taking them on.
In all other cases, when I am able to choose, I take a moment to digest my own responses before speaking. How long? Long enough to be able to find self-connection and have some capacity to imagine the potential effects of my words, and to choose what I say and how I say it in a way that is honest, authentic, and transparent at the same time as expressing care for the others involved.
Isn’t that, then, less honest than the undigested raw emotional reactions? I can see that, for some people, letting go of any reflection or choice is the only path that would count as full honesty. Not so for me. In fact, as I take my time to digest, to reflect, I invariably go deeper, discover more truth about myself that would be, most of the time, even more fully honest. Except that it is almost always also more vulnerable. It is the deeper vulnerability on my part, the deliberate removal of protection, that allows the care to flow forward, unhidden.
Here’s an example. Someone on a recent call, let’s call her Nancy, has been struggling with her father’s wish for her to move into the family house once he’s gone. She’s been honest with him, saying she didn’t want to, that it was scary for her to be there on her own. Dad, invariably, argues with her and tries to convince her it would be such a great decision for her. On and on they go. The interaction and role-play I had with Nancy was so rich, I am planning to write more fully about it at another time (especially after hearing from her how the actual conversation goes). For now, I only want to highlight that when Nancy and I explored her experience sufficiently, she discovered deeper layers that she could share with her dad – layers with more depth and vulnerability, and certainly more care. For example, she realized that, although she’s been touched by his care for her and his desire for her to have a good life after he dies, she never once thought of saying it. Nor has she shared with him how much she herself would wish to be able to do what he wants, both out of care for him and more. With that much vulnerability, it became so clear to her that her honesty, now full, vulnerable, and rich, would be so much easier for her dad to receive.
Choice is key, here and anywhere else in life: I cannot be fully authentic without inner choice. I cannot go deeper into self-reflection without choice. I cannot find the vulnerable, caring layers without choice. And so, to dispel any myths about ever “arriving” somewhere once and for all, I want to make it abundantly clear that I don’t always find choice. Like most of us, I’ve had my own share of trauma and loss, and so I know I can get paralyzed in helplessness and lose my focus and center. When that happens, I have certainly been known to react without choosing consciously. At the same time, I see this happening less and less over time, and in direct proportion to my ability to embrace vulnerability. Choosing to step directly into vulnerability, to surrender to the potential consequences of removing all protection, is an amazing antidote to the fight-flight-freeze mode of our nervous system. It is one of the more reliable entryways into the rich field of nonviolence. The entire function of the FFF system is to keep us safe, and keeping us safe is, paradoxically, what leads us to violence towards self or other, or to painful paralysis when we can’t do either. By embracing the potential risk, there is no longer any pull to protect, run away, or attack, and this is precisely what creates the possibility of choosing. Once choice is available, it becomes easy to be care-ful as in full of care, without being careful as in cautious. It is only protection that separates authenticity from care; only reaction that keeps us polarized and at odds with each other.
Honesty with vulnerability – what Nancy is hoping to experiment with, what I choose, again and again, whenever I can –dissolves the protection and thus thrusts us into new territory. Embracing vulnerability then becomes a powerful way of countering millennia-old messages and achieving non-separation.
Transparency and Power
This discussion will be incomplete for me without at least touching on the specific significance of transparency within the context of power differences in a context of authority-based relationships. These include, though are not limited to the following non-exhaustive list:
- Parent in relation to a child
- Leader in relation to a group
- Manager in relation to employees
- Government in relation to citizens
In any of these, the structure of authority relations requires action on the part of the person in authority to communicate to the others the nature of the relationship if they want anything other than the legacy of domination. Without active choice to show care, willingness to shift, or capacity to share power, those will be hidden and the existing paradigm of power will be reinforced. This is why I have such a deep reverence for the extraordinary value of transparency in relationships that have any kind of authority in them.
Because of the depth of habituation to the dichotomy of power relations, anything that is not made transparent is likely to be interpreted through the lens of “the person in power doesn’t care, and that’s just how it is.” Any of us who are in any position of leadership and want to contribute to transforming the existing paradigm could benefit immensely from learning how to be transparent about decisions we make and why we make them.
I am not advocating being transparent all the time, about everything. There is always choice. Because I have experimented with transparency for so many years, I have learned some things about it. First of all, as much as I treasure and practice transparency, I resonate with some of the concerns that I’ve heard over the years about its use. For example, I have noticed time and again that sharing feelings is riskier than sharing intent. The risk is twofold: both that people will feel compelled to attend to my feelings, and that they will take them personally even when I don’t mean them that way. To go back to Rachel’s example, Rachel chose to express her feelings without sufficient self-responsibility, putting them on the person who was asking for feedback. Even if she had taken responsibility, others might still have taken them personally, diverting attention away from the purpose of the group and into her emotional state and its significance. Instead, if Rachel had taken a moment to reflect, she might have chosen to express, instead, just the fact of having had a personal reaction, without getting into its details, and the provided actual feedback, which is more in line with the purpose of her role. (Note: I have written an entire chapter about transparency in group facilitation for The Handbook of Group Facilitation.
Another core insight I have gained about transparency is one I have learned about almost everything: purpose is key. Ideally, I want to know what the purpose of being transparent is, and then check to see if the purpose has been achieved. Becoming conscious of purpose is one way I know to reduce the ever-present risk of choosing transparency for the implicit and often unowned purpose of being seen, heard, liked, or taken care of. In sweeping generalities, I choose transparency for the purpose of increasing trust, learning, and effective function.
Transparency is inherently more collaborative than handing down decisions and delivering negative consequences to unwanted behaviors without ever stating the “why”, or tying the “why” to the structure of authority. The latter happens, often, in parenting, when the reason provided is “because I say so.” Explaining the “why” of decisions and actions by reference to something other than the authority itself, something that could make sense to both people, begins to shift the terms of the relationship. Instead of calling for obedience, it calls for understanding and joining, and, in this small way, points the way towards true dialogue and collaboration, the foundations of my own hope for a future that works for all.
Kashtan, Miki. (2005). “The Gift of Self: The Art of Transparent Facilitation.” in Ed. Sandy Schuman, The IAF Handbook of Group Facilitation: Best Practices from the Leading Organization in Facilitation. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass. Pp. 573-590. http://www.amazon.com/The-IAF-Handbook-Group-Facilitation/dp/078797160X.
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Image Credits: All three from Pixabay, licensed as “cco public domain.” Honesty by Alexas_Fotos, Shame and Security by johnhain.