Recently I had dinner with an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. Over burgers, we shared updates on our lives. Our conversation began at a surface level, but as the waitress refilled our Diet Cokes and we doused fry after salty fry in ketchup, the topics grew more personal.
As we talked, a red-light warning flashed across my brain: you’re over-sharing! I took a moment to reflect: Was I?
Here’s what I realized: through our conversation, I was starting to be more and more honest with my friend. And that felt a bit uncomfortable.
In any interaction of substantial length, be it with a store clerk, coworker, or friend over coffee, we eventually hit a point when we encounter the opportunity to be personal. This doesn’t have to mean revealing our deepest, darkest secrets. It might just mean sharing an opinion, thought, or personal experience — and this can feel scary because we risk the other person’s judgment, disagreement, or negative reaction.
When conversation dives below surface-level conversation topics, you have to decide – get out and swim free, or stay in the boat? Vulnerability requires some degree of braving the unknown, and for many of us, we are scared to go there.
Yesterday I came across a great example of brave honesty online when I discovered Allie Bosch and her illustrated blog Hyperbole and a Half for the first time. Allie took a blogging hiatus beginning in 2011 and returned last month to share with her fans why she hadn’t blogged in nearly two years. In a two-part blog post, she revealed that she’d been deeply depressed. She illustrated and wrote about this confession of sorts in a style only she can achieve — endearing, witty, and surprisingly, almost disarmingly, honest.
Allie’s vulnerability about her depression amazed me. No doubt this has reached millions of people, and she just came right out and shared. I tried to comment on her blog, only to discover that BlogSpot shut off comments at five thousand comments! Have you ever come across a piece of content on the Internet with so much interaction? It seems that when other people are vulnerable, we feel we can be vulnerable, too. It sparks a chain reaction of sorts.
When thinking of how one person’s vulnerability can spark the same in others, I think of the 2008 film Gran Torino. If you haven’t seen the film or need a refresher, Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood) is a hardened Korean War veteran estranged from his adult children and shut off to the world, religion, relationships, and most of all, his Hmong neighbors.
Throughout the film, the audience watches breathlessly as Walt’s Hmong neighbors initiate contact with him. His initial response is cold, and all he wants is to be alone in his house.
However, the Hmong family is persistent, and as Thao and Sue, two teenagers next door, share their lives with Walt, Walt in turn shares his with them. The three develop what could only be called true friendship. Walt’s incredible sacrifice at the end of the film is perhaps the greatest tangible portrayal of his love for his new friends. His friendship with them, prompted by honesty, ends up redeeming his entire life.
There’s no question that opening up is uncomfortable at times. But often, our relationships don’t truly bloom until we’ve nurtured a spirit of trust that allows us to open up. Only then are we able to experience the healing power of honesty.
So how do you cultivate vulnerability in your relationships? If you’re like me, and are a little hesitant to open up, here are some ideas to get you started:
- Kindle friendships. Honest communication only happens in trusting relationships. Nurture your friendships so they have the chance to be these places of healing confession.
- Don’t force vulnerable moments. It’s already scary enough to be real with someone because the real you, in honest communication, is exposed to criticism or judgment. Let these moments occur organically for other people. Don’t push people into the spotlight and try to make them open up — it will only make them close themselves off.
- When people share honestly, listen. Receive someone’s honesty with the respect he or she deserves. Listen with care and love.
- Foster trust by withholding judgment. In moments of vulnerability, some people are already a little gun-shy, and a harsh word of criticism could do a great deal of damage to your relationship. You may not agree with what’s being said, but do your best to let the person have his or her turn.
- Allow yourself to be honest with others. If someone has been honest with you, it’s a perfect opportunity to be honest with them. Often one person’s vulnerability prompts a vulnerable response from the other person, especially if they can relate to what’s been said.
The gift of vulnerability can bring encouragement and healing, resulting in deeper relationships with others and the feeling that we are not alone.