At the root of most conflicts , whether personal or professional, you’ll usually find a miscommunication. Sometimes the most damaging miscommunications are the ones that don’t involve any communication at all.
Dr. Brené Brown, whose 2010 TEDx Houston talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” is one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world, took the stage at HubSpot’s 15th annual INBOUND conference Wednesday to explain.
The bestselling author and researcher offered a very personal example in front of the more than 14,000 attendees.
On a recent vacation with her husband Steve of 27 years, they swam together in Lake Travis in Austin, Texas. It was poignant for Brown for two reasons. For one thing, she’d spent many childhood summers at Lake Travis. For another, she and Steve first met as swimming coaches.
On their first swim on the vacation, Brown told Steve she was emotionally overwhelmed by the moment, filled with gratitude, and felt especially connected with him. But Steve answered with a quick remark about the water being good—and he kept swimming.
His response confused Brown to the point where she made up an explanation about it, in order to make sense of it. “He’s so overwhelmed with emotion for me, he doesn’t know what to say back,” is how she described this explanation to the crowd at INBOUND.
When they’d reached the other side of the lake, Brown tried again. She said, “This is amazing. I’m so glad we’re committed to spending this time together.” But again, Steve replied as if he hadn’t heard what she’d said. “Swim’s good, thanks,” he said. And he kept swimming. “Now, I’m pissed,” Brown explained on stage.
When she finally confronted Steve, he was reluctant to open up. Brown then connected her story to something that happens all the time in business situations, too: “What can be the emotional response when you push out a bid for connection with someone, and they push you away and reject that bid?” she asked. “What’s the emotion we experience?”
The answer? “Mostly it’s shame. I’m not good enough,” Brown said.
What Story Are You Telling Yourself?
In situations like this, Brown said, you need a way to get to the truth of what’s happening. And she offered a simple solution that emerged from more than 100,000 pieces of data in her vulnerability research: Confront the story you’re telling yourself to make sense of the situation.
“The story I’m making up right now is, one of two things is happening,” she told Steve. “Either you looked over at me when we were swimming and thought, Jeez, she’s old. She’s not that swim coach I met. Or you thought she does not rock the Speedo like she did 25 years and two kids ago.”
As it turned out, the story Brown had made up had nothing to do with what Steve was thinking. But his non-responses had launched Brown’s shame triggers—appearance and body image—and thus her made-up explanation for Steve’s seemingly indifferent answers was filled with her own shame, rather than the real reason.
The real reason—Steve eventually explained it—was that Steve was trying to fend off the worst panic attack of his life, about the safety of their five children. He was diligently counting his strokes so he could stop his mind from thinking about a nightmare he’d had the night before in which he failed to keep his kids safe in the water. He hadn’t responded to Brown’s vulnerable statements because he actually hadn’t heard them—he was lost in thought, lost in counting strokes to escape those thoughts of failing his family when they needed him to be a superhero.
In short, he and Brown had entered what Brown calls “a perfect shame storm.” Brown filled their void of non-communication with shame triggers relating to body image. Steve filled the void with shame triggers relating to the appearance of weakness—a man who can’t be “the almighty fixer of all things,” Brown said.
The Power of Vulnerability
In business settings, these voids of non-communication happen all the time. What matters, in these cases, is that someone on your team is brave enough, vulnerable enough, to use a sentence that starts with, “The story I’m making up right now is...” The idea is to reach the truth as quickly possible, instead of wandering around with your made-up explanation, which more than likely consists of your own shame triggers, and has little relation to reality.
For example, at a recent meeting at her consulting company The Daring Way , Brown told her team they’d have to table one of the items on the agenda, in order to finish the meeting on time. This decision bothered her CFO, who was largely responsible for the agenda item Brown unilaterally removed.
So the CFO said, “I have to stop this. The story I’m telling myself is that this isn’t a priority for you anymore. So if it’s not important, I need to know about it.”
Instead of letting his imagination run wild, he vocalized the concern to Brown. And she told him: “Thank you for being brave. It remains a top priority. It actually needs its own meeting.”
At which point she asked the crowd at INBOUND: “Don’t you have so much more respect for someone who has said to you: ‘Can I circle back with you on this? Here’s what I’m making up in my head about what’s happening.’”
Everyone knew what she was talking about.
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