18 April 2018
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Take off your mask

I’m all for empathic listening. But there is a danger of turning listening into a cult. Open a typical communications skills book (especially one from the business shelves) and it will repeatedly emphasise listening but say almost nothing about the opposite, which is taking off your mask and sharing part of yourself with the other person. Too often we act like the festival-goers at the annual Carnival in Venice, concealing our identities behind a mask. We hold back our emotions, hide our fears, and keep our anxieties buried within us. But empathic relationships cannot easily develop unless we reveal ourselves and seek connection. Empathy is built upon mutual exchange: if we are open with others, they are much more likely to be open with us.

So we need to think of conversation as a two-way dialogue to create mutual understanding. As Theodore Zeldin suggests, at its heart, conversation is about reciprocity:

‘What is a conversation? It is much more than talk, which can be mere chatting about nothing in particular, or communication, which need be no more than transmission of information to a passive audience. Conversation is shared, reciprocal nourishment that enables humans to create and exchange trust, wisdom, courage and friendship. Whenever in the past humans have wanted to change the way they lived or thought, they have changed the subject and the methods of their conversation. Conversation is assuming a crucial role in both personal and professional life, and is becoming a currency as important as money, which enriches both parties with what money cannot buy.’

Highly empathic people understand that if we fail to take off our masks, and end up constantly censoring ourselves, the result can be that conversation becomes stultified, repetitive and lacking authenticity. We face the danger of becoming like the male characters in Victorian novels – all stiff upper lip and emotional reticence. We should welcome the gift of the Freudian revolution, which has expanded the social space for people to talk more openly about the issues that really matter to them, from sexual insecurity to feelings of loneliness and pain.

At its core, removing your mask is about embracing vulnerability. The problem is that we live in a culture where making yourself vulnerable – exposing your uncertainties, taking emotional risks – is considered a failing, and something that most of us would rather avoid. Emotions researcher Brené Brown turns this attitude on its head, arguing that vulnerability is actually good for us:

‘We’re brought up believing and being taught and seeing it modelled in our parents, that vulnerability is weakness, and that going out into the world without armour is basically asking for the hurt that you get. But to me, vulnerability is not weakness – it’s the greatest measure of our courage.’

Vulnerability can result in creative breakthroughs

Her studies reveal the positive outcomes that emerge from stepping into the arena of vulnerability. It is precisely when we expose our vulnerability, perhaps in a relationship or at work, that ‘we have experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives’. Doing something risky – like asking for help, sharing an unpopular opinion, falling in love, admitting to being unconfident or afraid – may make us feel vulnerable, but it can also result in deeper relationships, creative breakthroughs, heightened joy, release of anxiety, and greater empathic connection.

I saw the power of vulnerability in action when I interviewed Brené Brown in London, on stage in front of a crowd of five hundred people. The first thing she did after I introduced her was to turn towards the packed hall and say, ‘I don’t know why but... I’m feeling really nervous!’ Few public figures would risk revealing so much of their uncertainty, but the effect was to make the audience feel an immediate empathy and warmth for her (and I am sure what she said was spontaneous, not planned).

Avoid over-sharing, but allow your ambition to experience a vulnerability hangover

Later in our discussion, I asked Brown how far we should go when revealing our inner selves. What limits should we set on taking off our masks? On the one hand, she told me, we should not think that vulnerability is about ‘letting it all hang out’– we ought to avoid ‘over-sharing’ and simply dumping all our emotions on others. On the other hand, our ambition should be able to experience a ‘vulnerability hangover’. If you really take that big step and make yourself vulnerable in conversation with someone, then it is pretty likely that the next morning you will wake up thinking, ‘Oh my God! Why did I share that? What was I thinking?’ But if you don’t feel any vulnerability hangover, then maybe you did not go far enough. When was the last time you woke up with one?

While many people feel they can be vulnerable with their partner or close friends, one place they often consider it taboo is in the workplace. When I discuss this issue in courses I run at The School of Life, typically around half the people in the room admit that they are reluctant to reveal their inner feelings and fears at the office. Can you really say in a meeting that you don’t have the self-confidence to run the project? Can you let on to your boss that the reason you are falling behind with your report is that you’ve just been ditched by your girlfriend and are emotionally fragile? The answer may well be ‘no chance’, especially if you happen to work in a macho environment. You might worry that people will think you are weak, or incompetent, or lack the mettle to be a team leader. Maybe you are anxious that taking off your mask could risk your chances for promotion.

Many work places are still empathic deserts

There are some good reasons to have such concerns. Many work places are empathic deserts. The psychologist Oliver James argues that the business world in particular has an unusually high proportion of people who exhibit a ‘dark triad’ of disturbing personality traits: they can be Machiavellian, narcissistic, and even psychopathic. Those with psychopathic tendencies, whom he describes as ‘highly impulsive thrill-seekers who lack empathy for others,’ are ‘four times commoner among senior executives than in the ordinary workforce’. If your desk happens to be next to someone with the emotional sensitivity of Gordon Gekko (the ruthless corporate raider from the film Wall Street who quipped ‘lunch is for wimps’), then you may be more than a little reluctant to express even a shred of vulnerability.

Brown’s response is that we need to forge work cultures where vulnerability, and the empathy that it helps to generate, are not just accepted but positively admired. As she explained to me:

‘When vulnerability is not tolerated in the workplace, we can forget about innovation, creativity, and engagement. Those are all functions of vulnerability. You will never be able to convince me that being vulnerable and human, and getting good work done, are mutually exclusive. I just don’t buy that argument. It’s a false dichotomy.’

Admitting uncertainty gives others permission to do so too

She drives her point home with examples of top entrepreneurs who say that the greatest barrier to path-breaking new business ideas is that those who have them fear being ridiculed, laughed at, and belittled by colleagues, because truly innovative ideas tend to sound crazy. So vulnerability and creativity go hand in hand. Marshall Rosenberg also makes the case for vulnerability at work, arguing that those who risk it often get positive responses, since a surprising number of people can be moved by emotional openness and honesty. Moreover, if you admit to uncertainty, it can give others the permission to do so too – and maybe you will discover that your hard-nosed manager is just as fragile and lacking in confidence as you are.

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