How you can build trustworthy friendships in life and work by being vulnerable
The theme of this article is how being vulnerable is a prerequisite to creating lasting lifelong friendships.
What happens when people open their hearts? They get better. ―Haruki Murakami
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics are over. The Tokyo Paralympics began on August 24th. It’s great seeing so many young people inspired and imagining the possibility of becoming future Olympians after watching their role models compete.
I think elite athletes can teach us a lot about how to form and build lifelong friendships. The same is true for US Navy SEALS covered later in this piece, which are the U.S. Navy’s primary special operations force that leads small-unit special operation missions.
This year’s Summer Olympics and Paralympics are like no other. Family, friends, and fans were not allowed to attend and Olympians were asked to go home soon after their last competition due to the Covid-19 pandemic. There was a silver lining. If you’re an athlete and everyone around you is an athlete, you’ll likely become fast friends and maybe even act like a surrogate family member comforting and consoling someone going through a hard time. I think Olympians showed more vulnerability and kindness in Tokyo because they didn’t have anyone else to lean on and athletes can easily relate to each other’s high and low points in their careers. We should remember Olympians spend 90% of their time mentally, physically, and emotionally preparing for a few career-defining moments each year.
Mental health and kindness
Perhaps not surprising during a pandemic, mental health and emotional well-being were major themes at the Olympics. Norway’s Lotte Miller was seen consoling Belgian Claire Michel, who was the final athlete to cross the finish line in the women’s triathlon. Gianmarco Tamberi, of Italy, embraced his high jump competitor, Mutaz Barshim, of Qatar after he suggested they share the gold instead of breaking a tie.
The lyrics from the song, It’s Okay (performance here), caught my attention. It’s an original song that was written and performed by Jane Marczewski (aka Nightbirde) on America’s Got Talent. She is battling cancer and had to pull out of the competition in August 2021 after her cancer spread. A passage of the song is below:
I moved to California in the summertime. I changed my name thinking that it would change my mind. I thought that all my problems, they would stay behind. I was a stick of dynamite and it just was a matter of time, yeah.
Oh dang, oh my, now I can’t hide. Said I knew myself but I guess I lied. It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok if you’re lost.
We’re all a little lost and it’s alright. It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok if you’re lost. We’re all a little lost and it’s alright.
Oh-oh-oh-oh, it’s alright
to be lost sometimes.
Sharing vulnerability when accepted by 1 person has the potential to extend to a larger group as often happens with performances.
From the athletic to the business world
I’ve worked with athletes who’ve won international competitions. They told me as athletes they applied the same skills in business like excellence, discipline, persistence, hard work, and focus. What I didn’t expect to hear was how important it was to demonstrate vulnerability in order to connect with others especially their team. Olympians have a lot to teach us the way they demonstrated vulnerability and supported each other on and off camera. It’s refreshing to learn that teammates and competitors become great friends on and off the field during their careers. I think vulnerability loops have a lot to do with it.
Navy SEALS: To lead, be vulnerable
One quality I didn’t expect to hear as an essential part of leadership is the need to be vulnerable.
Daniel Coyle interviewed Dave Cooper, a Navy SEAL in his book, The Culture Code. Cooper said,
The most important four words any leader can say is: I screwed that up.
Coyle presents two sets of questions in his book. You’re asked to strike up a conversation with a stranger using Set A and Set B. The question sets are below.
Question Set A:
What was the best gift you ever received and why?
Describe the last pet you owned.
Where did you go to high school?
What was your high school like?
Who is your favorite actor or actress?”
Question Set B:
If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
It’s hard knowing who to trust
Both sets get a bit personal. But Set B questions will make you more uncomfortable and apprehensive. Researchers found that Set B increases heart rate. You might blush, hesitate and possibly laugh out loud due to nervous energy. If you and a stranger engage with Set B questions, you’ll feel 24% closer than Set A. This matters because when people leave their comfort zone, they are more vulnerable and often express it. The conversations touch on weakness, confession, and authenticity. Think back to a time when you felt relief after connecting with someone after admitting a weakness. They listened with empathy and shared their own weakness with you. You might also recall a time when you were vulnerable with someone who didn’t reciprocate and you felt hurt and betrayed. It’s hard knowing who to trust.
Vulnerability loops: To build trust, be vulnerable
Why do athletes and Navy SEALS develop such deep bonds of friendship and trust for one another? A Harvard professor, Jeff Polzer, who researches “insignificant social interactions”, says that when you demonstrate vulnerability, it shows others you have weaknesses and that maybe, you could use some help.
When two people interact, the receiver or second person is the more important person. They have the power because they can choose how they react to someone’s vulnerability share. If the receiver picks up on a weakness or vulnerability expressed by the sender, then they have two ways to respond. They can either acknowledge and reciprocate their own weakness or cover-up and say nothing.
If a receiver shares a weakness, a connection is made, which is the point when both people begin to trust each other. This exchange is called a vulnerability loop. The interesting thing is if you want to establish trust with another person, you have to start by both of you sharing vulnerability first.
The hard part is to know who to be vulnerable with because it sucks when the other person doesn’t reciprocate by sharing their own weakness or vulnerability. We often feel betrayed and hurt when someone doesn’t accept our weakness or vulnerability. Vulnerability loops create trust, not the other way around. Put another way, if you want to establish trust with someone you don’t know well, be vulnerable first.
All vulnerability loops follow the same steps:
1. Person A sends a signal of vulnerability.
2. Person B detects this signal.
3. Person B responds by signaling their own vulnerability.
4. Person A detects this signal.
5. A norm is established; closeness and trust increase.
Athletes often go through hell and back
The Canadian competitive swimmer, Penny Oleksiak, is Canada’s most decorated Olympian from competing in the Summer Olympics. She credits winning her Olympic medals in Rio and Tokyo to her fellow Canadian female swimmers and friends. They took her under their wing, mentored and trained with her in her early teens. Oleksiak said:
I’ve been going through hell and back for the last two, three years. And I think these girls have kind of seen the struggle through it, pretty hard. And to be here and just come out the other end of everything, and know that I’m doing good now — knowing that I get to train with these girls moving forward the next three years, and knowing that we’re going to fricken’ Paris and we’re gonna swim — I’m just so excited to see what’s going to happen for the whole Canadian team.
Not doing good. Now what?
Everyone and especially athletes go through times when they’re “not doing good” and failing at something. That’s when you “Always look for the Helpers” as Fred Rogers says was the advice his mother always gave him.
Athletes need help from family and friends but even more from fellow athletes who spend countless hours training, crying, smiling, and laughing. To succeed, leadership must create a safe space allowing teammates to talk with candor without judgment or denial.
Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé helped Canada’s women’s national soccer team win an Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics on penalty kicks. Like so many other athletes, she is no stranger to struggling with anxiety and overwhelm. Labbé’s life motto just happens to be tattooed on her arm. It reads:
Be you, bravely.
The hardest moments are handled with your best friends
The day the team won an Olympic gold medal against Sweeden, Labbé said in an interview she battled with nerves throughout the tournament:
I’ll be honest, the last couple days have been really … I’ve struggled in terms of anxiety. Being overwhelmed. But my mental strength came in. When I step on the pitch, that’s my comfort zone.
On the day she celebrated the biggest victory of her career, Labbé instead chose to highlight her best friends. They were the helpers during the hardest moments of her career.
I’m a bit speechless. The exhaustion is there. But every time I look down at this medal, it’s incredible. To be able to do it with my best friends, the people who I’ve spent some of my hardest moments with, is unbelievable.
Experiencing all the joys, all lows in sports with best friends
By all accounts, the entire Canadian women’s national soccer team echoes Labbé’s views on how the teammates are best friends. Veteran soccer player, Christine Sinclair, is an introvert and known for her humble leadership. Many consider her to be the architect for the success of the Canadian women’s soccer team. Sinclair is the all-time leading goal scorer for men’s and woman’s international soccer and was the first woman inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame. On winning gold, she said:
There’s no greater feeling than standing on the podium with your best friends with the people that you’ve experienced like all the joys and all the lows that sports brings you, standing up there listening to the Canadian national athem.
Developing strong relationships around trust occurs not in spite of but because two or more people share their weaknesses and are vulnerable early.
When you’re fighting with your own head
One of the biggest events of the Tokyo Olympic Games was when American gymnast, Simon Biles, withdrew from both the individual and the women’s final team competitions. She cited mental health, not an injury as the reason. Biles is the most-decorated gymnast in World Championships history with 25 medals, 19 of which are gold. She said:
I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world upon my shoulders at times….We have to protect our body and our mind … It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.
Like every athlete whose Olympic dreams were delayed by the pandemic, Biles was initially anxious and depressed because it meant maintaining her body at peak condition and maintaining her mental strength to compete with the USA Gymnastics team.
When asked when she feels most like herself, Biles said:
Drinking a margarita at a Mexican restaurant: That’s me…I’ve learned it’s okay to ask for help if you need it.
Like all of us, there’s no better feeling than meeting for drinks or a meal with best friends. After her withdrawal from team competition, teammates, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum said they would support Biles “no matter what”. Chiles went further:
I’m going to support her no matter what. I am her teammate, I am her best friend, like she said. This is the moment that I think that I truly realize that I’ve gotten so much closer to her than I really thought. She’s my ride or die. I will forever be by her side.
Make it safe for teams to talk
Daniel Coyle quotes Dave Cooper in The Culture Code about the importance of creating safe spaces for Navy SEAL teams to be vulnerable. The team is required to complete what’s called an After-Action-Review (AAR) immediately following every mission. The AAR is a truth-telling session that is led by the team, not commanders. There is no agenda and the only goal is:
To create a flat landscape without rank, where people can figure out what really happened and talk about mistakes — especially their own. It’s got to be safe to talk. Rank switched off, humility switched on. You’re looking for that moment where people can say, ‘I screwed that up.’
Your team doesn’t have to be perfect and neither do you.
Navy SEALS training is interwoven into vulnerability loops. They recognize teams are imperfect. They become better together when vulnerability meets interconnection. For example, when a team member is weak and falters, those nearest to him or her sense it and adjust their effort to compensate for the loss until things get steady. If that means members sacrifice and take on more pain for the group, they do it. This is done until the group regains balance. This cooperative approach where vulnerability and interconnectedness mix is one reason why teams succeed even when the odds are stacked against them. Individuals put the group’s goals above their own.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics offers us a valuable lesson on how vulnerable athletes create lifelong friendships and winning teams. Vulnerability loops help friends and teammates understand and help each other without knowing all the answers or having a master plan.
Athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics show us how to become better leaders not in spite of because we can be vulnerable with others. The magic of practicing vulnerability loops is that trust and connection can be established not just between the two people sharing but also in a larger group of people who witnesses it.
Coming out of the pandemic, pay attention to people who support you after you share a weakness or vulnerability and they reciprocate. You are likely to be friends for life with deep bonds of trust with people who have your back, no matter how hard things get.