I am designing a new leadership workshop and recently I asked a friend and colleague for some feedback about the design. As we reviewed the materials and exercises, he stopped at one point and said, “I think you are going too fast here. What you are asking people to share about themselves in this part is very sensitive. You are dealing with the tender spot.” This was important feedback for me to hear.
Yes, the tender spot, the soft spot, a place of vulnerability and feelings that can’t be easily suppressed or “managed.” We may not want to see this soft spot in ourselves and we may try to hide it from others out of anxiety, embarrassment or shame. We may even do pretty good job of that, but it’s there nonetheless. The tender spot is often considered a weakness, and yet it is also directly related to our humility and value as human beings. I suggest to a client that his journey isn’t just about his contributions at work but it’s a personal journey as well. Suddenly, tears come to his eyes. Another client is invisibly angry about how she feels she has been treated and is searching for the words to describe what she’s experienced. Suddenly the word unfair unlocks her deep sense of hurt. Another client, inspired by his boss’s vision, shares how he feels he’s condemned himself to a scarcity mindset and must somehow get out of that prison.
Pema Chödrön, the Buddhist writer, says that the soft spot is “a place as vulnerable and tender as an open wound,” and she goes on to say that “It is equated, in part, with our ability to love. Even the cruelest people have this soft spot.”
The irony of this soft and tender spot is that although it is so sensitive and also often covered up, it is always present in the background of our relationships. If someone else never reveals some level of vulnerability, it may be difficult to fully trust that person. Sharing our vulnerabilities with one another can create a bond, a friendship, a sense of equity, even sometimes a shared identity, so that if one person closes off that tender spot, a partner may feel distanced, abandoned, dismissed and hurt, leading to the loss (or transcendence) of the entire relationship. Trusting another fully means that I give you access to my own tenderness, my heart, and no one of us gives such a gift lightly, lest the privilege be abused. Where differences of power are involved, whatever the cause of that difference (gender, position, etc.), this becomes an even more complicated, and potentially volatile dynamic.
And yet, we cannot grow as people unless we do open up that tender place to others, whether in a workshop, a coaching or therapy session, or in any other important conversation that life or work has brought us. We shield and defend ourselves, the most normal thing in the world, but if we truly want to learn and grow as leaders and as people, we’ll have to become students of our own tender spots, for sure. I remember a workshop participant one time who brought in a poem to read to the group as part of her assignment. It was a tough thing for her to do it, very tough. She could hardly get through the words. Others immediately offered to read her poem for her. However, this is a way that we deflect from our own tender spots by usurping those of others. Here, I’ll read it. I’ll be the rescuer. I’ll illuminate your vulnerability rather than focus on my own. I said to the group, “She can do it. Let her read her poem.” And she did, and it was a triumph.
As a coach and consultant who works with those in leadership roles, I have been called on many times to help a client deal with negative feedback. The person may be on the edge of being asked to leave and yet the organization may want to offer one more chance. Or the person may want to advance and not understand the nature of the his or her self-created barriers to that ambition. My job is to help the client frame the feedback so that he or she can hear negative messages without freaking out, shutting down or denying the issues that need to be addressed.
Can you see how the tender spot would be involved in that? We can be so very impatient with others while being so fragile ourselves. We want the other person to “own it” and change, preferably today, within the hour if possible! But were it us, things might look quite different. We’d want patience and an opportunity to defend ourselves, a chance to build up the logic of our denials, to process all the damage and pretend we are only dealing with misunderstandings — maybe for a long while until we are truly ready to touch that tender place once more.
Again and again, the answer appears to be inviting our tender places forward, hopefully in safety (maybe expressing them as a way to create safety), to feeling them just as they are, to expressing them however we can, artfully or awkwardly. The answer seems to be in sensitive listening to others, to slowing down enough to create that level of true understanding that we all need, and to awakening to what is so “personal” in all of us. These are the sorts of things we can do for ourselves and for one another with our shared humanity, imperfect, raw and utterly beautiful as we are.
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