Without realizing it we continually shield ourselves from pain because it scares us. We put up protective walls made of opinions, prejudices, and strategies, barriers that are built on deep fear of being hurt....But under the hardness of the armor there is...tenderness.

–Pema Chödrön

The Tender Spot

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.


Above images are Suquamish dancers at Chief Seat­tle Days, 2018.

RSS and email sub­scrip­tion, occa­sion­al Unfold­ing Lead­er­ship newslet­ter, search and oth­er func­tions may be found at the “Fur­ther Infor­ma­tion” tab at the bot­tom of the front page.

Pin­ter­est users, you can pin pic­tures from this weblog via this Board.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.