The power of vulnerability – Brené Brown, academics, and me

I was reminded, while teaching a presentations course to social science PhDs today, of the vulnerability of academics as they conduct scientific inquiry. The whole nature of science is not knowing, but wanting to find out more. Complexity generates new and interesting questions. So vulnerability is a key ingredient in academic presentation. We looked at a photo of a student presenting a poster to an older scientist, and the academics I was teaching commented on what they considered the older man’s critical gaze. They experience an audience looking to punch holes into their methods and results. I conjured up the image of the white night protecting his castle against the hostile red knight. We naturally went on to discuss the opportunities for networking and productive exchange such an encounter provides. In any case, the photo and the ensuing exchange got me thinking – again! – about vulnerability.

Photo: Angelica Omaiye, Beating the Competition II: Tips for Presenting at Research Conferences, The Substrate, The official blog of the ASBMB Undergraduate Affiliate Network

I love rewatching Brené Brown’s TED Talk. Her field is psychology, and so any research is necessarily also self-reflective. She begins her TED talk saying that she initially reacted with great insecurity to being billed as a storyteller at an event she was invited to. I’d say most academics would. Storytelling and science inhabit different worlds. But a storyteller is what she is, and it doesn’t make her less of a scientist. Here she is in classic storytelling mode, as she describes her own need for control as a researcher, and her meltdown in the face of recognizing the key role of vulnerability. As a storyteller, she gets by with very little need for explicit explanation.

Source: TED

A key moment comes in minute 12:08:

So I found a therapist. My first meeting with her, Diana, I brought in my list of how the wholehearted live, and I sat down, and she said, How are you, and I said, I’m great, you know, I’m h… I’m OK. And she said, what’s going on? And I said … and this is a therapist who sees therapists. Because we have to go to those, because their BS meters are good. (laughter) Uhm. And so I said, Here’s the thing: I’m struggling. And she said, what’s the struggle? And I said, Well, I have a vulnerability issue, and I know that vulnerability is kind of the core … of shame and fear … and our struggle for worthiness … but it appears it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love … and I think I, I have a problem, and I just … I need some help. And I said, but here’s the thing: No family stuff, no childhood shit, I just … I just … need … some strategies.” (lots of laughter)

She goes on to talk about how we numb vulnerability in minute 15:30:

We are the most in debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in US history. The problem is, and I learned this from the research, that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff, here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment, I don’t want to feel these. I’m gonna have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin (laughter) … I don’t want to feel these … and I know that’s knowing laughter … I, I hack into your lives for a living I know that’s … uh uh god … you cannot numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects or emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness, and then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so the we have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin, and it becomes this dangerous cycle.

She has a clear agenda as a result of her extensive and intensive exploration: She says that as parents

Our job is to look and say, you know what, you’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging. That’s our job.

Ok, and now extend that ad lib to siblings and friends and the people we teach and coach and … it’s simply a good guide to being human.

Thinking through my own vulnerability

So then, thinking through my own vulnerability with my husband in the evening over a glass of red wine, I remembered being nine years old. My parents were just going through a crisis and wanted to have me, the last child still living at home, out of the house while they debated divorce. So I went off to Camp Varsity in West Virginia for six long weeks. It must have cost my parents an arm and a leg. The experience was amazing. I had always been protected physically, being the youngest, the only girl, and the child of rather unphysical parents. We had no sports at school to speak of, and my dad’s idea of a good time was singing mass in Latin.

So here suddenly I was just one of a bunch of wild and fiercely physical kids. I remember this one game in the woods where we had to run for hours, utterly exhausting, and where it often felt like I was running for my life. Talk about vulnerable! Other challenges were learning to shoot a shotgun and a bow and arrow though I’m nearly blind in my right eye, which I needed to sight the goal. Then there were marvelous discoveries like horseback riding, Western-style, and hiking in the mountains. We had never done that before in my family. I even played softball. The only activities that I didn’t have to learn from scratch were canoeing and swimming.

After six weeks, on the last night before we went home, there was this little ceremony up in the Lodge where campers were given awards for being the fastest swimmer or having won some track event or other. The ceremony was just coming to an end when they called me up to the front of the room, and unbelievably, handed me a plaque.

It read: Most Improved Camper.

They must have made up that award for me, and I suspect there was leg-pulling involved. I remember being hugely embarrassed to be noticed at all, and truly proud to have been picked out as an achiever of … something.

You’ll laugh, but it was lovely to have my own vulnerability defined in such simple terms, and to be awarded in such a straightforward fashion.

Michael Pawlyn: Using nature’s genius in architecture

I’ll be teaching city planners, and so have decided to use this wonderful presentation (TED Salon 2010) by the designer of the Eden Project bubble dome, the biomimicry specialist Michael Pawlyn. The presentation is deeply architectural in nature. I’ll be asking:
Watch the first minutes (0:17-1:50) and answer:

  • What examples does he begin with?
  • What details does he highlight? Why?
  • How does he follow up to lead into his presentation?

The answer is that he provides a bridge to a classic 3-part structure. After the engaging examples, he postulates that to make progress in sustainability, we need to make 3 radical changes:


Watch the rest of the talk, then answer:

  • How does he come back to the structure?
  • What is his take-home message?

Under the impression of the Coursera course I’m taking (University of Washington, Introduction to Public Speaking, by Dr. Matt McGarrity), I’ll be asking: Is this more of a solo performance, or more of an interactive communication with the audience? You can make a case for both. The speaker must have learned the speech by heart, or it must come from the heart, because if he’s reading it off, he’s doing an unbelievable job. This is highly constructed, down to the last detail. Michael Pawlyn never falters. Yet he is deeply involved and passionate about the topic, and that adds so much life that his speech seems natural and authentic.

Julian Treasure: 5 ways to listen better

Sound expert Julian Treasure says, “We are losing our listening… We don’t want oratory anymore, we now want sound bites. And the art of conversation is being replaced – dangerously, I think – by personal broadcasting”. Here he suggests five ways to re-tune our ears, and adjust the way we listen.

  1. silence – don’t distance yourself from noise, actively seek out silence
  2. the mixer – count how many channels of sound you can hear – practice pattern distinction
  3. savouring – enjoy mundane sounds
  4. move your listening position to the one that is most appropriate to the situation – alternate between filters (active / passive; reductive / expansive; critical / empathetic)
  5. practice RASA (Sanskrit for juice or essence).
    The acronym RASA stands for
    Receive – ‘pay attention to the person’
    Appreciate – ‘make little noises like “hmm,” “oh,” “okay”‘
    Summarize – ‘the word “so” is very important in communication’
    Ask – ‘ask questions afterward’

Listening is on my agenda for many reasons this week:

  • Had an interesting personal encounter with someone who was too involved in his own situation to tune in to others. That reminded me that there are many things that may inhibit listening skills.
  • Took part in a professional development workshop at ELTABB on the teacher’s physical presence (including Amy Cuddy’s body language life hacks), which focused on the broadcasting side of the ‘teaching body’, and how the class will respond to it. That was quite interesting, but necessarily reduced what actually goes on in teacher-student interaction, and made me more aware of the subtle give and take we use across all channels of communication.
  • Preparing another presentation workshop for Friday, and will be incorporating receptive skills training.

These are some of the various ‘filters’ that I connect to a listening task:

    • listen for content as if you had to learn and remember for an exam
    • listen for material as if you had to write an article for the general public
    • listen for scientific value – would you fund this speaker’s research?
    • listen for engagement / entertainment value – would you choose to listen to this speaker if you were free to choose between reading and listening to the live presentation? Is the speaker telling the story well?
    • listen as a coach (empathic) or critic (critical) – what makes for appropriate and constructive criticism from each of these positions of listening?

      This has proven to be a productive exercise, as learners take it in turns to listen to each presenter through these filters, giving different kinds of feedback as a result. This more holistic, content- and person-focused approach makes the presenters and listeners work harder than if they focused ‘only’ on, say, body language But I also give them more standard tasks, such as listen/watch for specific aspects of presentation techniques:

      • voice pitch and volume / projection
      • body language open/closed
      • movements eloquent / congruent
      • eye contact
      • count use of fillers like and, so, then, uhm

      Hasan Elahi: FBI, here I am

      “The Visible Man”, Bangladeshi-born American Hasan Elahi, says that he was mistakenly included on the US government terrorist watch list — “and once you’re on, it’s hard to get off”. (Wired) In response, he has dedicated his work to surveillance culture and has put the minute details of his life and travels online. See his website and engaging and thought-provoking talk on TED.

      If you’re learning English, don’t watch the video here, though; watch it on the TED site instead, where you can follow this, like most of the talks, in the interactive transcript. Click on any part of the transcript, and the video plays that part. If you’re practicing listening comprehension, keep the section very short, listen to it several times, and try to repeat his words with the same emphasis to get a sense of the way the speaker stresses some syllables (the stressed syllable in the words that carry meaning), and unstresses all the others. The TED talks, along with the fantastic English Central, and for everyday topics, Video Jug, are great for self-study listening comprehension.

      Jill Tarter: A young science in an old universe

      Writing something on astronomy for Spotlight (dort Englischlernen). Ever since, as a child, I sat gazing at the August night sky on Drummond Island with those “10 to the 22” (=10 hoch 22) stars above me, I’ve always loved them. Isn’t it marvellous to think that what you see up there is history, fossilized astronomy, that what you see is sparkling at you from the past? I thoroughly enjoyed this talk by Jill Tarter (thank you, twittering thebirdsword !)

      It’s the 400th anniversary of of Gallileo’s first use of the telescope, and the 50th year of SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – as a science. And the Kepler Mission, seeking planets similar to Earth, is due to launch on 6 March.