What is vulnerability? Vulnerability is traditionally looked at as a weakness or flaw, yet Dr. Brené  Brown writes in her book “Daring Greatly,” that “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences.”

Vulnerability allows us to connect with each other in a meaningful way.

This connection is critical in most learning, leadership development, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. But how do we cultivate connection and vulnerability in a virtual learning space?

4 Steps to Creating Inclusive Vulnerability

Step 1: Build trust.

It’s important that everyone feels welcome to join you in the virtual learning space. Often, during internal training, we skip over the relationship-building aspect of the program. Just as we might assign guest seating or provide table conversation cards at an in-person event, we need to “set the table” in the virtual space. We need to help establish and build relationships among participants.

Why is this important? It helps us build trust within the group, and trust is essential to vulnerability. How do we build trust? We can include virtual ice breakers in small or large groups to help jumpstart introductions and personal conversations.

A personal favorite: Ask your learners to show you something green in your space. This could be a highlighter, a plant, a cup or a piece of art. The participant finds the green item they want to share and either turns the camera on to show the group or describes it to the group. They are starting to let others into their personal space — whether it’s in an office or their home — and share something unique they might not have otherwise shared with the group.

Step 2: Build comfort.

The introductory conversations that are meant to build trust also contribute to building comfort in the virtual learning environment. However, in many cases, we need to ask learners to go a little deeper than sharing their favorite green sticky note.

How do we help them feel comfortable sharing? We can build in some “safe” questions for them to answer. These questions are often easy to answer and don’t require vulnerability. For example, “Have you ever attended a conference you loved?”

I love to start with closed questions because they are quick and easy to answer, and we can leverage the chat box for quick responses. For many, chat box participation has a low barrier to entry. You can participate even if your space is not quiet (hello, remote school!).

We can then follow up with an open question that goes a bit deeper: “What made that conference such a great experience?” Here, we are slowly building the learners’ comfort with reflecting, responding and sharing aloud in the virtual space.

Step 3: Build self-awareness.

It’s hard to be vulnerable with others if you aren’t first vulnerable with yourself. We can allow participants time to process tough questions by asking them to pause and reflect. In the example above, questions like, “Where did you see examples of inclusion at the conference you attended?” or “Where did you see things that felt exclusionary?” can help inspire self-awareness in your learners.

We can also prompt participants to think or even journal before responding. Then, we can move them into small groups to share and discuss. Tough questions are often best answered in small groups where it’s easier to be vulnerable.

Step 4: Build accountability.

Once learners are sharing more openly, it’s important to begin building accountability. This will allow them to continue to be vulnerable with each other, but also will allow your organization to see the benefits of behavior change.

We can ask: What can we do individually and collectively to create an inclusive environment at our next conference?

This question provides opportunity to discuss and collaborate and can be done in small group discussion with shared documents. Using a shared collaboration space provides multiple ways for participants to engage in the conversation (i.e., through speaking or writing) which allows people who process information in different ways to still participate together.

Accountability is important because it can take us from thought to action.

Next Steps

It’s easy to assume vulnerability can’t be created in the virtual space and instead, default to another boring PowerPoint presentation. Yet, vulnerability seems to be the thing that allows us to truly identify problems and create better solutions, all while connecting to each other in a meaningful way. Next time you are creating a virtual session, try creating inclusive vulnerability by building trust, comfort, self-awareness, and accountability through relationships and intentional discussion.

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