Have you ever stood up in front of an audience to give a presentation or speech? You feel logically prepared in that you have done all the necessary research, organized an outline only your college English professor could love and have the speech notes ready to be delivered. You even managed to practice it a few times-- enough to deliver it well. You can feel the anticipation in the room as the announcer begins to introduce you. You deliver an amazing speech from the heart. The crowd stands up and cheers. And then you literally run off stage. That was me 14 years ago.
I was standing in front of 400 trade unionists talking about the importance of civic engagement and communities of color. I had developed a stump speech and had been using it all around the country to encourage minorities to exercise their right to vote. It was very carefully researched, citing statistics and important policy arguments. You know. That speech. Every time I gave it, I would get a warm applause but I didn’t sense that I was truly moving any one. It was missing something and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something about my speech felt inauthentic.
I stood there for the hundredth time, scared as I looked out at the blinding lights and those 400 people wondering what to do. I remember I looked down at my carefully crafted speech and prayed for inspiration. Ten everlasting seconds of silence had gone by and the room was filled with anticipation.
And then it hit me. I needed to let the “be perfect wall” come down and share my own story- raw and uncut. I took a deep breath and I shared my personal story to a large audience for the first time. Tears streamed down my face as I recounted the experiences of racism and intolerance my mother and I experienced growing up in New York. I tied that story to why we needed to engage voters that cycle and I asked the audience to share their own stories with voters in their communities this election season. Before I could even finish speaking, everyone stood up and gave me an amazing applause. I could barely see through the tears as people chanted Si Se Puede.
And while all of this was happening I noticed something. I was uncomfortable. I wanted to run off stage. I stood there waiting hoping it would end soon. Why did I want to run? They just gave me a standing ovation. I had no idea. I would not think about it again but I would relive this moment many times during my career.
Let's fast forward to 2010. I participated in a leadership training where we had to learn to receive an applause. I barely lasted 20 seconds before I realized that I had a hard time receiving. For many years I would leave the stage before the applause was complete, before I made eye contact with the audience and before I could properly receive their love. I struggled to receive feedback from peers, because I fundamentally couldn't trust them.
As a second generation American Latina, learning to receive is one of the most difficult lessons I have had to learn. I was often taught to be strong, figure out things myself and not to trust anyone except my family or those given honorary family status. This made extending trusting and learning very hard. while I was able to give lots of love, gratitude and feedback. I didn't know how to receive it. And I actually needed help from many other people to learn the things my family did not know or understand. It’s absolutely one of the toughest lessons I have had to learn in life – how to trust people to give me feedback, love and gratitude.
Receiving gratitude is like chicken soup for your soul--it nourishes and reenergizes you. It builds a connective tissue to others that helps you build trust and makes you available to receive feedback with an open heart. Children demonstrate the ability to receive gratitude and feedback with great ease. They receive all your feedback at face value. No questions asked. That’s it.
So what happens if we don’t learn to receive?
If we don’t learn to receive, the cycle of giving and receiving remains incomplete. We will not be replenished. We hold back who we are instead of being vulnerable and stepping into who we were meant to be. In order to build trust and cultivate strong relationships we must learn to be vulnerable with others -- to receive.
So how do you fix it? There is no quick fix. Vulnerability is a journey not a destination. Some of us get it right away and then some people like me will be working on this lesson for eternity—and that’s okay.
Each day I remind myself of four things:
- We attract and reflect each other’s feelings. If I have a wall up, I will likely attract the same.
- If I am vulnerable with others I have the opportunity to learn, grow and change, and so do they.
- If I want to lead from a place of authenticity and compassion for others, I must learn to receive gratitude and feedback with an open heart.
- Find a way to be vulnerable with someone today.
Then, work on it every day until you believe it. People fundamentally want to give to you. All you have to do is receive it. As one of my former bosses liked to say “It’s just that simple!”
Your turn: What are some ways you allow yourself to be vulnerable?
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