I was listening to Gregory McDonough’s podcast featuring Sarah Elkins.

In the discussion, Sarah shared tips for how to talk about our experiences as illustrations for points we want to make.  More personally, she shared a story about how she recruited some mentors because she didn’t thrive in her job and couldn’t figure out what caused the friction. It was a good story, go listen, it is linked above.

To share about a difficult time in our professional life is often seen as the hallmark of vulnerability.  When we practice telling these stories, we can use such them in (podcast or hiring) interviews or for educational purposes without becoming tense or unraveling.

Patricia Baxter upped the ante, sharing about body shaming/ideals in this post reshared by Sam Ardery, who put her words into the context of the Maister trust formula:

                Credibility + Reliability + Vulnerability

Trust =      ______________________________________________

The formula has another version where the elements are multipliers. If any of the nominators are 0, Trust is 0:

                Credibility x Reliability x Vulnerability

Trust =      ______________________________________________

I have noticed that, for me, particularly if the subject is about building connection, the element of vulnerability has almost become this “must” or it becomes TLI, Too Little Intimacy.  If vulnerability is 0 or low, my interest drops.  When I read or listen and the author “does not seem to have skin in the game”, it feels “flatter”.

It is as if an energy comes out from the tension of wondering “do I dare put this out there and use myself in service of the readers/listeners?”.  This energy brings the piece to life; becomes the bridge on which the connection rests.

Am I the only one to feel this way?

Looking at the formula and my confused word salad, the denominator, self-focus, seems to run counter to my point.  When we use ourselves as illustrations, isn’t that increased self-focus that then diminishes the trust?

According to Maister’s theory, as I understand it, self-focus is “do I care more about me?” vs other-focus’ “do I care more about you?”  If I am willing to get uncomfortable in service of you, that is other-focus, not self-focus.  So, self-focus becomes a small divisor, thereby increasing trust.

All this brings me back to the stories we share.

What do we do with stories that we have shared so many times that it is now squarely in our own comfort zone to tell them, like Sarah’s story about seeking out mentors – but, if they were to share such a story, would be going way out of the listener’s/reader’s comfort zone?

If the tension is no longer there for the storyteller, does the reader/listener automatically calm themselves?  Or are they still left breathing a little faster?

Listeners will normally be able to hear whether a speaker is uncomfortable or not.  But does a reader mirror their own discomfort on an author and assume that the author, too, was very or not vulnerable sharing this?  Did I write that Patricia Baxter “upped the ante” because I could hear that Sarah was perfectly comfortable sharing her story, but I would have been uncomfortable sharing a body-focused post?

And what do we do once we are so comfortable with being uncomfortable, that we readily go into our stretch zone if we feel we are in a safe space, but we are not sure if everybody in the room feels equally safe?  Does our feeling of safety and deep dive contribute to them also feeling safe, or can we unwittingly make them feel unsafe by oversharing?

New York Times had a piece recently that showed how “safe” groups in organizations don’t always work as intended and sometimes backfire when people overshare – TMI, Too Much Info.

I know that in Our Friendship Bench small groups, I may a couple of times have given new friends an initiation into our safe spaces that just might have been a tad more intense than they expected.  Fortunately, they didn’t seem to mind and jumped right into the hot tub with me, but that was probably my pure dumb luck.  As you can see, it still sits as an open question with me whether I could have made the space less safe for them by sharing readily.  (I hope not, and I hope they will reach out directly to me and let me know if that was the case.)

Reading the NYT article confirmed that there is this danger.  Comments to my post, when I shared thoughts on the NYT article on LinkedIn, confirmed that the balance between not sharing and oversharing is difficult for many, as what is the right amount differs depending on context.

There is a lot of beauty in sharing stories, and by doing so, allowing others to realize that their story would be welcomed “in this space” as well – whatever that space may be.  But there is also a risk that it can scare people away if they feel that they are required to be equally vulnerable to be accepted.  Or if a story lands as a trauma reminder the other person is not prepared or ready to address.

As the NYT article unfortunately also shows, just because HR or an external facilitator says a space is safe doesn’t make it so.  If group members don’t respect that “what is said in a group is confidential” and is never to be used against the interests of the person sharing, the Reliability element in the Trust equation becomes negative, and people are rightly turned off from ever trusting their leadership again.

Have you ever encountered a silence after sharing something that whispered TMI?

Have you had something shared with you that you didn’t know what to do with – and you thought TMI?

Have you ever heard “your story” – that you have held secret all your life – told by somebody else as it was also their story, and suddenly realized that it didn’t push people away to know this about you?

May you always have a safe space to share your story.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. “Have you ever encountered a silence after sharing something that whispered TMI?” I’ve definitely encountered silence — was it TMI? Hmmm. Or was it simply that people don’t know what to do with vulnerability? Is it like when you attend a wake, and you’re at a loss for words? Many people will ask, “What can I do for you? How can I help?” Don’t make the mourner respond. Instead, a simple, “If there’s anything I can do…” or “I’m sorry for your loss.” With vulnerability – perhaps because it’s relatively rare – are we also at a loss for words? As I type, I’m wondering if I need a response if I share – and I only share to underscore a point – and yes, I guess I do. Some sort of acknowledgment would be nice. A nod of one’s head. An “I hear you.”

    • “was it simply that people don’t know what to do with vulnerability?”

      A great parallel in the two scenarios you describe, Jeff. Because both can be helped with a standard phrase when the recipient doesn’t have bandwidth to engage and we don’t know what to say.
      “I am honored that you chose to share that story with me/us” can be a way to recognize that it took courage and trust to say something and doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story. There can be more, but now we have shown that we pay enough attention to hear pain.

      We should always be honored when we are trusted.

  2. A hugely interesting article, Charlotte.

    Both Alan Cullerand myself published posts on trust and we used different equations to define it.

    The introduction of vulnerability in the equation is quite interesting and the way you expanded on vulnerability is admirable.

    Yes, it is the tension in exposing self vulnerability that may attract interest and create wonderful writing.

    • For me the question is not about creating interest but all about connecting with the reader, Ali.
      Sure, you can say that unless they are interested in reading, connection can’t follow, but still there may be readings that don’t build connection, as interesting as they may be.

      I changed into interesting above from originally writing insightful, because to me there is a difference in how we have come about our knowledge.
      Insight requires an inner process where we take ownership to the learning – perhaps insight IS learning vs interesting is teaching that may end there, that moment? But admitting to gaining insight is more vulnerable than finding an piece interesting because it is then admitting that we went from not knowing something to a higher level of awareness around it – not just that the writer spoke to a subject that could hold our focus for a little while.