Missing Conversations: the paradoxical power of vulnerability

Missing Conversations: the paradoxical power of vulnerability

By Elanor Bond

In movies, missing conversations are easily identified. Two lovers caught in a tumultuous altercation. Janet striding away from John who calls out her name. She turns around, but predictably, in the midst of all the uncomfortable emotions that need to be expressed, John says nothing.

In life, missing conversations rarely come with such clear signage. We more commonly find them in the quiet, mentally sifting through the rubble of our disappointments. The project that failed to deliver, the friendship that fizzled out before its time, the romance that seemed to promise everything but somehow… didn’t make it..  When we are reflective and look back over what went wrong, we often get a sense that we didn’t have all the information, that a piece of the puzzle was hidden to us or left unexplored. 

My search for missing conversations began quite by accident and was motivated fundamentally by an interest in people – what brings us together and what drives disconnect. It’s a journey that’s taken me to different organisations, different countries and spanned a broad range of subject matter from sexual wellbeing to business transformation and change management. Now it’s a conscious search and one that informs my work, my relationships and my approach to Diversity and Inclusion too.

So aside from Janet and John’s parting, what do I mean by a ‘missing conversation’? Though they appear in many guises and manifest differently for different people, a useful way of thinking about them is as follows:

Missing conversations occur when we fail to share vulnerability and experience an adverse consequence as a result. 

This blog looks at how we minimise those moments and prevent missing conversations from holding us back either at work or at home. I’ll explore the missing conversations I have encountered and how their significance has influenced me, before turning to how sharing our vulnerabilities is something that can benefit all of us. Though it may seem ridiculous to be searching out more conversations in a world that won’t stop talking, not all communication was created equal and not all communication has the same potential to drive connection. Missing conversations can mark the difference between success and failure, they can prevent the most serious of harms and ignite our greatest joys, but first, we must find them.

Campaigning for consent 

I came across my first missing conversation as a student – and it was a big one. When I arrived at Cambridge I quickly decided to apply for the position of Welfare Officer at my college. I liked talking to people, was unphased by the prospect of purchasing and distributing large numbers of condoms and considered myself pretty un-shockable. 

It did not occur to me that in undertaking this role 15 young women might share with me that they’d been raped. Their stories are the ones we know too well, remarkable in their ordinariness. As I began speaking to welfare officers, and students’ unions across the country I quickly realised that this wasn’t a strange Cambridge phenomenon or a probabilistic anomaly, this was the reality of universities up and down the country. Nationally, with 1 in 5 women between 16 and 59 being raped or sexually assaulted in the UK the only shocking thing, it seemed, was my naivety. 

Back in Cambridge, discussions had begun about the potential benefits of Consent Workshops – workshops designed to help people navigate their newfound sexual autonomy safely as they begin their university experience.  Given that in 90% of rape cases the perpetrator is someone you know, Consent Workshops seemed a good place to start if we were to create an impactful intervention within the university community.  

Buoyed by this new concept, I attended a discussion on Consent Workshops with my friend Maeve. I was deeply disappointed by what I heard. The meeting was jargon-filled and un-inclusive, full of language that seemed to me to border on misandry, an angry discourse that seemed unlikely to inspire anyone to contemplate fundamental changes in their approach to sexual intimacy. On a more practical note, I felt certain no university would agree to universally implement workshops of this flavour and without buy-in, from the top, we were going nowhere.  I was expressing these concerns to Maeve when she said, “It looks like you’d better write one yourself then.”

So I did. I went home and read everything I could find, not just on sexual consent but on facilitation techniques and strategies for creating safe spaces for peer to peer learning too. The following freshers’ week, the workshop launched in my college. It was then adopted and adapted more widely across Cambridge and spread to Oxford too. Gradually, consent workshops became a new normal in our universities and something that students can expect to be a part of their early university experience.  

It’s important to add that my first Consent Workshops weren’t particularly good. People smarter than me tore them apart making them more inclusive, improving content for the LGBTQ+ community and including powerful new strategies and techniques for facilitators. It was a privilege to watch them do it and Consent Workshops now are more impactful and nuanced than I ever dreamed they could be. 

This is a story about a group of people who decided to make space for a missing conversation and who, in so doing, created a new set of expectations for how we share our vulnerabilities to keep each other safe in our most intimate moments. Emerging research shows that Consent Workshops improve people’s intentions to engage in verbal consent communications. Whilst this is positive in itself, the anecdotal reports indicate something much stronger. There is a good reason to believe that fewer students, disproportionately women, are raped and sexually assaulted at university because of Consent Workshops and my hope is that these healthy attitudes and practices proliferate beyond university culture to the world outside.

My experience writing and delivering Consent Workshops introduced me to the power of missing conversations and I continued to hunt them out. I re-wrote our college sexual harassment and bullying policy, worked with our trans+ community to successfully remove the gendered dress code from formal hall (the first Oxbridge college to do so), interned at NSPCC writing policies on sexting and online child abuse and sexual exploitation and that summer I found myself on a plane to Thailand, where I spent a short stay with a UN-inter agency charity combatting sex trafficking in Southeast Asia.  Over time, my interest in sexual health grew into an interest in healthcare systems more broadly and population-based healthcare policy in particular. This combined interest in people and policy implementation led me to the role I do now, as a management consultant specialising in healthcare. 

Mine was just one of many voices in what became a national search for a missing conversation, but it was an experience that taught me a lot about how engaging with our vulnerabilities can create emotional security and to this day it is the achievement of which I’m most proud. 

Where we get lost 

Missing conversations too often occur because of our internal biases and prejudices and it is because of this that there is a close link between avoiding missing conversations and driving forward the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) agenda. D&I concerns humans in all our messy, illogical complexity and consequently can teach us a great deal about the universality of missing conversations.

Most of us struggle to embrace our vulnerabilities and wrestle with feelings of inadequacy at times. For some of us, expressing vulnerability is difficult because the ideals of masculinity, or even our British notion of a ‘stiff upper lip’, teach us that they should not exist. In a similar vein, missing conversations can be driven by a desire to preserve the barriers of ‘us and them’ which help us feel safe in our in-groups. Whenever we make assumptions about what different ‘types of people’ want and make decisions on their behalf that benevolence bias too will often result in a missing conversation. 

A common missing conversation we can all relate to concerns failure. As humans we necessarily make mistakes, we err and get things wrong and it’s at times like this when we would often benefit most from human connection. Yet our insecurities and feelings of inadequacy often lead us to deny ourselves that antidote. Being authentic and sharing in those difficult moments can help us to move forward positively. The clinical psychologist Professor Neil Greenberg describes how resilience lies between people and not within people as is so commonly assumed. When we think about what this means both for the creation of psychological security and our wellbeing, it is clear that the way we share our worries and concerns with others matters just as much as the self-talk we use to examine those worries for ourselves. 

When we fail to share our struggles with those closest to us we hinder our ability to be resilient, we make it harder for us to bounce back from adversity and the result is that we can often feel alone.  Learning how to share our vulnerabilities appropriately allows us to better embrace challenge and discomfort and to learn from our failures. In a fast-changing world, the ability to adapt to new situations and revise our opinions is crucial for success. When we lock away our vulnerabilities we risk becoming intransigent and defensive, hunkering down with our gut reactions and strongly held opinions unable to see the benefit of incorporating the richness of different perspectives into our lives. Having the courage to explore our imperfections is not easy, but our emotional wellbeing and mental toughness greatly benefit as a result. 

Finding our voice 

Preventing missing conversations requires us to identify situations where they are likely to occur.  The answer to this lies in observing what I’ve come to call ‘the bristle’. The bristle is often irrational and occurs as an automatic response when we perceive our identity or values to be under attack. If intelligence is a quality you value highly in yourself then the experience of someone making a joke about your intellect might result in a bristle. Our values and sense of identity are deeply interwoven into the things and people we care about. As a result, we can also experience the bristle when something or someone we’re emotionally invested in receives criticism, such as our work or our children. 

Conversations about privilege often awaken the bristle. Being asked to accept our advantages in life can sometimes feel as if our personal struggles and hard work are being ignored. In reality, privilege is just a fact about your circumstances but in the moment we can mistakenly interpret this fact as a judgement. Saying sorry is a common time for the bristle to arise. Saying sorry requires us to accept that we acted in a way that was at odds with our values and an aversion to saying sorry will often be driven by a desire to retain the illusion that we always live up to our own standards. Our job is to acknowledge the bristle kindly and to take the time to be introspective and realise where these feelings come from. If we want to stop avoiding challenging conversations, we need first to stop avoiding uncomfortable feelings. 

You might worry that in saying all this I’m encouraging ‘oversharing’. That by asking people to be vulnerable I’m advocating that we start telling unsuspecting colleagues our favourite sex positions or begin regularly weeping at team meetings. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m advocating that we share our experiences in an effort to build connection and resilience, not as an excuse to offload responsibility for our emotions onto others. Some conversations are earned, others, as we have seen, risk serious harm every time they are absent. 

By being mindful of the moments where we risk missing conversations and confronting them authentically, we open the door to greater resilience, greater connection and improved emotional wellbeing both for ourselves and those in our community.  In sharing my story and the rationale behind my search for missing conversations, I offer an invitation to reflect on what missing conversations might mean to you. Where are the missing conversations in your life and how might you start to explore them? If the environment feels unwelcoming or you feel concerned that the person you would like to share this conversation with wouldn’t be understanding, consider whether this is something you can change and if it’s not, whether that’s something you can accept. 

Feeling vulnerable is an inherently uncomfortable part of the human experience and it can often feel safer not to engage with those feelings at all, but it’s only when we have the courage to share our insecurities that we can find our greatest strengths. 

1.Office for National Statistics, 2018 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/sexualoffencesinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2017
2. Rape Crisis, 2019 https://rapecrisis.org.uk/get-informed/about-sexual-violence/statistics-sexual-violence/
3. Dawson K, MacNeela P, Silke C, Byrnes E, O’Higgins S, 2017