Vulnerability and Validation—and the Container Where They Happen

Have you ever gone to the beach and tried to scoop up sand with one hand? The tighter you try to hold it, the more the sand falls out of your hand. 

So it is with the group coaching environment. As coaches, we know we have to hold it all loosely. The tighter we try to control it, the more it eludes us. 

So we create the Container—a safe space for the coachees to be vulnerable and share challenges. Then, we invite cohort members in. When this is done well, amazing things can happen.

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of vulnerability when it comes to achieving higher levels of personal and professional success. It all starts with the courage to take a risk and share your story. 

When what is shared gets validated, it promotes an environment of support and encouragement. 

On the other hand, vulnerability without validation and empathy can cause harm. This is why the Container is so critical. The result of a container is a place where it is safe to talk openly and honestly—that’s when human potential can really take off.

Everything depends on the level of vulnerability people are willing to show. When people permit themselves to be vulnerable, they challenge the stories they are writing and step into purposeful Self-Awareness and growth. 

They are willing to explore negative self-talk and the pushback on the inner critic that keeps them feeling small and stuck. They allow themselves to risk judgment in sharing messy insights in the group experience and being open to others’ perspectives. 

There is no innovation without vulnerability. We cannot iterate and choose new actions until we step forward—as a beginning—and make new choices. This vulnerability fosters the intimacy needed to build dynamic, connecting, and collaborative relationships.

Vulnerability is Scary 

Vulnerability often feels scary, revealing, and exposing. Talking about yourself can feel fraught with peril, especially with (gulp) work colleagues—and it can be if you don’t know what you’re doing. 

But the truth is, without vulnerability, human potential is limited. 

Group coaching can fail—quite spectacularly—if we do not purposefully create a safe space for success because people must feel empowered to take what they perceive to be a huge risk—the risk of being judged. 

When they see a cohort member step into the light and share something important to them, they cannot help but feel touched by the common humanity. Me too, our hearts say. Me too. 

And the truth is, we think we most fear the judgment of others, but in reality, no one judges us more harshly than we judge ourselves. 

As adults, we have become so used to hearing that harsh judgment in our own heads and hearts we assume others will do the same or worse. So we “armor up,” as Brené Brown calls it. But as I said earlier, vulnerability begets vulnerability. 

One by one, each person is inspired by the one who spoke before them, each becoming more and more comfortable sharing their personal and professional selves. They can genuinely let themselves be seen by contributing in a way that is transparent with one another and without judgment.

The Coach’s Role: Modeling Vulnerability

We must not only create the Container but also purposely maintain it throughout the group coaching experience, whether for two hours, two days, or twelve months. Maintaining the Container means modeling vulnerability throughout the entire time. 

As a coach, you can’t simply be vulnerable in the Launch and think the work is done. You must continue to reevaluate it and let the people accompany you on your own journey and individual Outcomes, just as you do the same for them. 

Remember, unlike mentoring or advocating, coaching is an equal-power relationship. Group coaching is no different. We are there to accompany them and give them permission, in turn, to accompany us. 

Even as the group coach, I am also a peer, so I identify an outcome I want for myself every time I lead a group through this PEER process. It’s never the same because I’m different each month and year. As a result, every cohort and every context is unique. 

Freedom to Choose

The concept of choice is absolutely critical to success in Container building. In every activity, engagement happens only through choice. No one should be forced to do, say, or share anything they don’t want to.

When participants move into small breakout groups, I remind them there is just as much value in sharing a story as there is in holding the space for someone else to share. Like the analogy of the open hands holding the sand, the Container is held by those who aren’t speaking for those who choose to speak. Participants will always be stepping in and out of those two roles.

So often in adult learning, we praise the extroverts, the people who speak up as if that is the “right way” to do it. But putting pressure on people causes them not to share the real stuff. 

They are giving them the choice honors all learning styles, including the more introverted learning styles who maybe aren’t comfortable sharing right away. In every session, I open with their voices and close with their voices—remember, even though we are responsible for helping to shape it, it is their Container.

I invite you to spend some time reflecting on your coaching sessions and evaluate how you are cultivating the Container to allow each and every Coachee to let their guard down and experience the freedom and growth found there.

Vulnerability and Validation inside THRIVE

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