A different kind of conversation is needed in these times, one which fosters much-needed psychological safety, and is marked by shared understanding and deep listening with the ability and willingness to be vulnerable, says Jane Brendgen


In March 2020 our lives changed as we began to experience the deeply unsettling realities associated with a global pandemic.

Many people made the abrupt shift to working from home with virtual platforms substituting face-to-face meetings. Millions were furloughed or lost their jobs. Although lockdown restrictions are currently lifted and millions of vaccines have been administered, we’re seeing infection rates soar again. The future still looks uncertain.

Organisations are adapting, business models are shifting and negotiations regarding a return to work versus remote work are continuing (McKinsey, 2021). We know that work will never be the same, even if we don’t yet know all the ways in which it’ll be different. The descriptors contained in the acronym VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – have taken on an unprecedented dimensionality.

So, what do organisations need now to support their employees to deal with these complex realities and chart a sustainable path for growth, and how can we as coaches contribute? Perhaps the answers lie in some of the adaptations many are already making in response to the pandemic crisis. These include being more in touch with our shared humanity, being more willing to be vulnerable, and getting better at fostering trust and psychological safety, all of which contribute to a deeper connection, a different kind of conversation.


Our common humanity

Meeting each other against the digital background of our homes has ushered in an unexpected intimacy: we’ve met in living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, had encounters with children, dogs and seen the tails of cats moving in the frame, and talked about loss, fear, insecurity, stress and overwhelm. Many of the people I’ve coached in the past year mentioned that the first event that frequently happens in meetings now is the exchange of the question, ‘how are you?’ with a more genuine interest in the response than may have previously been the case.

Every one of us has been touched in some way. This shift has encouraged us to step out from behind our work faces and meet each other as the vulnerable human beings that we are. It’s my personal conviction that herein lies the potential for growth and flourishing in the workplace that is yet to be fully tapped.


Vulnerability and psychological safety

Vulnerability is essentially about showing up and being seen as we are: for our workplace clients this might be courageously sharing their tentative ideas in a meeting, asking questions when they don’t know the answers; disagreeing with their line manager, asking for feedback, acknowledging that they’ve made a mistake and reaching out for support and speaking openly to their colleagues and line managers about their struggles and fears. The reality is, most of us have been conditioned to regard vulnerability as a weakness and it’s the same for our clients. We hide aspects of our humanity for fear of being judged, rejected, shamed and excluded. Let’s pause for a moment to consider the costs.

Maintaining a defensive stance is stressful. It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy and contributes significantly to unhappiness. It also influences how we relate to each other. In the workplace, interactions are becoming increasingly transactional in service of productivity and success, and the nourishment that naturally comes from authentic human connection is lost. One of the questions I’ve been living in these past many months is this: how might we change the conditions in our own and our clients’ working lives such that the quality of relationships we have could enhance our well-being and liberated our potential for growth and performance excellence?

The crucial factor that transforms relationships is mutual vulnerability. This lies at the heart of psychological safety. Currently, the topic of psychological safety features frequently in the business press with its importance recognised across industries ranging from healthcare to tech to financial services (Edmondson & Hugander, 2021). Amy Edmondson, who is professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School and is considered to be one of the thought leaders in this burgeoning field, defines it as: “A climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being and expressing themselves” (Duhigg, 2016). The interpersonal neurobiology of trust undisputedly shows that when we feel safe with each other we can let our guard down, lean into our humanity, brave uncertainty and take more interpersonal risks.

This changes the nature and quality of conversations. In May, I attended an online course on Conversational Leadership led by the poet, author and international leadership consultant, David Whyte. In one of his sessions, he said: “Organisations are conversations”. Edmondson’s research consistently shows that when psychological safety is high, teams perform better on almost every key performance indicator. A compelling example of this was cited by Google in their 2012 research project ‘Aristotle’ aimed at identifying the most significant success factors of their top performing teams. The key element was how team members treated one another – they felt safe to be themselves, be open, take interpersonal risks, collaborate and hold each other accountable.

In collaboration with Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation has developed a tool to measure how individuals perceive the psychological safety in their closest context. This can be a very effective starting block for change, particularly if followed by interventions aimed at shifting cultures towards a sustainable climate of trust and openness. A recent survey of more than 20,000 employees across a wide array of industries and organisational positions clearly showed that teams suffer from a critical interpersonal skills gap that impedes their potential to achieve. A pervasive lack of vulnerability-based trust was cited as the key reason (Wiley Workplace Learning Solutions, 2020). Considering that mutual vulnerability is the crucial factor that transforms relationships, a skills-based experiential process aimed at changing how we relate to each other may be the way forward. Dialogue offers a promising form.


Mutual vulnerability – the gateway to dialogue

My coaching supervisor, Fiona Adamson and I recently co-authored a book (Adamson & Brendgen, 2021) published on 23 November 2021. The heart of the book is our case study, where we openly explore the evolution of our working relationship and how our learned capacity for dialogue significantly enhanced our personal and professional development.

The first phase of our work together was more transactional in nature: I was the learner and Fiona the expert, and we both hid behind our respective roles. My learning style was largely characterised by the fear of being seen as incompetent. I was self-critical and carefully edited my thoughts and ideas before speaking. This inhibited relational contact and the capacity to be open to learning at depth.

During a session I was triggered into self-doubt and shame and I made a decision to take an interpersonal risk. My heart was pounding as I shared how I was feeling. Fiona reciprocated and openly disclosed that she too was fearful and anxious about not being good enough. She added that she felt she had no value unless she came across as ‘knowing her stuff’.

Both of us were touched through our courage to show our vulnerability and talk openly about our human struggles. Over time the nature of our conversations shifted from being transactional, habitual and reactive to dialogical – relational, present-focused and responsive. The quality of our relationship matured into mutual love and compassionate presence, strengthening our reflective capacities and enhancing our learning.


Dialogue – a different kind of conversation

There are many different definitions of the word dialogue. At its most basic, it’s simply a conversation. With mutual presence and vulnerability, dialogue takes on a much richer and fuller dimensionality where it can be described as a relational process in which two or more parties are invited to engage in conversational turn-taking and appreciative and non-judgemental listening with the shared intention to co-create an open system for exploration, insight and creation.

Dialogists (or participants) are encouraged to let go of habitual ways of thinking, speaking and listening and move into the unchartered territory of shared present-moment attention, emotional attunement and empathy.

Thinking together in this way invites us to journey into a vulnerable place, from the head to the heart to the realms of possibility in the intersubjective space in between, where a more subtle, shared and emergent intelligence lies. Subjectivity refers to the perception of reality through our limited self-referential lens, where our assumptions, evaluations, unconscious biases and beliefs shape what we experience. In contrast, intersubjectivity is most simply stated as the interchange of subjective thoughts and feelings, both on a conscious and unconscious level between two or more people. This brings out the intelligence that lives at the very centre of ourselves.

William Isaac (Isaac, 1999) describes dialogue in this way: “At the centre of the principle of participation is the intelligence of our hearts, the freshness of our perceptions and ultimately the deep feeling of connection that we have with others and our world” (p.57).

The intersubjective space connects people in ways that most will have seldom, if ever, experienced in the workplace and perhaps on rare occasions in our personal lives. It’s founded on what Daniel Coyle refers to as “the vulnerability loop” (Coyle, 2019). He asserts that vulnerability doesn’t come after trust, it precedes it. When we’re open with another person we’re speaking authentically with our own voice saying, ‘Here I am. This is me.’ This courageous act of genuine openness with another elicits a reciprocal response and causes the “solid ground of trust to materialise beneath our feet” (Coyle, p. 107).

Dialogue can be experientially learned through offering structures and processes that support the development of particular relational skills. I remember a touching experience I had a couple of years ago when I was delivering a mindfulness session for a group of leaders in the City. I invited people into pairs where each would have the opportunity to inhabit the role of speaker and listener alternately. I set up a carefully structured exercise for dialogue and offered guidelines aimed at supporting participants to enhance the quality of attention they brought to their speaking and listening. Finally, I offered a particular topic for reflection.

When the practice was complete one of the participants in a dyad lifted his hand, signalling a desire to speak. He said: “I’ve just met my colleague and now it feels as if we have known each other for years.” His eyes sparkled and his words were imbued with the warmth of the surprising intimacy of their exchange.

Safe, trusting and resilient connections can be fostered collaboratively through sharing our innermost selves and by offering others our undivided non-judgemental attention. In this dialogical space we meet as the human beings that we are and we feel seen, heard, appreciated and understood. This is the soil where true belonging takes root.


Relevance for us as coaches

In his book, In Love with Supervision: Creating transformative conversations (Shohet & Shohet, 2020), Robin Shohet says: “I’ve come to realise that on those rare occasions where we are fully met by another; when we are both truly seen and understood, the illusion of separation disappears and love is all that remains.” (p.20).

Love blossomed in the relational moments of openness and vulnerability as Fiona and I deepened into the mutuality of dialogue. Love is certainly in the zeitgeist of learning and development. Ashridge Business College’s most recent relational coaching conference was entitled “Love over fear”. This provided an opportunity to stand still and deeply understand the power of love that we use in our work.

In your work as a coach how could you create the conditions for genuine dialogue? Where is your learning edge regarding being vulnerable with your clients? It might be in the domain of personal disclosure or pausing to notice discomfort in your body and naming that. Maybe it’s resting in the potentiality of silence or noticing the impulse to follow a line of thinking, perhaps prematurely and instead, choosing to trust the relevance of what’s emerging in the field instead.



Most of us view our relationships as crucial for the quality of our lives. The degree to which we can be our most vulnerable, most emotional human selves with our colleagues and our clients really matters, considering that we spend the majority of our waking hours working. As one of the leaders who participated in the Google study said “If I can’t be open and honest at work, then I’m not really living, am I?’’

Creating psychological safety in the workplace is a challenging process and it takes time, commitment and a shared vision to effect any real and lasting change. Formally incorporating dialogue into workplace practices can help normalise vulnerability, profoundly deepen the quality of relationships and provide increasing experiential evidence for its pivotal role in personal and organisational development.

Furthermore, dialogue can reconnect us to the lost art of true conversation, bringing to life universal human values such as compassion, kindness and appreciation of difference and help to shift cultures towards truly inclusive environments and human workplaces.


  • Jane Brendgen is an executive coach, a mindfulness supervisor and founder of Compassionate Cultures, an enterprise focusing on supporting organisations to build compassionate cultures of trust by changing how people relate to each other. She lives in a leafy area of Lewes, East Sussex with her Siamese cat, Tao.


  • References
  • F Adamson and J Brendgen, Mindfulness-based Relational Supervision: mutual transformational learning, Routledge, 2021
  • D Coyle, The Culture Code: the secrets of highly successful groups, Penguin Random House, 2018
  • A Edmondson and P Hugander, ‘4 steps to boost psychological safety at your workplace’, in HBR, 6, 2021
  • C Duhigg, ‘What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team’, in New York Times Magazine, 25 February, 2016
  • W Isaac, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, Doubleday, 1999
  • McKinsey, The Future of Work after COVID, Feb 18, 2021.
  • Wiley Workplace Learning Solutions, State of Teams, a look at the dynamic nature of teams in today’s workplace based on insights from over 20,000 employees, March 2020

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