There is a major portion of our communication that is automatic. It follows the norms we’ve learned to use. Take a simple question like “can we change our appointment?”. It is a great way to engage with the other and share a desire. It is very much appropriate to use it.
At the same time, every question contains an implicit promise. In this case, the promise is that there is space for a “no”. The person answering the question may thus expect that saying “no” is an acceptable answer.
It’s where we can observe a vulnerability gap.
The way a simple transaction like a question and an answer is shared depends on two communication levels. The social level is the one that taught us norms, like asking a polite question. Underneath it, there is the psychological level, that is our actual desire. Both levels oftentimes compete with one another.
We’ve learned to live in a group and use politeness to create the best possible results. We’ve also learned to see ourselves with a social status related to others. Living in a group makes it normal to make ourselves aware of who is the “strongest”.
For us it means, that status becomes relevant when the social and psychological levels compete with one another. Then we will either see ourselves or the other as entitled. Simply put the question we ask ourselves is if we have to please the other or if it is them who have to please us.
It also means that any desire we have is challenged by how we perceive our own status. It leads to two simple questions at the psychological level. How can the desire be fulfilled if the other is entitled? Why do I have to ask a question if I’m entitled?
The vulnerability gap describes how difficult it is to formulate a question that we can say just as we mean it.
Closing the vulnerability gap requires to change our status to one where no one is entitled and where our desire is described well enough to be heard. It is accepting that it may not be met in the way we hoped for but giving ourselves every chance to have it met. That’s how we become responsible.
But often as we don’t make ourselves aware of it, we search for ways to hide it. We add other information that feels like having shared the desire. We act as if the other said yes. We protect ourselves from a “no” reaching us. Our behavior becomes the way we make sure our desire will be fulfilled.
Most often this vulnerability gap remains untouched. The way the question is asked, the context in which it is embedded, the way we have learned to know the person all help us see that the question being asked is actually asked at two levels. There is the hidden transaction at the psychological level and there is the audible transaction at the social level.
In such a situation, if the person answering hears both levels and answers just as politely to both levels, accepting the person’s desire and giving an appropriate answer at the social level, nothing special will happen at that level.
Where it does have an impact though, is at the psychological level. There the transaction confirmed the uneven status. Both accepted the status on which the exchange was based. Both accepted that the promise was not aligned with the expectations. It perpetuates the frustration of having to make a detour to get what one wants just as much as the frustration of not getting what one wants.
What this detour brings will be different for everyone. It can be a sense of lack of options, powerlessness, lack of freedom, lack of attention, etc. Let’s say, it keeps both somewhat “miserable”.
It may seem irrelevant to go into such details as it is something that we do automatically. We’ve trained ourselves to deal with it easily. This training made it unconscious and almost invisible to us.
Invisible, apart maybe from the small unease that we feel when there have been several of these in a row. When things start to pile up.
Now, imagine your boss doing that to you. Or your employee doing that to you.
Expect that blame will appear sooner or later.