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  • Susan Taylor

What nature taught me about vulnerability

Facilitator and coach Susan Taylor helps teams work better together by creating space for vulnerability, learning, and growth. In this piece, she describes how a transformative encounter in the wilderness motivated her to pursue this work.

A lone tent in the desert at sundown.

I have worked at the same company for nearly 30 years. My work as a facilitator and coach helps leaders and teams fulfill their deeper purpose by fostering creative and inspiring business environments that support people to learn, grow, and thrive while delivering extraordinary results. Although I co-founded the company, I was not always a facilitator myself. I started out as a transcriptionist, moving through the ranks, working on the internal side of the consultancy. Until I had a chance encounter with a bear…

The nature solo that became a duet

It was on a 12-day solo hike in the middle of nowhere, near the Chiricahua Mountains, a very remote area of Arizona. I was participating in a program that was typically a collective program led by a teacher. We were meant to receive wilderness training: go off and do our solos, and then come back to the group to share our experiences. But this was back in the early 2000s when SARS was present, so every single person who had signed up for the experience canceled but for me. So I went on my own. I called it my solo-solo.

The teacher who was training me had to leave the property and go 250 miles away to Tucson to deal with some legal issues. So I was completely alone. I had no buddy system, no communications, no signal, nothing. We were stripped of everything like phones, pagers, or anything but a pocket-sized notepad. You're meant to sit with yourself, literally.

On the seventh day the bear came.

I was in my tent, writing a poem, actually. It was a gorgeous day. I had all the tent flies open because it was cooler that way. Suddenly, I felt a presence. I looked up from my notepad, and there was a bear's head poking in through the tent door, inches from my face.

A brown bear sits on a rock in the mountains.

Strangely, I had no fear. His hot, chocolate brown eyes drew me in. I reached back with my left hand because I had the can of bear spray behind me, and I unlatched the safety cap. At the same time, rationally, I knew I would never spray it, because I was in the tent. It would sting my eyes as well. I had one of those big orange whistles around my neck. I could have blown it, but I didn't want to hurt the bear’s ears. I didn't blow it. So what I did was loudly clear my throat, at which point, he backed out, and ran away to the left.

The bear came back twice. The second time, again, I didn't want to blow the whistle. Then, because the sun was starting to set, and because I was 6 miles away from the nearest cabin, I thought, What am I gonna do if he comes in the middle of the night? I don't know how to protect myself, if he comes into my tent. So on the third visit, I blew the whistle, and he ran off. I hiked the 6 miles back to the cabin, almost in the dark, and spent the night there. Next morning, I got up and went back to my campsite. And what's in front of my tent door? Bear poop.

The importance of vulnerability

Until that moment, I don’t think I had ever been in such a vulnerable space. And it was all okay, somehow. The experience with the bear felt transformative. And I thought, I want to help someone have even a glimpse of something like this.

Following that experience, I made the decision to be more involved in the external client area of our work. I wanted to shift my role to that of a guide, supporting other people in a way that would help them become more aware, and in so doing create more meaning in their life. That vulnerable moment actually helped me to realize the importance of vulnerability. As I went on to get my certifications as a facilitator and coach, it helped me to understand how to create those spaces that would be safe enough for other people–in their own way–to be that vulnerable, to where you can reach behind yourself to unleash the safety cap of the bear spray with no intention of spraying it.

Two people engage in friendly dialogue in an office.

To me, vulnerability is the deepest point of human connection. If there’s one thing I give to clients that they cannot necessarily give themselves, it’s the permission to be vulnerable. And with that, I can start to facilitate different conversations through Dialogue, where some of the things that are way below the surface can come to the top in a way where we can healthfully hold them–as opposed to arguing about them from a place of being right or wrong.

A guide, not an expert

At any of my facilitated sessions, we start with some ground rules. But the ground rules are not mine. First and foremost, they come from the group. (I might make suggestions, for example, like “silence your cell phone,” or saying, “this is a space of confidentiality” and expand that to include safety. Normal things, like showing up on time after a break, I’ll suggest.) For us to participate, the guidelines have to be meaningful to the group, which they won’t be if I'm dictating them. We spend time coming up with not just guidelines, but their expectations. What they're doing is actually setting the field for their own outcomes, and the success of those outcomes.

When there's chaos, or disagreement, I can bring them back to these shared guidelines and expectations. They remember that there's a shared meaning here, and that's the glue that holds them together, despite how divergent they might get.

Three people engaged in lively discussion in an office setting.

A few years ago, I was working with the management team of an organization in Dallas. There was just a lot going on within that team with regard to safety in particular. When I go into these sorts of systems, I typically do a series of what I call generative interviews as a way to learn where people are, where teams are, and through that where the organization is. And then, in synthesizing what I learned from those conversations, I come up with a few themes.

I was working with this group toward a three-day, off-site retreat. I had learned some things with regard to the fear that this management team had around making decisions. They thought there would be repercussions from the CEO, and they were so interested in being part of this team that they became conformists, in a way. Even when the CEO’s actions contradicted their own values and ways of being. After taking them through some of the aforementioned exercises about permissions, expectations, and concerns, I sat down and very humbly said, “Okay, there's an elephant in the room. We need to bring the elephant to the surface, and I need your permission to be the guide for that.” They gave me permission. And then we got into the deeper conversation.

At the end of the day, they all realized how they were contributing individually, through their own fears, to a space where they felt like they couldn't authentically be who they were. They could not show up in ways that were meaningful to them because of mindsets they were holding, and those mindsets were limiting their potential as a team.

Ultimately, we shifted from a group of 10 “me-oriented” individuals to a unified “we.” At the end of that conversation, people were vulnerable and willing to express not just how they were feeling, but give real examples.

From that experience, we created what they called a “behavior score sheet” for all their board meetings, where they could appropriately shine the light on behaviors that were not in alignment with the organization’s values and the protocols that they had come up with during the retreat. It was huge for them. I don't like to use business cliches, but they became a very high performing team.

Three coworkers engaged in dialogue and active listening.

A lot of times, especially when I've walked into different organizations, they see me as the facilitator, and they cast me as some sort of expert. I am not. I don't know your business. You know your business far better than me. I'm just a guide. I'm just someone who's there to facilitate, to steward the conversation and the activities.

It is up to all of us to actually achieve the goals we say we want to achieve, and we have to participate together. One of my former business partners, who has since passed away, told me that the success of an intervention is dependent upon the interior condition of the intervenor. I tell my clients, “This group, all of us together, we’re that intervenor. So let’s set ourselves up for success and not give power away to any sort of individual or role or function that could detract from us. We're in it together, and it's going to take all of us.”


As told to Anna Weltner.

Susan Taylor is co-founder and CEO of Generon International.

Photo credit: Shutterstock


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