The Power of Vulnerability

Years ago I read an article by Harvard business professor Chris Argyris whose message stuck with me.  “Good Communication that Blocks Learning” was about the mental models we develop early in life for dealing with emotional and threatening issues.  These “defensive routines,” as Argyris termed them, exist to prevent human beings from experiencing embarrassment or threat.  At the same time, however, they prevent examination of the nature and causes of both.  In short, they prevent learning and thereby perpetuate bad choices.   


Breaking free of defensive communication routines requires a willingness to be vulnerable.  Only while bringing down our guard are we able to effectively examine why certain unsavory situations occur repeatedly in our lives.  Ironically, this kind of vulnerability requires courage.  

Doing the unexpected, as hard as it may be, often brings rewards.  We know that apologizing, when defensiveness or retaliation is expected, can lead to calmer communication.  The unexpected causes most of us to reflect.  Indeed, it is often how young children learn new things. 

Moreover, the rule of reciprocity in human interaction calls for a civil response to a civil offering.  Ignoring this rule has its consequences, but here again breaking free of defensive routines can enable us to change the communication options of others.  If we move beyond defensiveness, the rule of reciprocity encourages others to do so as well.

It would be naïve to suggest that antagonistic relationships around the world would disappear were the key players to reflect more on their defensive routines.  But it wouldn’t hurt, either.

To the extent we stick with routines, we cease to learn other communication options.  Perhaps worse, we become predictable -- and thereby manageable -- by others, many of whom we’d prefer not to give such power if we had our wits about us.  They are able to provoke us to and corner us within our own defensiveness because it’s so easy to do.

Unblocking defensive communication routines starts with recognizing their existence and realizing what can be said in their place.  “This is where I usually become defensive...” or “Rather than escalate this into an argument neither of us wants, let me suggest...” are two phrases that may prove useful the next time you feel yourself becoming defensive, and there are many others.  Their use opens us up to learning, and so makes us more skillful at communication. 

Sure, there is risk in relinquishing defensiveness.  The greater risk, though, is that of becoming stuck in routines that repeatedly take us to the same unhappy and unproductive place.

photo:  PathDoc/Shutterstock.com

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The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.