Leadership

How Christine Blasey Ford's vulnerability shaped her credibility

The nation was transfixed Thursday as it watched Christine Blasey Ford testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ford was the first woman to come forward with an allegation of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. He denies the accusation.

At times, the testimony from Ford, an accomplished research psychologist, was raw and emotional. According to experts, being vulnerable can enhance your credibility and strengthen social bonds.

Ford appeared "visibly traumatized" by the testimony experience, the L.A. Times noted, a stark contrast to Anita Hill's steely composure during the equally difficult 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Moreover, Hill's "strength and poise" did not have the same resonance as Ford's vulnerability, reports the Atlantic.

Research shows that displaying vulnerability elicits a deep emotional connection in others, particularly during painful moments. In fact, onlookers will often internalize other people's emotions, feeling second-hand embarrassment after someone else's cringe-worthy statement or sadness after a moving story. The same goes for vulnerability.

Vulnerability doesn't always strengthen connections or credibility, our experts warn. The emotions must be authentic and track with the message being relayed, says executive communications specialist Mary Civiello.

"Sadness and despair are the most difficult emotions to fake," adds Susan Constantine, a leading authority on body language and deception detection.

To establish credibility, body language experts look for visual, vocal and verbal consistency. While visual cues "speak louder than anything else," the three must be in agreement, Civiello says.

Each of these qualities were in alignment with Ford's testimony. Her hunched body resembled a "weeping willow," says Constantine, which emphasized her weakened state. Ford became smaller and folded into herself, she explains. Generally, those who feel powerful and in control expand their upper body, widen their shoulders and use large grandiose gestures.

Ford's eye contact was direct when answering questions, showing that she had nothing to hide. And while her voice was shaky at times, her words were clear. They did not sound robotic or rehearsed, but rather "heartfelt," says Constantine. "These behavioral cues were all consistent with the words that were coming out of her mouth."

Adds Civiello, there was "no hedging, no shades of grey."

These authentic moments can help build true connections. Studies find that onlookers can tell when we're projecting an emotion we don't feel, leading to distrust and even discomfort. In the workplace, trust leads to improved employee performance and constructive behavior as well as honest feedback.

Ultimately, vulnerability is not about weakness but taking an emotional risk. Says the Harvard Business Review. "It implies the courage to be yourself."

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