The power of personal disclosure

Personal disclosure?  It’s all about cheese …

Do you remember “Who Moved My Cheese?”?

It’s a great little book that came out a few years ago, a parable of change and how we respond to it.  It tells the story of two ‘Little People’ in a maze who wake up one morning to find their stash of cheese, so vital to them and so long taken for granted, is missing.  I liked it so much that I bought a copy for everyone in the company.  At our next company meeting, I asked which bit from the book had resonated the most.  Judging by the response, it was clear that not everyone had got round to reading it, so I kicked off: “What chimed most with me was the line about what would you do if you weren’t afraid?” and I went on to talk about how I’d often felt held back in life by some irrational and baseless fear.

Well, the floodgates opened.  People began to talk openly about their own fears and blocks, their regrets and ambitions.  They found out more about each other in half an hour than they had done in years; you could almost see attitudes shifting, relationships moving and trust growing.  It was a meeting like we’d never had before!

I hadn’t planned it and I’m not trying to lay claim to some fabulous leadership prowess.  But it did bring home to me something that great communicators use to engage and move people: the power of personal disclosure.

I’ve found that “disclosure” is often confused with “telling stories”.  A story can of course be very powerful but, unless you really inhabit it, it can just be another way of deflecting the focus away from you and onto something else.  So stories are often the exact opposite of disclosure.

Personal disclosure has to be just that – personal – and is most powerful when it reveals a vulnerability about the discloser that other people identify with or recognise in themselves.  Here are just a few examples of what I’ve found it can do:

  • It allows people to own up to feeling things that they may have felt taboo or out of place and so makes for much more open and honest communication. It increases rapport and deepens relationships.
  • It can be key to creating and promoting the right environment for diversity. It says “It’s OK to be me.”  If a leader does it, it paves the way for everyone else to be themselves too.
  • It’s an arresting start to any presentation; and it can really bring the barriers down in conversation and help meetings cut to the chase.
  • It gives people permission to fail and inspiration to succeed. In his excellent book Empathy – a Handbook for Revolution, Roman Krznaric cites emotions researcher Brené Brown as saying “innovation, creativity and engagement – those are all functions of vulnerability.”

So how do you do it?

This is what works for me …

I hate it when people say “I’m really delighted to be here …”  In fact it’s obvious that they don’t think much of it either, because they usually absent themselves: “Really delighted to be here …”  So that sort of thing is just a waste of breath.  But avoid going too far the other way!  Don’t feel you have to come out with something totally sensational.  If you try too hard to find something to blow people away, chances are you’ll appear contrived and fake.  In the same way, a life or death dilemma can have the opposite effect from the one you want: if the experience you describe is too rarefied or extreme, people are likely to feel shut out rather than invited in.  A good rule of thumb is to think “emperor’s new clothes”.  I try to make a habit of asking myself: “What is it about this subject that I really feel, and that everyone else is likely to be feeling but no-one dares to say because they’re worried they’ll look stupid?”  Then I use that!  So things like “A lot of modern technology makes me feel inadequate!” (to put it mildly, actually) or “I’ve often found that not doing things out of fear has given me far more regret than doing things impetuously.”

But beware!

Two key provisos.  To be effective, disclosure mustn’t be formulaic: it has to be genuine, and come from a place of real emotional connection.  So a discipline I try to follow whenever I can in distilling my thoughts and feelings about any subject is to ask myself (and really push back until I get there!): “What would be my one piece of personal disclosure about this?”  As well as producing something that really works, the creative rigour of this process has the added advantage of likely moving your thoughts and feelings – and your communication of them – to a whole new level!

Second, the delivery of your disclosure has to be confident.  If it’s tremulous and uncertain, then your audience will read this (subconsciously at least) as a warning to be wary, rather than as a warm invitation to join with you in a shared experience – and that it’s safe to do so.

But like anything this powerful, self-disclosure isn’t without risk.  It invites judgement.  If the disclosure is skilful and appropriate and serves the common good then it’s likely to be judged favourably, but if it’s self-important or self-centred it will backfire.

I’ve often heard people say they’re worried that personal disclosure shows vulnerability.  Well yes of course it does.  But only in the same way that a high-wire act does.  It must be done confidently.  When it is, personal disclosure inhabits the same paradox as “only really strong people express themselves gently” and “only masters make complexity simple”.

Written by Mark Mason-Jones: an introvert’s adventures in the world of public (and private) speaking.

I’d like to learn from your observations and experiences, so please share your thoughts in the comments section below – or email me at  

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