Vulnerability can be a helpful tool for building trust. Without trust, we are suspicious of others and even combative.

In Friend & Foe, Adam Galinksy and Maurice Schweitzer explain that the keys to building trust are warmth and competency. We can project warmth through making ourselves appear vulnerable. However, to get the benefits of appearing vulnerable we must demonstrate vulnerability in an area outside of our expertise.

Galinsky and Schweitzer illustrate this through a story about doctors and spilt coffee. They encourage us to imagine walking into a psychiatrist’s office. It is your first appointment. The psychiatrist’s credentials are hanging all over her wall, establishing her credibility. You both sit down. She immediately spills her coffee. She jokes “I’ve never been very good with my hands.” This display of vulnerability projects warmth and makes you feel comfortable, even trusting.

Now, let’s say you walk into your surgeon’s office for your first appointment. Again, his credentials are hanging on the walls. You both sit down to discuss your upcoming heart surgery. He accidentally spills his coffee all over the table. He jokes “I’ve never been very good with my hands.” This display of vulnerability does not build trust in his skills. He has demonstrated a weakness in a relevant, reputational domain. As a surgeon, his hands are intertwined with his competency.

In sum, the authors encourage us to be vulnerable. But only in areas outside of our core competencies and only after we have established our credibility.