The vulnerability we sometimes see in the faces of Strictly celebrities is precious. But it also triggers our natural instinct to rush to their support. Here’s why ‘rescuing’ people may not serve them well.
First things first: I love Strictly. It’s a world full of jeopardy. The competition is gripping, the spectacle a guilty pleasure, and the sense of pantomime strangely reassuring.
Grit keeps each participating celebrity focussed on the challenge ahead. And the prize – a tired cheap-looking trophy – is inconsequential.
Strictly is also a world where our imagination is allowed to run free. Everyone is (by and large) forgiven for anything. We expect people to make a slight fool of themselves. We will celebrate those who wow us; commiserate with those who don’t meet the mark. We are to a greater or lesser extent behind everyone, and for all the right reasons.
That spirit plays to my values: laughing at one another is a healthy thing, so long as we’ve all agreed to the parameters.
Strictly celebrities let light in on their real selves
And every week, we the viewers get a glimpse of the celebrities’ vulnerability (something former participant Katie Derham confirmed when I interviewed her about her experiences on the show a couple of years back).
When the celebrities are vulnerable, they’re letting light in on a side of their personality in the way we wouldn’t otherwise see when they’re doing their day job.
When both parties are open, clear feedback works
In moments of vulnerability we are open. As observers we learn about people when they’re vulnerable. And if you’re self-aware, you’ll learn about yourself. These are incredible precious moments. We get to see the real person. We see authenticity.
What we learn doesn’t necessarily need to be dramatic or profound. At its simplest level, it’s just useful data.
Vulnerability doesn’t mean weakness. Don’t believe any of those cold-hearted managers who claim success depends on maintaining an icy distance. What they’re not telling you is how they’ve succeeded in spite of their limiting belief.
Vulnerability is actually a strength. It is the sign of a risk-taker. Evidence of bravery.
Blunt feedback isn’t mean feedback
Take another part of the celebrity’s experience in Strictly – when the judges talk to them.
And for this bit, keep in mind the marvellous Craig Revel-Horwood.
There are moments when his feedback is challenging – honest developmental feedback.
People boo Craig because he’s blunt. Bluntness is seen as meanness.
But that’s a misunderstanding. What Craig delivers is honest criticism intended to help the individual develop. It’s feedback offered when the celebrity is, essentially, at their most vulnerable emotionally. That’s what makes it gripping television.
These are the crucial moments: when dancer and judge are at their most open. At this point clear communication, learning, and development can thrive.
Resist the temptation to step in on someone’s behalf
In some of these moments, keep an eye out and you might see a habit of presenter Tess Daly’s.
Technically, it’s not something of Tess’ making – I suspect it’s a producer whispering in her ear – but it is infuriating.
Generally speaking, if there is a comment hurled at the celebrity, and it’s booed at by the audience, or otherwise perceived as mean-spirited, Tess will step in.
She’ll sometimes place an arm on the celebrity’s shoulder or offer a reassuring hug, before following-up with a reassuring counter-comment.
Clearly that’s all meant with good intent, but the effect is quite damaging.
In that moment Tess is disagreeing with the expert judges’ assessment, reinforcing the divide between the experts and the amateurs, and redefining the relationship between her and the celebrity.
In real-life that kind of support doesn’t fuel a sustainable approach to ongoing development. Showing sympathy and solidarity is of course a good thing, but its not necessarily the best thing to offer.
It’s collusion. And collusion doesn’t help foster new ways of thinking, feeling, or doing.
Don’t rescue people
In those times when feedback seems harsh, or the audience are booing Tess will, from time to time, ‘rescue’ the celebrity.
She anticipates what the individual is thinking as a result of hearing a negative comment or an audience boo.
She projects her own assumptions onto the celebrity, denying them the opportunity to let the judge’s comment take root, and for informed action to be subsequently taken.
Don’t presume anything
These are the kind of conversations I avoid in day-to-day life. My preference is always to allow people to say what they want to say and for me to listen.
I cannot presume to know how the person I’m listening to is thinking or feeling about something inside. I certainly cannot know what they should do, think or feel, about a particular subject. To prescribe action would be denying them personal responsibility.
That’s probably why I find Tess’ role in supporting the celebrity during the judges comments difficult to watch. Within the context of TV I get why she’s there and what she’s doing, but to do that in real life is counter-productive.
My preference is to sit with the vulnerability I observe in those moments. That way we give others the best chance at deciding on how they want to take action.
Jon Jacob is a BBC-trained and ICF Accredited Coach, specialising in management, executive, and leadership coaching. He currently works with people in the arts, media, and higher education. Contact him on 07768 864655 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.