When do you get scared in conversations or meetings? You might call it “challenged,” “anxious,” or “threatened.” However, underneath our adult bravado, it remains what we called it as children: “scared.”
Here’s how a few of the 50 consultants at a talk I gave last week at the Silicon Valley Organization Development Network completed this sentence: “I get scared when…”
— “I think someone is angry with me and his or her voice escalates. I’m afraid they’re going to explode”;
— “I see someone actively disconnecting from me”;
— “I feel I’m going to be shunned or shamed”;
— “I’m being judged or feel powerless”;
— “I scare myself with what I say to myself.”
When we are scared, the alarm bell in the brain (the amygdala) rings loudly and it is much harder to access the functions in the prefrontal cortex, like inhibiting impulsive behavior or choosing what to say or do. We can go on automatic and say things that, even as we are saying them, we know we will regret them later. In addition, we can cherry pick information that confirms our biases about the topic at hand or about the people in the conversation.
Whether we care to admit it to ourselves, all of us get scared at one time or another in our interactions and we say and do things, often out of the anger evoked by fear, that are destructive to relationships. The question we need to ask is how do we relate to fear when it arises? What are more productive ways to deal with it?
In Mastering Fear Robert Maurer encourages us to be aware of and accept fear. It is part of being human. The second step when we are aware of and accept fear is to reach for support. In other words, awareness and acceptance give us the ability to choose how to respond to fear and not react to it by freezing, fleeing, or fighting.
For example, in a conversation, you could ask for support directly: “I am nervous right now and am not sure I am communicating clearly. Please tell me what you heard me say so I can make sure I am saying what I intend to say.” Or, after a presentation about a project proposal: “I have put a lot into this proposal and it is really important to me. Please respond to it by telling me what you like or appreciate it about it first before raising your concerns or objections.” You could also ask for support indirectly: “I need a few moments to think before I respond to your statement (or question.)”
In Talk Matters! I encourage readers to practice mindfulness as a path to developing the ability to be aware of and accept fear. This practice also quiets the amygdala so we are less likely to get scared or angry. Finally, mindfulness also strengthens access to the prefrontal cortex, enabling us to make conscious choices about what to do or say to move an interaction forward in a constructive way.
When we are aware of and accept our fears, we can then ask for support. When we practice mindfulness we are better able to be aware of fear, accept it, and decrease it. Mindfulness also helps us consciously choose what to say and do to maintain relationships and constructively move a conversation forward.
Mary’s book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is now available. Click here to purchase it.