I have been thinking a lot about fear lately. It seems like we are constantly being told to ‘be afraid, be very afraid‘ of something – whether it is to sell products or drive votes. Being afraid is natural and very powerful – designed to keep us from being harmed. It can keep us safe and aware of sketchy situations. It can also make us hesitate and hold back – choosing a path that is safer but not necessarily better. My colleague John once told me, ‘Feeling afraid is natural. But don’t make any important decisions out of the fear.‘
This all made much more sense to me when I had a relative who was scheduled for surgery. Their daughter called me the day before the surgery and said that the relative was driving them crazy. The relative wanted the surgery. And then they didn’t. And then they did. And then they didn’t. The daughter said it was maddening and she didn’t know what to do. I called the relative and just asked how things were going. They said that the pre-surgical nurse was an idiot and had treated the relative badly; that the surgery wasn’t going to make that much of a difference; that there wasn’t enough of a benefit to go through all of this – etc., etc. For perspective, this was a common, low risk procedure that was designed to help maintain quality of life. In fact, doing the surgery at this time would actually prevent a degradation of the relative’s quality of life.
From a logical perspective, this was a straight forward decision. But this wasn’t a logical conversation – this was an emotional conversation. And what was tied up in all of this were the emotions of anger and fear. As the relative complained about the nurse and talked about how there wasn’t much benefit to the surgery, I asked, ‘So – are you afraid of the surgery?’ The relative stopped talking and was silent for a moment and then explained that they weren’t afraid, they were angry. That made me remember when people startle me by cutting me off on the freeway – I yell rude things at the other drivers in anger. But my first emotion isn’t anger – it is fear. Since the word fear can be very polarizing, I tried different words – anxious and apprehensive finally worked. Once the emotions were identified that described how the relative was feeling, they calmed – and felt understood. We could then have the logical conversation about the benefits of the surgery and if they wanted it. The relative decided to have the surgery and is very happy with the results.
To be clear, my goal was not to push them into the surgery. My goal was to have them make the decision with the fear in its proper size. In order to do that two things had to happen – the relative had to recognize and express the emotions that they were feeling and have those feelings acknowledged. Then, and only then, could the facts be considered. This process didn’t take the relative’s fear completely away, but it did give it a different size. And, it enabled the relative to make the best decision for their life. The fear became only one consideration of many, and not the driving force in the decision.
In business today, changes are happening all of the time. The product lineup is changing, the organizational demographics are changing, the way work is done is changing. And nearly every week another buyout or merger is announced. With these changes, come those same emotions of anxiousness and apprehension – aka fear. But – how often is it expressed as fear vs. anger? The decisions made by the individuals who are afraid and angry won’t be optimal. And neither will the decisions made by those leading the change as they respond to only the anger vs. listening for the anxiousness, the apprehension, and the fear – and answering that. The real message gets missed, assumptions get made about motivation and commitment – leading to more bad decisions.
Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” To conquer your fear, find a good listener and express how you are feeling. If you are the listener, acknowledge what the other person is feeling – no judging, no evaluating – just listening for them. Conquering the fear enables us to tuck it in our pocket, take it along for the ride, and make the best decision for us.
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