Are you one of those people who keeps avoiding facing up to difficult things?
If you’re avoiding public speaking and presentations because they feel too scary then you might not be surprised to hear that avoidance actually grows the problem. Dwelling in fear for any length of time isn’t the answer. Maybe if we could look at avoidance right between the eyes we could see that it is trying telling us something really useful. My experience of teaching this over 18 years tells me is that if we face our fears in the right way, by taking the small steps outlined below, we CAN face that fear, we can liberate ourselves and we can live full, meaningful lives.
You probably know that by now that human beings are strange creatures. As a human being myself, I also do strange things. I’m not proud of myself. For years, I have actively avoided doing my tax return from September onwards. I say "active" as it’s always lurking at the back of my brain, I know I should being do it. Shortly after Jan 31st deadline I pay the £100 fine for a late return. Then on March 1st when the pressure is too much, I spend a week preparing to do my tax return. So I sort out my papers, tidy my desk, organise my music collection, and then on the 8th day of March I get down to doing it. Once I get started it's actually much easier than I thought it would be and two days later I’ve done it. It has only taken two days but I’ve been thinking about it for at least 9 months. And I also have to pay the late fine and any interest and possibly further penalities. I say to myself “next year will be different”. And of course for years nothing changed.
So I know from both personal experience and from 18 years of teaching that avoiding things we find challenging really can really get in the way of our leading full and happy lives. It can affect our relationships and our self image. Take this kind of email that I get quite often: “I have managed to avoid presentations most of my life but I have recently started a new job where I have to undertake presentations regularly. My first presentation is in two weeks and I already can't sleep and feel sick at the thought of it.”
Or this from another client "I have always had an intense fear of public speaking and have always made every effort to avoid it at all costs. I even struggle with less formal things like giving updates in team meetings.. This fear really hasn't served me well over the years in terms of work opportunities and job interviews, but I've just brushed it under the carpet, suffered in silence and tried to just accept that it's how I am. However, a couple of weeks ago I completely fluffed a presentation at work and it really, really shook me. I've therefore decided to finally try and do something about my intense anxiety in the hope that I can one day no longer have the horrible, intense fear and physical symptoms I experience in the run-up to and during a speaking event."
Yet another client I worked with never attended university because of the fear of collecting her degree at the degree ceremony.
Sometimes the strength of that avoidance can be brutal. Three different course participants are talking here about how strong their feelings are “I'd rather have a snake thrown in my face than do public speaking” “ I'd rather be in the Congo, with armed guards than doing public speaking” “I’d rather fight the Taliban than do public speaking”
So it’s not just me that is struggling. We seem to want to avoid experiences that are difficult. Even when the avoidance is costly to ourselves. Ironically or perhaps tragically we are spending our lives dominated by the very anxiety, we are trying to avoid. How mad is that? The grim truth is that avoidance doesn’t take the anxiety away, it just makes it bigger.
We avoid discomfort. And that has a profound effect on our lives “the more we try to avoid discomfort, the more we base our actions on how we feel, rather than on what is most important in life. In other words, we avoid doing things that are important and life-enhancing because we are unwilling to make room for the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that show up. And the more we choose action that gives us short-term relief from discomfort, rather than doing what enriches our lives in the long term, the smaller our lives tend to become.” Dr Russ Harris
What if we could change our relationship to avoidance?
What would happen if we became curious about the fear of public speaking rather than avoiding? Pema Chodron. a Buddhist teacher, has perhaps a surprising view on avoidance.
"Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for people who have a certain hunger to know what is true - feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are."
What if we moved from the idea that fear is a signal to stop everything to the idea that fear is the signal to start exploring. It’s actually time to be curious rather than to hide! Fear then becomes a teacher. Telling us where we are stuck and where we need to do some work. But to be clear I'm not suggesting we jump straight in at the deep end. We need to tackle this in small steps, by breaking a complicated thing such as public speaking into small chunks. Then it’s very possible to learn new ways of approaching it. The smaller the steps, the more possible it is to change something you have been worried about for years in a surprisingly short time. We can move from threat to connection. From not wanting to be looked at to comfortable making eye connection with the audience. We can move from panic to ease.
A quick guide to avoding avoidance….
Understand: • that avoidance is normal. You are not unique. It’s what humans do. • anxiety makes us self-conscious and self focussed. And it distorts reality, not in our favour. • the Evolutionary component of public speaking . We are evolutionary biased towards noticing threat. We needed that skill for survival. And we are very good at it. • that is nothing wrong with you if you are fearful. 70% of population have fear around public speaking. Fear is normal • that you really don’t know what people are thinking, even if you think you do. You do not have that super-power.. They are as worried about themselves as you are about yourself. So you are special but NOT that important. • that it’s us holding us back. Me stopping Me. It’s 97% about our own thinking and we have the power to change that. • the idea that confident people don’t feel fear is a myth. Confident people have a different relationship to fear but they still have fear. They may call it excitement or they know it’s just part of the deal. • confidence is something you need to practice rather than it just arrives. Confidence is really about trusting ourselves more.
Reframing See the bigger picture – take the focus away from being centred on you • focus on how life could change if you could make these steps. What’s more important than fear? I have had clients who took up dancing again, or became teachers, change their jobs, or ask their partners to marry them • Move the focus away from yourself. Move your focus on to serving people. Be more interested in a cause or the issues than yourself.
Deeper Learning • Learn about Mindfulness. Learn about how we are NOT our thoughts and that we don’t need to get entangled with every single thought. That we can say “thank you but no thank you to our thoughts”. Books and courses
• Learn about Public speaking. Find a course where the emphasis is on re-thinking the psychology around public speaking. That includes my courses, naturally but there are other people around the world. I can't be everywhere! I’ve been running these courses for 18 years especially for people who have been avoiding public speaking. We can do this in small steps too; Read my website, Talk to me and ask me questions (that’s why I run 30 minute free sessions). And then the whole course is broken down into small steps as you can read in these two bits of feedback. “The course made me realise there are steps to achieving more confidence and the way they were broken down was really achievable and encouraging”. Rachael
The course somehow seemed to challenge me without it feeling like much of a challenge. I had a brilliant group who were very supportive, which made me want to step outside my comfort zone. You are never pushed to do anything and it is hard to believe how such a gentle approach can be so effective. Sometimes small steps are massive... Angie
Finally I can’t make you stop avoiding, that’s completely down to you. But I want you to know that it’s very possible for anyone to change and take their place fully in the world. You really don’t have to live in fear and avoidance.
I got some really nice feedback today about last week’s course on re-thinking presentations “What I liked best was that you exceeded my expectations yet again and proved to us that WE are the presentation and that allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, rather than hiding behind a PowerPoint presentation, gives the talk more power and really engages the audience” Of course it’s lovely to get such feedback but this blog is not about showing off. I really want to pick up on Petronella’s point that it’s the person not the PowerPoint that matters in a presentation. When presenters start to really engage the audience (which surely is the point of a presentation) they tend to use less and less technology. Or even no slides at all! I’m not totally against PowerPoint but having too many slides can get hugely in the way of your relationship to your audience. And standard slide presentations often constrain a speaker to a fixed path rather than being able to respond to what the audience wants. My wife was in an audience as one nervous presenter said “As the previous person has run over and taken nearly all my time, I will have to show you my 120 slides in 20 minutes rather than 45 minutes” And off he went at high speed, showing the audience his slides in record time. In the process he completely lost his audience. He had delivered his slides but he didn’t get his ideas across to the audience. He hadn’t communicated. Presenters should really serve their audiences rather than being subservient to their slides. Of course it takes confidence and a bit of creativity to think differently about presentations but for the audience’s sake it’s really worth it. When presenters have the courage to allow themselves to be fully seen and to bring their authentic selves to the presentation then very powerful things can happen. It’s not the polished presenters that audiences really want, it's real human beings that they can trust. We have to stop thinking that all presentations just equals slideware And start thinking that our job as a presenter is to make our ideas really stand out and to really connect with our audience.
Quite a lot of you may have come across the top five regrets of the dying before. These were compiled by Bronnie Ware when she worked with terminally ill people in a hospice: 1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me 2. I wish I didn't work so hard. 3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings. 4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. 5. I wish I had let myself be happier.
I was on a public speaking conference last weekend and some friends of mine Koos Wolcken and Jennet Burghard talked about what lessons we can learn from them?
They turned the list upside down. It’s a very simple but powerful re-frame so the list now becomes an encouragement. Which one resonates for you?
1. I have the courage to live my Life True to myself (instead of the life others expected of me)
2. I spend my energy in a good balance with what is truly meaningful for me (instead of working too hard and spending so much of my life on the treadmill of work existence
3. I have the courage to express my feelings (instead of suppressing my feelings in order to keep peace with others)
4. I stay in touch with my friends and maintain contact (instead of becoming so caught up in my own life and that golden friendships slip by over the years)
5. I let myself be happy (instead of getting stuck in old patterns and habits )
I’m learning that I have to get a lot better at number 4. Staying in touch with friends. And number 2!
Why the photograph of the young girl? When I run my public speaking courses I work with a lot of adults who are scared to to be seen. Sared to speak up. Apologising for taking their space. So I love this young girl's energy and the "don’t mess with me pose!” aka as the I have the courage to live my Life True to myself pose.
I took this photo in New York this summer visiting my wife who is working there for awhile . She has a job offer that she couldn't refuse (but not from the Mafia!) and although I miss hugely we are both seeing it as an adventure. if you want have a look at my other photographs taken in New York and Northern United States have a look at my flickr album here