I was standing at the end of the conference room. Four professors staring at me from around the conference table. Defending my Masters' thesis. Orals Defense. One professor just asked a question about a body of literature in Leadership which I did not include in my thesis. In that exact moment, I realized I had a gaping conceptual hole you could drive a truck through.
This is the moment I feared when I walked into the room 35 minutes ago, shaking their hands with my clammy palms.
I didn't know when, who, what or how it would come up. I prayed it wouldn't happen. Somehow I knew it would happen. As I walked into the room, I imagined this moment was tortuously designed to evoke exactly this specific fear.
I was stumped.
More on that story later…
Fear is one of my least favorite topics. I have two core philosophies regarding Fear:
And here I am writing my weekly blog post on Fear.
I'm not going to get in your head and guess what you fear. I don't want to puff on your fear so you turn the page. Great marketers, news media and politicians do that EXTREMELY well. It sells. It persuades. It's effective. And …. I avoid using fear to sell concepts, products or ideologies.
So why am I writing about Fear?
Please keep reading because if you don't, you will call me a hypocrite!
Fear has utility.
Fear exists now. Always has. Always will.
We humans have a unique ability to ponder ourselves in the moment. We can imagine alternative futures and CHOOSE deliberately.
Ooh! So cool being human!
Imagine feeling fear and consciously choosing your response from 4 unique options.
The first two Fear Responses are quite well known in Pop Psychology: Fight or Flight.
Choosing to engage fear with fight is often considered noble. Everyone roots for the underdog in the fight. People choose David over Goliath every time. Why? Heroes are made by engaging the good fight! What happens, though, when you engage the bad fight? Rarely are losers remembered. They are merely conquered. Perceived as weaker. And most times if there is a fight with no winner or loser, everyone loses. No one likes a draw in Football or Hockey. You just turned back the clock to the beginning of the game when the score was 0-0.
If you choose to Fight as your Fear Response Strategy (FRS). Consider the probability of winning. Know your opponent's weaknesses. Study the Art of War. Develop a clear strategy. Prepare and train for the fight. Then, engage with courage. Win or lose, you will emerge a Hero!
ORALS DEFENSE STORY. At my orals defense, I could choose Fight as my strategy. To fight off his question, I recall what little I remember of that leadership concept. I would respond and … He would SHRED me. I considered deflecting his question by defending my work with another area of research. Nope. That was like taking a knife to a gunfight.
I did not choose Fight as my Fear Response Strategy.
Between fight or flight, flight is often considered the weaker response. Flight is considered cowardice. We avoid engaging the fight all the time. It's called procrastination! We flee what needs to be done. Problem is, the problem sticks around. Grows. Our resistance grows with it. It gnarls in our stomachs. Lowers our immunity. Makes us sick.
When is Flight a good Fear Response Strategy?
Bob Marley, King of Reggae, says it best in his song The Heathen. "He who fights and run away, live to fight another day." Consuming yourself on an unwinnable fight costs a lot – physically, emotionally, psychologically, financially and spiritually. How does running away from today's fear, work as an advantage to overcome the fear? You Learn.
In my consulting career, I often had counselees ask that I use my executive influence to remove them from a project. I asked them a simple question.
"Will you learn more from DIVING DEEPER on this project or from EXTRACTING yourself from it?"
There is power in extracting yourself from an untenable situation. Your Fear Response Strategy may be perceived as weak or cowardly, but sometimes that is THE path of courage.
As I extracted myself from my first marriage, I faced all sorts of judgement from people, but mostly from myself. I was weak. I didn't have what it takes. I was a Loser. In the end, though, one principle guided us: create the most positive environment for our daughters. Flight was the right Fear Response Strategy in this situation.
Once divorced, I focused on learning from my past failed relationships. I didn't want to inject my same flawed self into the next relationship! I took five years to deeply analyze and identify 5 characteristics of what it takes to build a successful long-lasting relationship. In that fifth year, I found my life partner, my wife. Been married for 21 years and counting!
ORALS DEFENSE STORY. At my orals defense, I could have chosen Flight as my strategy. I would run away from the question and explain why that area of leadership literature was inappropriate and not aligned with my work. I glanced at one of my professors – a world-renowned researcher in leadership. By fleeing the fight, he would chase me down like a cheetah on the Serengeti. I couldn't run fast enough.
I would be Lunch before the clock struck Noon.
I did not choose Flight as my Fear Response Strategy.
So what's left after Fight and Flight?
Ever drive late at night on a dark country road? Speeding along. Cool wind in your hair. And SHAZAM, you see that deer in your headlights. It looks up and stares.
Deer in the Headlights
Driving late at night on the backroads of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I faced that Deer in the Headlights. Most times, we both won.
Seems like freezing is a surefire way to get killed or maimed. You just get run over.
What could possibly be the merits of a Freeze as a Fear Response Strategy?
When a reflective moment SERVES!
When you feel fear, your body aches to respond. Sometimes its just better to sit back for a moment. People might consider this freezing in the moment. Buckling under pressure.
Here are some situations when I choose to Freeze as my Fear Response Strategy:
In these moments, I take a time out. Some might say I freeze. That's okay.
I have a promise to myself to NEVER make a decision when I'm depressed or after something very bad happens. Guilt, shame and revenge are horrible decision-making motivators. In these moments, I kick my brain into brainstorming mode. I brainstorm options. Inane options. Insane options. Endless options! I laugh. I cry. I put up my hands in victory. That'll show them! No action, just options and reflecting how I'll feel with each one.
Here are three of my Freeze Mode strategies:
Freeze mode may last a moment. May last 5 years. However, if Freeze mode lasts too long, you are allowing time make the decision for you. Live 100% Empowered. Don't give away your most important decisions to Time.
ORAL DEFENSE STORY. My initial reaction to getting stumped by my committee was to use a powerful tool that more leaders should use.
"I don't know."
As this option flashes through my brain, I imagine blood in the water. Sharks circle and attack and feed on my poor grad student carcass. In this scenario, I imagine walking out of that conference room, bruised, bleeding and broken. All four professors convinced I am not worthy of a Masters' degree certificate in (of all things) Communication.
I did not choose Freeze as my Fear Response Strategy.
We looked at responding to Fear with Fight, Flight and Freeze. What "F" response remains?
What the heck is Flow as a Fear Response Strategy?
Flow means you go WITH the fear. Acknowledge it. Validate it. Don't flee from it. Fight it. Or freeze from it. When I pause in that moment, I consciously enable my trigger response and say:
"I see you."
What does my fear want me to learn? When I choose Flow as my Fear Response Strategy, I lean in and engage. Not as a fighter, but as a learner.
Flow as a Fear Response Strategy requires humility.
Learning is more important than winning.
Competition breeds a sense of excitement with at least a touch of fear. Fear of Losing.
Years ago, I dated a woman who taught me how to play double solitaire. What an oxymoron! She offered to play for $1 per game. She didn't anticipate my competitive spirit. I won the next 36 games. I'm a Quick Study when it comes to strategies to win. Frustrated and upset, she then offered to play the game and whoever loses gets $1. It's a lot harder to lose without the other person knowing how you're throwing the game. Quite an art. I lost another 36 games and collected another $36. Frustrated, upset and literally throwing the cards down, she asked,
"Why are you playing this game?"
Of course, I responded,
"No," she yelled.
"This is time for us to play and enjoy each other …. you're ruining it."
Hmm. I missed the point … and the FLOW. My instinct to Fight caused 72 missed opportunities. A lesson learned the hard way.
Flow is listening to points of view which oppose yours. Flow requires listening. Flow requires curiosity.
You might learn you have more common ground than you think. In my Collective Bargaining class when we learned about negotiation, we called this Mutual Interest Bargaining. With a little curiosity and a desire to discover common ground, you may find your fear is unfounded.
It just takes the courage to listen across the table. Listen to diverse points of view. Listen to views opposed to your own. You may FEEL attacked which raises your fear.
Graciously accept the gift of their view. The universe brought you that opposing view to arouse your fear, heighten your senses, make you more aware. You smell danger. In those Fear moments you have something significant to learn.
Flow moments will change your life!
ORAL DEFENSE STORY. My professor had just stumped me with a question from a body of leadership research I didn't use in my thesis. A good question. Valid question. In a flash, I considered Fight, Flight and Freeze responses.
(expressed with authentic enthusiasm and excitement, not fear or placation)
"I did not look at that body of research. Sounds like it would REALLY solidify the foundation for my hypotheses. What two or three ways would you incorporate that into my research?"
(expressed with authentic curiosity to LEARN)
I took the punch. Gave credibility to the question. Then asked the expert to make my thesis better. Yes, and it was an ego boost for him as he expounded. A passionate teacher will always take the opportunity to teach! 😊
In that moment I released my desire to pass my orals defense. My new objective was to improve the research.
I chose Flow as my Fear Response Strategy.
Sitting in the hallway awaiting the verdict from my committee, I strategized how I was going to revise the thesis. The chair of my committee came out and informed me, "You passed with flying colors."
I learned a lot about Fear and my Fear Strategy Responses during my Orals Defense. It felt like a boxing match. I threw a few punches, parried a few punches, ducked and took some punches square on the chin. It's the footwork, though, that makes each punch land or miss. Fear Response Strategies are your footwork. Conscious placement of your feet.
And a reminder that your most important strategy to winning any boxing match or overcoming any fear is with excellent training.
For those who love frameworks here are is my Four Fabulous Strategies to Flip Fear Framework.
Illustration 1. Four Fabulous Strategies to Flip Fear Framework
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