Fear is relative

Last week I was working with an interesting group of 60 Aboriginal folks who work within the Canadian Forces and the department of National Defense, providing advice and support on Aboriginal issues within the military and civilian systems.  We ran two half days in Open Space to work on emerging issues and action plans.

In an interesting side conversation, I spoke with a career soldier about fear.  This man, one of the support staff for the gathering, had worked for a couple of decades as a corporal, mostly working as a mechanic on trucks.  We got into an interesting conversation about fear.  He said to me that he could never do what I do, walking into a circle and speaking to a large group of people.  I expressed some surprise at this – after all I was talking to a trained soldier.  I asked him if he had ever been in combat and experienced fear.  He replied that he had been on a peacekeeping mission in Israel and that at one point in a threatening situtaion he had pointed a loaded gun at someone and awaited the order to fire, but he didn’t feel any fear at all.

We decided that it was first of all all about the stories you tell yourselves and second of all about training and practice.  The fear of public speaking – fear that would paralyse even a soldier – is a fear that is borne from a history of equating public speaking with a performance.  In school for example we are taught that public speaking is something to be judged rather than a skill to be learned.  Imagine if we gave grades for tying a shoelace, or using a toilet or eating food.  If we performed these important but mundane tasks with the expectation of reward or punishment, conditional on someone else’s judgement about them, having nothing to do with the final result, we might well develop fear and aversion to these things too.

The fact is that the fear of public speaking – glossophobia – is widespread and this makes me think it has something to do with public schooling.  Our training leaves us in a place of competence or fear, and, as much of the training in social skills is undertaken implicitly in school (including deference to authority, conditional self-esteem and a proclivity to answers and judgement rather than question and curiosity) we absorb school’s teaching about these things without knowing where they came from.  Certainly when I grew up – and I was a little younger than this soldier I was speaking with – speaking in school was generally either a gradable part of reporting on an assignment or was competitive, as in debating, a practice that was prevalent in my academic high school that sent many young people into competitive speaking careers as lawyers and business people.   If you were no good at this form of speaking, the results of being judged on your attempts to get a point across were often humiliating.  You lost, or you skulked away with the knowledge that people thought you sucked.

In contrast, my friend’s ability to find himself relatively fearless in an armed confrontation was a result of his military training, which, when it comes to combat, is all aimed having a soldier perform exactly as my friend had – calmly and coolly, especially in a peacekeeping role.

These days, in teaching people how to do facilitation, I am increasingly leaving the tools and techniques aside and instead building in practices of noticing and cultivating fearlessness.  When you can walk into a circle fearlessly, you can effectively and magically open space.  If you harbour fear about yourself or your abilities, it is hard to get the space open and enter into a trusting relationship with a group of people. Once you can do that, you can use any tool effectively, but the key capacity is not knowing the tool, it is knowing yourself.

How do you teach or learn fearlessness?


  1. This subject fascinates me – as a person who had MAJOR “glossophobia”, and now doesn’t, I feel I’ve really trod the path to figuring this out.

    You hit the nail on the head as far as schooling; I can still remember my fifth grade teacher mocking me during my neuroscience presentation. Later high school experienced caused me to call in sick for every presentation during the last three years of high school, except one my senior year.

    In the end, I think “glossophobia” (and really any phobia) comes down to fear of feeling afraid. JFK’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” always made me laugh, taking it out of context of course.

    When I accepted the fear as a word used to describe pure energy/adrenaline, and rather than going “oh no! fear!” I would say “oh! energy!” and use this energy to enliven my public speaking, I took one big step towards getting over it.

    Also, Viola Spolin, author of Improvisation for the Theater, talks about Focus as an antidote to stage fright, and I’ve lived the truth of this. If you have something you know, backwards and forwards, and you can focus fully in on it during your talk, you will forget to feel afraid after the first few minutes. For Viola she would have the players alternate counting the chairs in the audience, with looking at the audience look at them, creating a focus/fear!/focus/fear!/focus/fear! effect.

    I say all this from a personal growth and development path. Coming at it from a different systemic perspective, obviously, as a culture, we create an environment of hostility and impatience towards many speakers. We could all stand to relearn how to honor someone who has something to say.

  2. “We could all stand to relearn how to honor someone who has something to say.” Isn’t that just right on the money. Thank you Willem for your reflections.and for this quote. Wouldn’t it be something if kids in schools were trained like kids in the longhouse are trained – to recognize that a speaker is doing us a service, that there can be value in everything offered, and teachings in every story.

    When I used to practice in the Midewiwin tradition, every sweat began with a teaching, and my teacher always used to say “listen to this story and remember this story because there may come a time when you are the last person who can tell it.” Wouldn’t that be something if we listened like that?

  3. Excellent points both about schooling and about listening.

    I am not aware of having had fear of speaking and overcoming it. But the idea of speaking as performance, to be judged, just doesn’t feel right. Public speaking is like private speaking in that it is a form of communication. As such it is about the relationship between the speaker and the audience. And hopefully that relationship is reciprocal in some way.

    When speaking to a large group, that reciprocity is often in non-verbal communication from them to you, the speaker, but it is there nevertheless. It also comes out in questions.

    And maybe that is where confidence can really make a difference. Because being confident to take questions in the middle of a prepared talk and let those questions take the talk in a different direction or deeper on a particular point, or whatever can be tough. But more engaging and thus a better relationship.

  4. Chris and friends–

    As to teaching fearlessness, at least as regards public speaking, you might want to take a look here.

    It is something I practiced with a group for several years, and still am helped by it. It is an almost meditational (or at least mindful) way of getting fearless in like circumstances.

    :- Doug.

  5. Thanks Doug…looks very interesting.

  6. Hi Chris,
    I wonder if we can think about fear as the absence of courage?
    On one hand fear has its sources in the body as stress – a place that is associated with the deepest reaches of the triune brain (reptilian region) a place that governs the flight, flee and freeze responses.

    Through training, education we can over come these fears to move inspite of the stresses. Police, armed forces recognize that under duress large and small motor muscles lose there dexterity. Therefore extensive training is used to manage situations of extreme stress.

    Similarily the mind, when experiencing or over come with body stress and/or emotional turbulence, has a reduction in its dexterity and ability to harmonize circumstance with mind, body and soul.
    My sense is that people who grow up with chronic or traumatic stress whether it be familial, societal or environmental are subject to a life of fearfulness.. unless there are opportunities to increase courage/fearlessness and decrease, desensitize, understand and name the root sources of fear.

  7. i think that everyone have a fear of public speaking in one way or another ~-;