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?