Using Fear to Your Advantage

Michelle Spencer
May 4, 2018 · 4 min read
Woman in a raft in white water
Woman in a raft in white water

I was recently listening to a podcast where a guy (we’ll call him Bob) was talking about the fears he had in the weeks leading up to a three-week rafting trip through the Grand Canyon and a considerable amount of white water. It reminded me of my first canoe trip through some white water when I was a teenager. Both Bob and I learned something in the process, but our experiences were very different.

Bob and I both had fear before the trip even began. That fear was tied to the unknown and anticipation. After he met the guides and they educated the group about what to do, he felt that fear lessen. Also, he learned that he was not the only newbie in the group, so he wasn’t alone in feeling fearful and vulnerable. The fear of the group was acknowledged and they were coached on what to do when they fell out of the raft. Bob and his group were assured that the “oh shit boat” would be there behind them keeping an eye out for anyone who got into trouble in the water. He still had fear, but the presence of an expert and some education gave him a higher level of comfort. He was no longer a complete novice and had a safety net in case he failed. Contrast that with my experience where we were given no instruction and thrown in the boat with life jackets and a “you’ll be fine” assurance. Needless to say, that only upped my fear level.

Another thing that allayed Bob’s fears as the trip progressed was talking with the guides and learning more about reading the river. He knew what was coming each day, so he could mentally prepare and anticipate the situations they would encounter. With the experience of going through the different types of rapids, he developed skills for how to row, what to watch for, and, most importantly, keep himself in the boat. As his experience level went up, not surprisingly, so did his comfort level. On my short day trip, I didn’t have enough knowledge to even begin to know whether my fear was irrational or not. I had no base level of knowledge or experience as a companion to my fear. It was just fear. Why had I come on this trip?

The most impactful thing for Bob was how he viewed his fear over time. He knew that a healthy level of fear would keep him safe on the river, so he began to view his fear as a companion that he could choose to listen to or to ignore. Throughout his trip, he gained the experience to discern when that fear was helpful and when it was not. When his companion was being irrational, he learned to respond: “Thanks for noticing, but I’m good right now.” It became more about weighing what wisdom and information was useful from the fear and what things were doing him a disservice. The key was learning to acknowledge his fear and then using fear to his advantage.

Bob’s trip and mine ended up similarly. My canoe went sideways and tipped over as we hit some particularly rough water. We were all dumped into the river. Bob’s raft slammed into a large boulder and he got launched. We both had that instinctual moment of panic when you hit frigid water that is moving swiftly. However, at that point, our experiences took very different turns. His training and experience of having seen others land in the water allowed him to remain calm as the “oh shit boat” appeared to pull him out. I, on the other hand, was completely in the grip of my fear and any rational thought went out the window. Fear and instinct were driving my every move. Instead of me using fear, fear was using me.

I was near the edge of the river and frantically grabbed onto some reeds as the water pulled me away. I was hanging on for dear life. As the others began yelling at me to let go (what?!? are you nuts?!?!), the reeds were slowly snapping one-by-one like a scene in a movie. Eventually, I had no choice as the last reed snapped. By then, I had at least heard enough to try to float on my back. It was a bumpy ride, but not far down the river, the white water ended. Much to my shock and relief, I was able to simply stand up on my very shaky legs.

It was at that point that the adults thought to let me know that when you fall out of a boat in smaller rapids, you should simply relax and float down on your back to calmer water. Imagine how different my experience would have been, if I had known that before I was thrown out of the boat! Those adults set me up for failure. I had no chance at using my fear rationally, because I didn’t have the knowledge or guidance I needed. How many change initiatives in our organizations are handled similarly? I know I’ve seen plenty. Think about your projects and leadership. Are you setting people up to be grasping at reeds or patiently awaiting the arrival of the “oh shit boat?”

A big part of learning and dealing with change is the fear of losing your expertise and comfort level. With the amount of change we’re experiencing these days, we all need to get more comfortable with and learn to use fear to push through experiences. Acknowledge fear’s presence, but look at it as a companion that you can choose to ignore. Take time to discern when that companion is being helpful versus harmful. If you’re leading the change, ensure that everyone has the guides, resources, and safety nets available to help allay their fears, lead them through the rough novice phase, and get safely and easily to calmer waters.

Originally published at Legal Learning Development Network.

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