So if we’ve got at least three brains and two of the three are busy sabotaging us at key moments of stress and performance, what can we do about it?
What we’re going to focus on now is the unconscious work that you have to do to keep from giving up leadership automatically in those first few minutes of any conversation, meeting, negotiation, presentation, or high-stakes event, where the top dog gets sorted out from all the other dogs. The precise form of your fear will be different from everyone else’s, but everyone has those fears, attitudes, and beliefs getting in the way of their leadership potential.
If you believe that you’re not capable of taking charge, then you will almost certainly signal that to everyone else in the room, too. What you have to do is change that belief, because it lives most strongly in your unconscious.
OK, let’s start the cure. First, you need to identify whatever is holding you back. Let’s take the example of public speaking, because it’s such a common fear. Let’s say that you’ve been promoted to vice president in your organization, and the position requires that you give regular speeches to a wide variety of stakeholders. You’re going to have to speak about once a week to crowds of one hundred or more at a pop.
The problem is that the prospect terrifies you. You’re OK talking to your team or your colleagues in small numbers on a regular basis, sitting around a table. You see those as less formal, more casual events, part of everyday work, not a speech. It’s something about the idea of a speech that causes you to feel faint and have visions of cardiac arrest.
But what causes that reaction to giving a speech? Is it the impression you have that a speech is more formal? Is it that you’re talking to strangers for the most part? Is it some idea that a speech operates under different rules, rules you never learned very well because you didn’t pay close attention in that communications course in college? In fact, you failed it, and the shame lingers on.
You need to figure out as precisely as you can what the fear is, what the belief is that is holding you back. This is not an easy task. You have to probe your fear as you would probe an infected wound. It hurts. It’s not pleasant. You won’t want to go there. But go there you must. Figure it out. Be honest with yourself, look as deep as you can, and get as close to the bottom of it that you can.
Then state your fear as clearly as possible: “I get nervous when I have to speak to strangers because I’m afraid they’re judging me like that popular clique of students did, snickering at me and making fun of me when I gave that stupid speech about bees in the sixth grade.”
Once you’ve identified the fear as clearly as you can, let it sit for a day or two. Writing it down helps. Come back and visit it at least a couple of times over a twenty-four-hour period. See if it still hurts.
Once you’ve got the fear clearly stated and you’re satisfied that it’s as close as you’re going to get, then work on finding the countervailing positive statement. Perhaps it’s this: “I get excited when I speak to strangers because it’s a wonderful opportunity to make new friends and spread the word about my cause. It’s fun!”
There are several key points to keep in mind. The unconscious isn’t very good with negative thinking, so state everything in a positive way. Avoid negative words and negative phrasing. Don’t say, “I don’t get nervous when I speak to strangers,” because your unconscious will hear “nervous” and that will reinforce the nervousness you already have. The neurons already in place will be reinforced. Instead say, “I get excited . . .”
Next, make sure you state the positive opposite emotion or attitude to your fear as precisely as possible. You’re creating a smart bullet to target the fear, and you want to take it out precisely. So make the correspondence to your fear as exact as possible, but phrased as a positive alternative.
Finally, make it as simple as possible, but still comprising a full sentence with a subject and a verb. Simplicity is a virtue, but not incoherence.
Write it down, let it sit for at least twenty-four hours, and come back to it a few times to check to make sure it still works. Imagine if this sentence were true. Would your issue go away? Ask yourself that question, and let your unconscious mind answer it.
Once you’re sure you’ve got your antidote, your mantra, you’re ready for implementation, next time.
Parts of this blog series are adapted from my recent book, Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact. You can find it here.