The instructor placed the trapeze rope in my right hand. “God, it’s weighted. Of course; that’s why they swing so well,” I thought as I felt it pulling me off the platform. Only her firm grip kept me from spinning into space. Feeling the full impact of fear, I said, “I can’t do this, I’m going back down the ladder."
The instructor gently tried to reassure me, but I insisted. On the way down, I felt a rush of shame and thought, “There goes my cred as the powerful consultant.” Next thought: “Maybe with my fear so public they will empathize and we’ll make a stronger connection.” Finally I thought, “Whatever happens now, I’m safe.” As my feet touched the floor: “Maybe I’ll even get the courage to try again."
I watched a few team members go through the routine and I climbed back up the ladder and redeemed some of my reputation. Later, in my session with the team, I sensed a closer connection than in the past. A few days later, I called my client and she said, “Ted, I think the empathy they felt for you gave your afternoon session much more impact. As a matter of fact, there’s been several spontaneous discussions about your fear of heights and recovery. They saw you surrender to your fear and recover. A great lesson."
I know that if I force myself to ignore the fear, avoid the feelings of shame and of being “chicken,” chances are pretty good that disaster is more likely than success. In fact, I’ve been advising students and clients for years to acknowledge and then withdraw from any high-stress negotiation situation in which their anxiety seems out of control.
Recent research has shown that acknowledging your anxiety and taking a moment to recover reduces by half the amount of time you will feel the fear. Admitting your fear shows you are human. It shows you are just like everyone else and the resulting empathy creates a stronger connection.
Fear can take over when you’re negotiating anything important, from your first salary to the biggest deal of your career. It’s critical to know in advance that the smart thing to do is to acknowledge the fear, allowing yourself to recover as quickly as possible so you can bring your rational abilities back into play.
My experience with the trapeze gave me a fresh and renewed personal connection with fear. It renewed my understanding of the feelings my students and clients experience when they’re dealing with the ruling power of raw fear.
Ted Leonhardt has provided management consulting and negotiation training exclusively to creative businesses since 2005. He cofounded the The Leonhardt Group, a brand design firm in 1985 and sold it in 1999. In 2001 and 2002 Ted served as Chief Creative Officer for Fitch Worldwide, out of London. In 2003 through early 2005 Ted was president of Anthem Worldwide, a brand packaging design group.
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