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From My Lips To My Own Ears 1 comment

After a long session of student presentations last Friday, one student turned to me and said, “I hate doing this. I know I have to do this, and I have to get better at it, but I hate making presentations so much. I get so nervous. I’m really terrified.”

In truth, this is actually a composite student because, with each round of presentations, at least six students per class look to speak with me privately to confess their terror and fear. The course is Business Communications and I freely admit that my personal bias is that I lean away from emphasizing the writing aspects and more towards lifting up their presentation skills. In 14 weeks, I can’t make students better writers when most of them come in with such a poor grasp of the basics of English. However, in 14 weeks, I can see vast improvement in personal confidence, organization and team-work when we focus on individual and group presentations. Therefore, this is where I invest most of my energy and effort.

Over and over, as I speak with these students about their fears, I hear the following truths flow forth from my lips:

  • Feel the fear, and do it anyway! Being afraid of trying something isn’t necessarily a good reason not to make the attempt.
  • The number one fear in our population, as shown in survey after survey, is public speaking. This fear is greater than death, heights or snakes. And, yet, the activity of public speaking has never, itself, been known to cause physical harm or death.
  • Repetition and preparation. These are the keys to reducing your fear. Feel prepared and ready. Keep trying. Keep practicing in front of others. Acknowledge your success every time you stand up in front of others and speak – just the act of trying marks success!

As I engage the students on a deeper level, asking them what they are actually afraid of, getting them to talk about their fears, it becomes clear that they are afraid of failure. Of being perceived as failing. By others. By themselves. It shakes them to their core.

It is harder to get the students to reflect on the role of failure in their learning processes. If I could get them to think about this a bit, I’d suggest that all learning requires new behaviours, new thought processes, new ways of assembling information. By definition, it is a numbers game. In order to learn anything, one must experience failure, or partial failure. Tiger Woods didn’t emerge from the womb hitting perfect golf balls. He has had to hit thousands, perhaps millions by now, in order to hone his technique. The vast majority of these attempts could be seen as failures or partial failures. And yet, he is regarded as being highly successful in his profession. Failure is a crucial element to success.

Men seem to be socialized to manage a higher degree of risk/failure tolerance. Boys are encouraged to stretch themselves physically, to try many activities. To physically engage with the world, to have an impact on it somehow whether through team sports or building forts or bashing each other in a Wii environment.  Girls, on the other hand, are trained to be more sedate, less encouraged to go out there and have an impact on the world. Boys are acculturated to “do”; girls are encouraged to simply “be”.

So, when women experience “failure”, we experience it as a failure of “being”. A failure at some essential level of who we are, an indication of some flaw of our very being rather than a failure of some activity we have attempted. Some of us have connected, very closely, the notion that what we do is also who we are. It is no wonder that the students who confess to me their degree of fear regarding making presentations are predominantly women.

The universe plays clever tricks with me. A long time ago, I learned to listen to the input I’m asked to give to others, be they students or friends, and to ask myself “what am I supposed to be listening to here?” In other words, when situations present themselves to me and I have some opinion to offer, I tend to mentally turn the tables and ask myself if there is something in my own words to (or about) others that I’m supposed to be listening to myself. Is there something about “feel the fear and do it anyway” that I need to hear myself right now? Have I blown my own fears out of proportion to reality?

Have I associated my own feelings about failure too closely with my perceptions of my essential self? Am I letting these fears hold me back from moving forward in any way?

The answers are complex. I’m still mulling this “table turning” over. I know I’ve spent more time than I’d like to so far this calendar year struggling with amorphous fears that are like ghosts moving through my life. I brandish my mental sword of analysis at them and they disappear, momentarily, only to re-appear and hover over my emotional life, lending a cold leaden chill to practically all I experience. I know that the times I feel sunniest and most at peace are times when these ghosts have retreated far far away. The trick, of course, is to remember – as I keep reminding my students – that fear is like a filter, a lens, through which we see situations and circumstances. It does not help us interpret reality accurately. Rather, fear is designed to distort reality. It is best acknowledged (feel the fear) and then set aside so one can proceed (do it anyway).

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