Comfort with Discomfort: Facing Fear through Connection

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Last week, for the fourth time in five years, I found myself pacing through an unfamiliar space as the minutes ticked past midnight. It has become a bit of a ritual for me; once a year I confront my fear of public speaking as I facilitate a session at ATD’s International Conference and Exposition—an enormous privilege that simultaneously evokes genuine excitement and abject terror. I’m an eLearning developer at heart; although I thrive on building connections with people, my comfort zone is behind a computer screen in a world of storyboards coming to life through course authoring software. Mistakes made in that world are less public and much easier to correct.

This year, the unfamiliar space was a bedroom in an Orlando Airbnb, but the task was the same: run through my slides, rehearse my talking points, and finalize the stories I would use to bring examples to life. My resting heart rate felt high, my breathing felt shallow, and my thoughts wandered from the task at hand to the uneasiness beneath them. Was I ready? Was I really the right person to be sharing this content? Was it too late to cancel and dart back to my comfort zone? It took great effort to maintain my focus; like many of us, my inner voice isn’t always gentle.

My eyes grew heavy before my brain quieted enough for sleep, and as I turned off the lamp and settled into bed, I took a few deep breaths and confronted my thoughts. It wasn’t the restlessness or anxiety that troubled me; it was how I internalized it that took its toll on me. Like many leaders, I like to appear competent and composed. Fear doesn’t have a place in that image, so hiding those emotions seemed like the smart thing to do. Staring up at the ceiling, it occurred to me that was not a productive way to think.

Developing the Won’t You Be My Trainer and Won’t You Be My Manager curriculums have provided me with a great education in kindness and, by extension, the powerful lessons Fred Rogers taught us through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. One stood out to me: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

In 2020, Harvard University analyzed journal entries from 30 global leaders to understand how they handled on-the-job anxiety and fear. They discovered three distinct styles: heroes, who focused on the positive; technocrats, who focused on results; and sharers, who focused on sharing their thoughts and emotions with their colleagues. Curiously, but perhaps not surprisingly, sharers were the most effective leaders. Although it might seem that focusing on the positive would be the most inspiring approach, researchers discovered it was not the most human. When leaders shared their positive and negative feelings with their colleagues, they developed deeper and more empathetic relationships. Openness translated into closeness; teams that created space open enough to share with also developed trust, and that strengthened their personal and professional bonds.

There’s an essential lesson there for all of us regardless of our roles at work: connecting with others is a great way to face our fears.

Connection builds support

All of us carry a range of emotions into our work, and it isn’t always positive. When we build spaces that encourage sharing the ups and downs that contribute to our experiences, we set the stage for deeper connections that can build empathy and develop stronger teams. Space is the essential word: holding space on a meeting agenda, at the start of a one-on-one meeting, or by asking a colleague to take an impromptu coffee break (virtually or in-person!) can provide a supportive opportunity for building connection. Take a moment to review your agendas and calendars to see if you are holding the space in which connections can be created and add those spaces in if they seem to be missing.

Connection enables self-reflection

It’s important to build spaces that help your colleagues feel comfortable sharing their fears and anxieties, and it is equally important to build spaces to address your own. Self-reflection is a helpful way to give voice to your worries in a productive way, which can help you connect to your feelings and understand how they impact you. Fear, anxiety, and stress can take their toll; it may be physical, like a racing heartbeat or clammy palms, or it might be emotional, like uncontrolled thoughts or negative feelings. Taking time to self-reflect through journaling, meditation, or exercise can help build perspective and isolate the emotions or thoughts you want to share with others.

Connection facilitates vulnerability

If we could succeed in everything we do, this world might feel like a much easier place to navigate, but success is never guaranteed. It takes vulnerability to show up and try new things—especially those beyond our comfort zones. As Brené Brown shared, “Vulnerability is not about losing, it is about showing up when you can’t control the outcome.” Consider how you encourage vulnerability within the teams you lead and support. Vulnerability isn’t only required for the visible or high-stakes projects we encounter; sometimes, vulnerability is using new technology or speaking up in a meeting when you’re not sure how your idea will be received. When we give each other the chance to express how we’re feeling—a very vulnerable act—we give ourselves the chance to strengthen our connection at the same time.

Knowing connection might be my answer, and with Mister Rogers’ words in mind, I took a deep breath and shared my truth with my husband, my co-facilitator, and a few colleagues before my session. The more I talked about my nerves and my worry that I might use the wrong words or lack clarity as I translated my slides into examples, the less fear I retained. Instead of being constrained to my brain and my heart, my fear was released into the open. Some pieces of it were met with compassion, support, and understanding—a reminder I was not alone in my nerves. Some pieces seemed to float away, completely disappearing in a world much bigger than my body. I felt lighter than usual as our session room filled with people, and I felt lighter still as the session began.

I may never get to a place where public speaking feels comfortable for me, and I am comfortable with my discomfort. I know it’s rooted in a desire to do my very best. I also know my days of keeping my fears and worries to myself are over; the next time I am preparing for a session, I’ll incorporate connection into my preparation strategy while working on slides and talking points. As usual, Mister Rogers is right: when we share how we feel with others, overwhelm and anxiety can be replaced by trust and support. Fear doesn’t stand a chance when it’s up against the power of connection.

Stephanie Hubka, CPTD, is a talent development consultant and the managing partner of Protos Learning, LLC. Her work focuses on strategic learning solutions and developing a kinder global workforce.

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