It was probably in junior high school when some part of me realized that learning to become comfortable as a public speaker was going to be a monster growing edge for me. As most skillful pain-avoiders do, I buried that realization and put off working on it as long as I could. I took up a profession – carpentry – that required me to talk very little to very few people during any day.
If my goal was to never do the work required to become comfortable speaking in public, I made a crucial mistake – I continued going to school, earning one degree after another. Academics tend to enjoy the dopamine rush that talking all the time often provides. Being the contrarian I am, however, I did research and taught classes not on talking, but on … listening. My students were aspiring clinical psychologists. They had a lot to learn about listening, as did I. We ended up teaching each other.
In the Beginning was The Word
One of the things teaching inevitably brought me face to face with was that demon fear of public speaking – something many humans fear more than death. And with good reason for me – the first three schools where I offered courses asked me not to return to teach class two. Thanks, but no thanks. The main issue, predictably, was me being betrayed by my adrenal glands. Without training in effective ways to handle the stress, standing in front of a group automatically makes us a target for evaluation. And almost all evaluation activates our neuroceptive triggers – my brain’s threat-detection circuitry, wired robustly to my adrenals. What to do in order to get my adrenal glands to “stop making me their bitch?”
Former firefighter and emergency medical tech, Caroline Paul, author of Gutsy Girl has some guidelines that I followed intuitively before I ever learned of her work. I began a “micro-bravery” analysis. I sat down and asked myself: What am I so afraid of standing in front of the class? Was it that people would challenge things I say? Make me wrong and look dumb? Not really. It has always been easy for me to admit when I don’t know something. Was it that I would bore people and they’d fall asleep in class the way I used to? No. That wasn’t it. I’ve never had any great need to be all things to all people. What then?
What it turned out to be was something that showed up soon after I did my Micro-Bravery analysis – I was two hours into a three hour class … with nothing more to say. I’d covered all my material and my mind went blank. I could feel the stress hormones ramping up. And then someone in the class raised their hand and asked a question. A guardian angel. It was a question I actually knew the answer to.
When I was done providing the answer, the idea suddenly hit for ME to ask questions. I knew the danger of posing general questions to the whole group and getting no response, so instead, I broke the class up into two groups and posed the same question to each, framing one question positively for the first group and negatively for the second group. Then I gave them 20 minutes to each come up with a collective answer. Then another 20 got taken up discussing the answers each group came up with. Then the rest of the hour I filled in with material I thought up while both groups were busy working.
At the end of that class I had passed this small Micro-Bravery test. And, now that I knew what my root fear was, for every three hour class after that, I simply prepared a 4 hour outline in 10 minute increments! Since then I’ve never run out of things to talk about now in 20 years of teaching.
Much of what we fear in life is determined by how our body feels when we do it or when we think about doing it. Stress hormones in amounts that make us feel bad, tend to turn us away from things we might otherwise pursue before we ever take the first small step. The Brave are the ones actually out there on the playing field. The Micro-Brave are the ones out there taking the smallest, incremental steps they can manage in the direction of their heart’s truest desires.
Finally, speaking of public speaking, this week I did a radio interview with Dr. Gloria Burgess of the Talk Radio Network. We covered all kinds of fun and profitable topics from how to truly manage weight to ways of successfully addressing The Prefrontal Paradox. If you’d like to give a listen to the 2-part interview, here’s the link: It’s Not Your Fault.