How Does Your Fear Hold You Back?

Overturning raft

I love and hate this picture of a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.

What do I love about it?

The photographer captured the exact moment that a lateral wave hit the raft at just the right angle and speed to tip it up on the left outside tube, allowing it to balance for just a few seconds before the raft flipped completely over.

The photographer also captured the expressions of the people in the boat. You can see their shock, surprise, and absolute terror at the realization that they will soon be upside down in the water with the boat on top of them.

What do I hate?

When people came to the Grand Canyon to run a river trip, they were ferried by bus from Paige, Arizona to Lee’s Ferry below the Glenn Canyon Dam. Before arriving at the put-in spot, the bus stopped at the Marble Canyon General Store to allow people to buy last- minute items they might have forgotten to bring with them.

On the walls of the adjacent café are various pictures of river companies running the rapids. This photo was one of them. As river guides, we were afraid that people would see that photo and that their entire perception of the trip through the Grand Canyon would be negatively impacted by what they saw.

Thankfully, people didn’t see the photograph very often. When they did, we were tasked with reassuring them that they would be safe if they just followed directions and held on tight.

This picture is a good reminder of what happens when we are confronted with holding a difficult conversation and we let our imaginations get the better of us. We allow past, poor experiences to be projected onto our current situation. Or we adopt someone else’s experience and use it as the justification for not holding our own conversation. “After all,” we say, “that could happen to me!”

Here is a list of some common fears that can keep us from talking about what matters most.

1. Fear of retaliation. We believe that if we speak up, someone will try and get even or look for opportunities to act negatively toward us. People generally don’t set out to offend others, but there is always the chance that someone will take offense.

2. Fear of violating expectations. If you are new to an organization, you may not know if people really want you to speak up and share your thoughts. If you venture an opinion, you may be unsure how it will be received, so it is just easier to keep quiet.

3. Fear of having to do more work. This fear is about raising an issue that you may then be assigned to fix. You are already overworked, so why take the chance that more will be added to your plate of responsibilities?

4. Fear that confidentiality will be breached. If you speak up, you may fear that what you said will become common knowledge, that others will talk about you behind your back, that they will reject you, and then ostracize you for what you shared.

5. Fear of being viewed as incompetent. If you lack experience in a particular area and you speak up, you run the risk of exposing what you may not know or understand. People tend to think that it is just easier to keep silent and let someone else shoulder the responsibility of talking about difficult issues.

6. Fear of being viewed as a naysayer. I once worked with a client who hired me to identify the challenges their company was experiencing with its managers. I had the leeway to conduct focus groups so I could identify what was really going on. When it was time to report my findings to the CEO and his 16 vice presidents, he stopped me after a few minutes and told me that no one in the company was allowed to speak negatively about the organization. I countered, “This isn’t meant to be viewed as negative, but rather a factual description of what is occurring in day-to-day work. We are focusing on processes and not people.” I then carried on with my presentation.

Afterward, the vice presidents told me that they appreciated that I had stood my ground and did what they had been trying to do for over a year.

7. Fear of cultural differences and misunderstandings. It is increasingly common for people of diverse cultural backgrounds to work together. Some cultures may discourage candid conversation, especially with superiors, and view it as disrespectful and inappropriate. Cultural differences in language may also hinder someone from speaking up because they are afraid that their language skills are inadequate, preventing them from describing their thoughts and feelings accurately.

8. Fear that leaders really don’t want to know. Many times, I have had people tell me that because leaders never asked for their opinions, they kept those opinions to themselves. If leaders aren’t consistently asking for feedback or input, people will be slow to take the initiative for fear of saying something that their leader would perceive negatively.

9. Fear of conflict. Most people will avoid conflict at all costs. They may be inexperienced and unsure about what to do when things get heated, how to manage emotion, or how to get the conversation back on track. If they haven’t mastered these emotional intelligence skills, it is easier to avoid engaging with others.

10. Fear of a lack of time. Talking takes time. Some individuals who work in a fast-paced environment may believe that talking about difficult subjects will take them away from more pressing tasks. Not wanting to waste time, they choose to say nothing.

11. Fear of resignation. Some leaders are afraid to give constructive feedback for fear that the person on the receiving end will quit their job. If a leader can’t offer helpful correction without a person becoming offended or upset, then something about their relationship needs attention.

12. Fear of offending someone. In some recent survey research, 38% of the people we surveyed indicated that they wouldn’t speak up for fear of offending or hurting someone’s feelings. Not giving feedback about the processes that are not working because of negative future projections could have severe consequences for the organization’s future success. 

What Can You Do?

When confronted with the fear of speaking up, try these few simple steps:

1. Set your emotions aside. Feelings and emotions can sometimes cause us to do and say things that we may regret. Take a breath, pause, and return to rationality.

2. Identify the thinking behind the emotion. Ask yourself what is causing you to feel afraid. What is making you hesitant to speak to someone?

3. Challenge thinking accuracy. Ask yourself if your reasons for being afraid are sound and backed by data and facts. If there is doubt about the accuracy of your thinking, you might try asking yourself if there is a different way to interpret your experience. By taking the time to examine why you are feeling afraid, you can set aside your feelings of fear and move forward.

4. Identify the alternatives. If you don’t speak up and things continue as they are, ask yourself what it will cost you, your team, or the company if no one says anything. Answering this question may provide you with the motivation to show up, step up, and say something.

Overcoming the fear of speaking up is not easy. When you feel a sense of trepidation or fear, confront those fears and give some thought to the positive impact you may have by sharing your thoughts and opinions. You will most likely discover that you are not the only one feeling that way; you were just brave enough to say it. Sharing your opinion could positively influence the quality of the work that is being performed, as well as making an important contribution to the success of your company. Give these four steps a try the next time you have something important to share and see what positive results you can make in your organization.

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