Asking what someone is afraid of is the most powerful and freeing question. We are all afraid of something, even if we don’t call it fear. Some prefer the words ‘concern’ or ‘anxiety’ to describe that feeling instead. However, whatever you choose to call it, there is zero shame in having some fear. In fact, when you acknowledge it, you are finally able to move into the most effective solution for that fear.
I believe so strongly in this idea that my husband and I have asked this question to each other almost every single evening over dinner. Asking “What are you afraid of, and how can I help?” invites us to be fearlessly honest with ourselves, and one another. It is the hallmark of both true self-awareness and real intimacy. As with everyone, some days our fears are mundane, such as “I am afraid there isn’t enough time to get it all done.” Other days our fears are poignant: “I am afraid about our sweet cat’s health, and losing him.” Then other times our fear is acute: “I am afraid about how to stabilize this piece of business through Covid.”
I also frequently ask my leadership clients this question in particular situations. Fear is an incredible tool for helping individuals grasp what needs to change. Asking about our fear is a deeply respectful and sacred question, that invites an enormous growth leap for those that are willing to explore it.
Fear is an incredible tool for helping us grasp what needs to change.
Of course, candidly, there also are leaders who just aren’t ready to address their fear—especially a big fear. Reasons vary. They might be so constantly hard on themselves, that just asking the question feels like an unbearable judgment of their flaws. Others might be too uncomfortable to appear anything less than in complete, unwavering control. Both of those scenarios of resistance are unfortunate, since facing our fears is the only way to resolve them, and become the most empathetic, innovative and action-oriented leader possible. What follows are the top three situations where asking ‘What are you afraid of?’ is most freeing, and one situation where a different question works better:
Avoiding a Difficult Decision
When a leader is faced with a decision that has no precedent, or one that seems to have no viable alternatives, it can lead to a decision stalemate. In the former, they may see that both status quo is untenable and a fresh approach could have potentially dangerous consequences. By asking what are you afraid of, leaders can see the risks more clearly, and better assess which ones they are willing to accept.
Naturally, it is unhelpful to focus only on the fear.
Naturally, it is unhelpful to focus only on the fear. The goal is to weigh the fear against the possible solutions. Not surprisingly, looking at the fears often generates fresh, innovative hybrid solutions that otherwise would not have come to light.
Dealing with a Conflict
Whether a situation is interpersonal, a high stakes negotiation, providing direct feedback to an underperforming team member, a boss who is undermining your own performance, or ensuring your voice is heard, the only way to move forward involves taking a stand that could potentially destabilize a dynamic. Whatever it is, it can be scary.
In these situations, asking what are you afraid of brings out many of the underlying issues that simply must be acknowledged in order to be resolved. In many cases there is a power dynamic that is unhealthy. In some, a fear of what others might think is driving fearful behavior. Once we identify the concerns, it is deeply empowering to role play different scenarios so the client feels comfortable facing whatever response they receive with confidence.
Constant Stress and Overwhelm
Like myself, almost all of my clients (and almost every adult on the planet!) have grappled with some amount of stress and overwhelm. Once anyone gets into that mode it can become a vicious cycle that is both physically and mentally addictive. What sets us free from overwhelm and stress is understanding that both are created internally by our reaction to circumstances, not by the circumstances themselves. Please keep in mind, I am not speaking about the stress and overwhelm of a crisis situation, but rather the chronic variety.
What sets us free from overwhelm and stress is understanding that both are created internally by our reaction to circumstances, not by the circumstances themselves.
The way out of the chronic stress cycle is often by asking, again, what are you afraid of? Our stress and overwhelm are a response to protect us from a perceived threat. Looking at that threat, and making a more proactive and empowered choice, leaning into solution and fresh approaches, is less exhausting, more sustainable, and just plain better for our health.
Constant worriers love to obsess over what they are afraid of. Their list is endless, and they often experience a number of ailments directly related to the amount of cortisol they are constantly dumping into their systems. This is a situation where it is not helpful to ask what are you afraid of. Instead, I invite my more frequently anxious clients to take a more proactive and positive approach: look for what could go right.
When we focus on our fear constantly, it can consume us and become exaggerated to enormous proportions. It really isn’t even necessary to determine the cause of continuous anxiety in that scenario. The fastest route to calm, meaningful action is to envision what success looks like, how to contribute to it, and what next steps might be to get there.
When we focus on our fear constantly, it can consume us and become exaggerated to enormous proportions.
A rather funny and extremely metaphorical example of this is how I dealt with social media’s insidious impact recently.
I simply saw a video promo about bear attacks. It was click bait, and I didn’t even watch it, yet the idea still stuck with me, leaving me disturbed. To ease that fear I was now carrying around uselessly, I researched what to do if you are attacked by a bear. For your own information, don’t try to outrun the bear. Much like fear, it won’t work. Pepper spray can be helpful if the bear gets within 25 feet. However, the best thing to do is to not make eye contact and slowly, calmly walk away.
In other words, facing our fear is usually neither about fight nor flight. It invites a third alternative—to acknowledge there is indeed something scary in our presence, and that we have the ability to do something positive to protect ourselves and take positive action in spite of it.
If you believe it is time to face your fears, and would like some help, set up a strategy session today.