A Coaching Power Tool created by Solveig Pedersen
(Life Coaching for Forces of Good & Changemakers Coaching, UNITED STATES)
Courage has a ripple effect. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver. And our world could stand to be a little kinder and braver (Brown, 2010, p. 15).
It is difficult, if not impossible, to make it through life without feeling fear at different points. According to dictionary.com, fear is “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.” Courage, according to the same source, is “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.”
Much of the time, we face fear and courage in the same breath. All of us are forced throughout life to feel fear and either let it overtake us and our choices, or to feel fear and move forward anyways. In this way, the two concepts flow together and co-exist. In coaching partnerships, challenges with the balance of courage versus fear often arise. Fear can seriously prevent people from moving towards their goals and dreams. This power tool will examine how to notice fear in one’s clients and how to coach clients towards courageous choices.
As coaches, we deal with fear personally, while simultaneously becoming part of a support network for other humans who deal with fear. Sometimes fear is warranted, and sometimes it is not. As a coach, examining “what is,” being present and mindful, while at the same time exploring underlying beliefs and structures that leave a client fearful and stuck can be very valuable. What is brave for you? Brave choices vary based on the individual.
Juana is not a woman you would think dealt with fear. Publicly she was a performance artist who was able to bare her soul in front of perfect strangers for the sake of art. She was, however, afraid of speaking up in her romantic relationships. She would start dating a new person, and despite wanting to know how the other person felt, she would avoid conversations with vulnerability at all costs, and usually to her own detriment. Her last dating relationship lasted for two months, before the man told her he just didn’t feel a “spark.” Juana realized that she could have figured this out, and saved herself some heartache, if she had spoken with him sooner, but her fear held her back from having important conversations.
Through coaching, she was able to explore what had prevented her from speaking up in a less than ideal situation. In coaching conversations, examining Juana’s underlying beliefs was essential to creating change in her life. Juana assumed that she would scare men off if she talked to them, and that they would tell her they were not interested in her. She realized that she was afraid of rejection, and this fear of rejection played out so that she would never talk to the men she dated about their relationship and would put up with poor treatment while never addressing the situation with the other party. Through coaching, she discovered she wanted to build her confidence in herself, self-love, and trust that if someone wanted to be with her, he would be able to have conversations with her about feelings. She is currently single, but through coaching has built her confidence in trusting her intuition, and being slightly more vulnerable when it comes to conversations with men she’s dating.
Fear has many faces. Sometimes it is sneaky and quiet, simply a concern, occasionally it feels like serious worry, and sometimes it’s overpowering and paralyzing, or sheer panic. Fear can show up in very real situations – in which we feel the fight or flight or freeze response. It can also show up as anxiety, apprehension, or the kind of fear that holds us back in ways others might view as irrational. The life-or-death kind of fear is legitimate. There are situations in which humans will truly be afraid, and we have evolved to address these situations. This is not the kind of fear we are addressing in this power tool. The kind of fear we are looking for, as coaches, is that which is not elemental to survival, but the fear that limits us. Clients experiencing this type of fear may not even have named it as such.
How do we recognize fear in a client – and help our clients realize and name fear?
People today are deeply frightened. Our lives are clouded over by real fears, exaggerated fears, and imaginary fears (Kushner, 2009, p. 6).
Sometimes a client recognizes her/his own fear. In a recent coaching session, a client actually began by stating, “I’m afraid.” In this case, the client was self-aware of his/her fear and coaching could be directed towards exploring the fear. This does not mean it’s an easier conversation, but simply the coaching direction may be more obvious.
In other cases, the client may not be aware that what s/he is experiencing is fear. Coaches can recognize fear when clients hesitate, provide disclaimers or roadblocks (real or imagined), or re-direct (intentionally or unintentionally) the coaching conversation. For example, if a client identifies that she would like to travel internationally, but then provides a grocery list of reasons why that is not possible for her, she may be dealing with fear. If another client indicates wanting to become a mountain climber, but then re-directs the conversation to his busy schedule, he may be experiencing fear.
Fear is not the only thing that holds people back, but it’s often a contributing factor, and it’s something to watch for as a coach. Heightening our awareness (as coaches) of how, when, and where our clients experience fear can be a helpful practice. Sometimes fear shows up in physical form, and can be recognized as a tightening or tensing. Our bodies are often indicators of our emotions. Other times fear may be seen through limiting one’s possibilities or requiring guarantees to proceed with perceived safety.
A conversation of fear would be remiss without acknowledging gender and communication. Generally, men are socialized not to express emotions, particularly fear. Women, on the other hand, are more apt to both feel fear and express it. For example, Lipman (2013) highlights how women’s fear of rejection may limit them from seeking opportunities. Certainly men experience this fear, as well, but Lipman posits that women may be told “no” once and take it so personally that they do not try again. As coaches, we should be aware of gender differences with our clients.
How do we coach someone dealing with fear?
A small dose of fear keeps us alert and alive, but an overdose can leave us perpetually tense, emotionally closed, and paralyzed to the point of inaction (Kushner, 2009, p. 11).
When we sense that someone is dealing with fear, consciously or subconsciously, there are several ways we can support them. At the end of this article, I’ve listed some practices that may support clients in growing courage. As a best practice in coaching, curious questions seem to be a good starting point for becoming aware of fear. Active, engaged listening will help coaches to hear the shift in tone of voice, the pauses, the closed body language, the averted eyes, or whatever other nonverbal cues may indicate fear arising.
Questions such as:
- Where do you feel this in your body? What does it feel like? What does it look like?
- What would you name this feeling?
- What is true about this feeling?
- What is a lie about this feeling?
- Where does this feeling come from?
- What does fear (or your inner critic) say to you?
- What’s the worst that could happen? (Ferriss, 2008)
What does it mean to be courageous?
Courage comes from the heart. Brown (2010) describes courage as originating from the Latin root – cor, which means heart. Brown explains that “courage originally meant ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart’” (p. 12). In her research, Brown finds, “ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line” (p.13). How does courage play out in your life?
Courage requires vulnerability, risk taking, being open, and accepting no guarantees. Courage is making a choice in spite of fear. Courage is acknowledging the fear, acknowledging the vulnerability, and moving forward. Courage is what leads us, as Brown (2010) describes, to connection with others. It requires people to accept risk and negotiate with uncertainty (Gregoire, 2013). Dean also notes that persistence is a component of courage. When people practice courageous acts, with persistence, they tend to build even more courage.
Sometimes courage is just a brave little step forwards, sometimes courage involves skydiving, and sometimes heroic acts of bravery. In any case, calling on our courage means recognizing the fear, and leaning into it to see what brilliance may come despite the fear.
How can we support clients to be more courageous?
If you’re working with a client who is struggling with fear, finding ways for your client to be courageous can be revolutionary. Courage comes from a place of mindfulness, of awareness of oneself. If one can become aware of the fear, and what is really driving, presence can be developed around the fear. We can witness our fear, and recognize it for what it is. Sometimes we may see that the fear is helpful and healthy ~ keeping us alert and on our toes. Other times, fear holds us back from doing the simplest of things. Calling fear by its name can be a starting point.
Drawing on a client’s previous experiences to help them move forward often is a supportive technique. No doubt each of our clients will have been courageous at some point in their lives. S/he may not have named their acts courageous, but we have all faced fear in our lives and addressed it. If we can help our clients to remember that feeling, to connect to that time, we can support our clients’ forward momentum.
Questions to inspire courage:
- Tell me about a time in your life when you were brave.
- What was true about that time in your life?
- How could you call on your courage in this situation?
- What would being brave look like?
- What good might come from being courageous in this situation?
- How prepared do you feel to face this fear?
- What simple steps could you take to practice dealing with this fear?
Strategies to Support a Client in Overcoming Fear and Making Courageous Choices
Many of these strategies are interrelated, but they provide some insight into possible ways to coach clients to make courageous choices.
- Mindfulness: Some consider fear as an acronym: F.E.A.R. According to Shapiro and Shapiro (2010), the acronym stands for False Evidence Appearing Real and it tends to shut people down. If people are able to be mindful, to examine their fearful emotion, and let themselves feel it, Shapiro and Shapiro posit that people will become stronger and be able to stay open. “As long as you push away, deny or ignore fear, it will hold you captive and keep you emotionally frozen, unable to move forward...But where fear contracts and closes the heart—resisting love—love expands and opens the heart, embracing fear,” (Shapiro & Shapiro, 2010, p. 2). Responding to fear by being loving and gentle with oneself may be one answer for people, and as coaches we can provide a supportive, kind, safe space for a client to explore facing her/his fear.
- Vulnerability: Related to mindfulness is the process of appreciating vulnerability and how it relates to connection, worthiness, and wholeheartedness (Brown, 2012). To be courageous is to choose to be vulnerable, which is easier said than done. Supporting clients to embrace vulnerability through discussing their fears is vital. If a client can both speak to a coach about his/her fear, and then in turn practice positive self-talk, the scariness surrounding vulnerability may fade. Acknowledging with a coach, and with oneself, and saying aloud: “I feel vulnerable right now” or “I feel vulnerable because _____________” can unleash courage. Naming vulnerability is a start.
- Strength: Cuddy (2012) describes the process of believing that you belong, as one that involves the body, as well. In her TED talk, she explains that instead of “faking it ‘til you make it,” people can “fake it ‘til they become it.” This distinction is one that may be valuable to clients, as well. Cuddy recommends physically becoming larger in one’s space, spreading out, standing up with one’s arms extended, as a way of lowering one’s cortisol and raising one’s testosterone levels in evaluative or stressful (fearful) situations. A way to support our clients in becoming braver may be linked to physically standing taller and extending one’s arms for two minutes, to increase bravery.
- Practice: “What’s the worst that could happen?” Ferriss (2008) explains in his TED talk that one technique he personally uses is to ask himself this question. If, in exploring the answer to this question, one finds the potential brilliance outweighs the risk, then try. Even if one tries and fails, viewing the attempt as practice, and having a supportive coach with whom to explore the failure, strategize, and try again can be part of a clients experience. As coaches, we want to help our clients expand. Begin with this question, and follow where it leads you.
- Positivity: Building optimism, positivity, and hopefulness is another method that may serve clients. Finding ways to develop a clients’ outlook on life in ways that create space and expansion through positive thinking may lead to a less fearful, more courageous way of being (Gregoire, 2013).
Reflections for Fellow Coaches
We must acknowledge our fears, be vulnerable, and be courageous in order to support our clients in this practice.
- How has fear held you back in your life?
- When have you made courageous choices?
- What does fear feel like to you?
- What does courage feel like to you?
- Optional exercise: What is one fear that limits you in your own life? How can you face it? What do you need to do to expand yourself? Do it.
Brown, B. (2012) Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Gotham Books.
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City: Hazelden.
Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language shapes who you are. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are.html
Courage. (n.d.). Retrieved from www.dictionary.com
Dean, B. (n.d.). Courage. Retrieved from http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/newsletter.aspx?id=66
Fear. (n.d.). Retrieved from www.dictionary.com
Ferriss, T. (2008). Smash fear, learn anything. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_ferriss_smash_fear_learn_anything.html
Gregoire, C. (2013, September 15). The science of conquering your fears and living a more courageous life. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/15/conquering-fear_n_3909020.html
Kushner, H.S. (2009). Conquering fear: Living boldly in an uncertain world. New York: Anchor Books.
Lipman, J. (2013, October). How to get over your fear of “no”. Glamour, 226-228
Shapiro, E. & Shapiro, D. (2010, April 30). Overcoming f.e.a.r.: False evidence appearing real. Oprah, Retrieved from http://www.oprah.com/spirit/Transform-Your-Fear-Into-Courage