82. Take a Risk This Week

November 16, 2012

We are risk-averse. Most of us anyway. You get the occasional crazy person, like Philippe Petit, who strung a tightrope between the twin towers and then walked across it, but on the whole we like to keep safe.  The trouble is that there is no sure way of assessing what constitutes safety and what constitutes danger, which is why some people happily speak in public, ask people that they fancy out for a date, and grab the mike at karaoke parties, while others don't. The same people, however, may be absolutely terrified of having an intimate conversation with another person, or of being on their own, and avoid such situations like the plague. 

At some point in our lives, earlier than we might like to think, we construct a little box for ourselves that we consider safe, and make the decision, largely unconsciously, never to stray outside of it. We construct all sorts of elaborate strategies for avoiding stepping out of the box, and for justifying it to ourselves, to the extent that in time we may forget we ever built that box. This is just who we are and what we are capable of. But what if you're tired of your little box and the way it limits your life, how do you make it bigger? This week's tip gives some ideas.

The other day I was at a workshop on behavioural experiments. Behavioural experiments are a core technique in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, aimed at testing the unhelpful beliefs that prevent people from doing things. They are extraordinarily powerful.  As is usually the case at these courses, we were required to do our own behavioural experiments, which means that you have to think of something you would rather not do, spend a bit of time considering how awful it is likely to be, and then do it. 

I was sitting next to a young Irish woman with a soft accent and a beguiling smile. As I could think of nothing that I wanted to experiment on I set about encouraging her to do one. She was not at all keen, nobody ever is, but as I questioned her it emerged that there was a stress management course that she had to deliver in the near future and she was nervous about it.  'Ah,' I grasped my opportunity, 'so how about addressing the group here?' She winced. No way. But as she thought about it she realized that here was an opportunity. 'But what would I talk about?' she said. 'Should I read out one of the vignettes perhaps?'  She started rummaging through her papers. 'You could talk about anything,' I said, 'about your trip over from Ireland today, your family, a recent holiday, it doesn't matter what it is.'  She looked horrified.  'But I would never talk without preparing what I was going to say.'  I observed that she was doing exactly that in her conversation with me. 'But in front of people, that's different,' she said. She was very nervous by now. Her face was flushed.

I asked her, 'What do you think would happen if you did it?'  She said that she would feel horribly nervous, and that people would be able to see that she was nervous - by her red face, her shaking hands and her inaudible voice. 'And what do you think would happen if you ad libbed about yourself?'  'Nobody would be interested,' she said, with complete certainty.

So spoke the guardian of her box.

Well I managed to assemble a dozen or so people as an audience and she stood up in front of them. Because I had seen her when she was relaxed, I could tell that she was tense, but if you didn't know her you would have seen nothing untoward. She introduced herself and said that she wanted to talk unprepared, and asked people if they would be kind enough to pose her some questions. They obliged, naturally, and off she went.

She talked about her rather unusual coat that she had bought from a charity shop, about how she spent her leisure time, about her family. The more she spoke, the more relaxed she became and the more her natural charm shone through. Everybody was watching and listening intently.

We asked them what they thought. 'Very engaging', said one. 'Confident' said another. 'Relaxed,' said another. 'Was her face red, her hands shaking, her voice inaudible?' I asked. Negative. In fact those signs that had been there when we were talking about doing the talk had vanished completely.

So it turned out that the guardian of her box was wrong. It had been holding her back for all this time for no good reason.

But what if she had gone red, her hands had shaken and nobody could hear her? I hear you ask. Well that is something the guardians of most of our boxes could not tolerate, but again, are they right? Who is to say that looking nervous is such a terrible thing? Does it really matter so very much? Most people are visibly nervous when they first start to speak in public, many continue to be so. It doesn't make what they're saying any less valuable, it doesn't make them lesser people, it just makes them like 90% of the population who are nervous of public speaking.

Try this:
1. Think about something you avoid due to discomfort or anxiety. This can be difficult as often we've been avoiding these things for a long time. Here are some common examples: public speaking, social events, joining clubs, initiating friendships, withdrawing friendship, asking for a pay rise, telling the truth about how you feel, complaining about a poor meal in a restaurant, applying for jobs, saying 'yes', saying 'no'.

2.  What is it that stops you doing this thing?  What do you predict would happen if you did do it? Write these predictions down.

3.  How could you test your predictions?  Plan an experiment to do just that. For example, if you're uncomfortable with saying no, and you are worried that the other person will be offended or won't like you anymore, try saying no and see how they react. If possible, ask them how they felt about you saying no.

4.  Review your experiment. Did you predictions come true? What have you learnt?

Enjoy experimenting!
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