Stuck? Separate The Scary From The Dangerous

There’s a difference between things that are dangerous and things that are scary. Dangerous things can harm us. They have real and tangible downsides. Scary things draw their power from our own fear of them. They have surface-level downsides that don’t always run to the core. These distinctions matter because they can help us personally and professionally get past the scary, past the dangerous, and on towards what we actually want – survival and success.

Here’s the classic problem: you’re scared to do something you’ve never done before and it seems kind of risky if not dangerous. We all know what happens. Sometimes, you are right. You defend your assumptions and stay away. But other times you do it only to realize, “Hey, this is pretty great!” In those times we learn it’s not so scary anymore, and often, once it’s not scary it’s not so dangerous either. How can we help others to overcome these when they’re obstacles? There are three steps to take:

Label the scary. Ask what makes it most uncomfortable and why.

Label the dangerous. Ask for the downsides. They should be different from the fears.

Ask what smallest version of the risk a reasonable person might be willing to take.

Here’s an example:

I didn’t learn to ski until I was in my 20s. My fear was I’d look like an idiot since everyone else going had been doing this all their lives. That was my ego talking. The danger was the reality that I’m not the most coordinated person and I really didn’t want to break something or die. That part was real. I could get badly hurt if I wasn’t careful. Finally, what got me over the hump? My girlfriend insisted she’d be a patient teacher, said we’d stick to the little stuff first, and assured me she’d help me progress at my own pace. Fear. Danger. Smallest, most reasonable step.

At work, we run into this all of the time with current and prospective clients. There are hurdles people get hung up on or parts of the process where all of a sudden we’ve lost traction. This is where we want to apply the process to the resistance in an effort to understand what’s happening. We won’t always succeed, especially when an ego-driven fear is too deep or too encompassing, but we can save a lot of time by understanding the source and strategizing about how to handle it directly. Find the proverbial patient girlfriend that will ease them onto the slopes.

There’s a real power in separating the fear from the danger and then objectively looking for a tiny and reasonable step in the right direction. All we have to do is dig for the real issue. H/t to Guy Raz for this idea.

Epilogue to my ski adventure: after a few bunny slope runs, my girlfriend and our friends decided I could handle a bigger run if I just went slow. They took me to the top of Killington, and while it may not have been pretty, I did live to write this. True story.

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