When we walk into any situation that makes us feel the glare of the spotlight, there are three fears we confront:
Fear of ourselves is the worry that we’ll let ourselves down: forget everything we’ve planned, stumble over our words and generally make a mess of it all.
Fear of other people is, of course, the worry about what the audience will think of us. Often we have a subconscious, or even conscious, expectation that they’re going to hate us from the word go.
Both of those stem from a fundamental lack of confidence – something I help people with a lot. For them, it’s not usually a surprise to learn that tackling these two fears will be the focus of much of our work.
But fear of the space? What’s that about?
The space in which we present ourselves has a vital role to play in the impression we create on other people. Most of us have an instant reaction when we walk into unfamiliar surroundings. If it’s cavernous and echoing, we can feel dwarfed and daunted. If it’s cramped and crowded, we can feel stifled and straight-jacketed. Or anything in between.
More often than not, those responses are happening at a subconscious, or semi-conscious level – and in my experience, most businesspeople never consider the possibility that such feelings directly affect the way they’re coming across to others. It’s the sheer unfamiliarity of the space that can make us ill at ease. We are, quite literally, out of our comfort zones. And comfort zones matter hugely to most of us.
When people arrive at my workshops, the first thing they see is a circle of chairs set out in the centre of a large, empty space. No tables… certainly no screen or projector… maybe a flipchart in a corner. To most businesspeople, that’s scary.
Scaring people is absolutely NOT my purpose, believe me. Stretching them, yes, challenging them, yes, giving them confidence, absolutely yes. Owning the space brings confidence. But I can see how exposed and inhibited some of my course participants feel when they first walk in. No table to protect them. No upside-down glass on a paper doily.
No branded freebie biro set alongside it. Nothing to say ‘This is your space; for the duration of this event, you belong HERE.’ And participants usually respond by immediately building comfort zones for themselves in one little bit of that empty space. They surround ‘their’ chair with bags and coffee cups and a jacket slung over the back.
The empty space is the actor’s milieu (the famous director Peter Brook wrote a whole book about it), and it’s valuable because it opens up possibility. Anything can happen there. That’s the stuff of creativity. And creativity is dangerous, and terrifying. As a by-product of my work as a trainer, businesspeople often discover ways of being more creative – usually by taking small risks and making tiny changes. The impact can be huge, even Damascene.
But my purpose is really just to help people find new ways of owning their space without any of the accoutrements they’re used to relying upon. So after a seated introduction, we begin the process: getting up on our feet to try things out by interacting with the space and each other.
And yet… returning to the comfort zone is something to which most of us default. Which means that, after a first coffee break, most participants go back without thinking to ‘their’ chair. Or would do, if I let them! The simple action of sitting somewhere new gives everyone a fresh perspective on what’s going on, and each other. That fresh perspective injects new energy into the room. (Worth remembering if you often attend long meetings in which no-one ever changes places.)
So for my participants, little by little, the space we’re in becomes less threatening as the training progresses. It happens at different speeds for different people, of course. But sooner or later, usually without knowing it, those participants expand their individual comfort zones to fill the whole training room. They’ve each ‘taken possession’ of the territory.
The fear you feel in an unfamiliar space, therefore, may not be entirely caused by what you need to deliver in it or what other people will think of that. It’s quite likely to have something to do with the space itself. And you can overcome that, just by moving around in it.
Now get up and try it!