Fear is a useful emotion. Why? Because it keeps us alive. The fear of becoming a hood ornament keeps us from stepping into fast-moving traffic. The fear of being struck by lightening keeps us away from tall poles during thunderstorms. And the fear of drowning leads us to learn how to swim, or at least wear lifejackets on whitewater rafting trips.
We need to recognize that fears are powerful motivators, for good or for bad. They can help us survive, but they can also prevent us from doing things or receiving things that are good for us. For example, when we’re trying to resolve conflict with others, fears can slow things way down. In fact, I’ve been called to help in situations where people’s fears have put a halt to all discussion.
Differences Between Fears and Phobias
Before I explore the role of fears in conflict resolution, I should point out that fears are different than phobias. Everyone has fears, but not everyone has phobias. Phobias are extreme fears that are debilitating and constraining, and psychologists have identified three different ways they emerge.
1) A psychoanalytic emergence is a repressed anxiety that manifests itself, but the true source of anxiety is unrelated to the exhibited fear. In other words, part of our personality doesn’t want to deal with a particular fear, but the fear wants to be expressed, so it manifests itself as an extreme anxiety about something else.
2) A “learning” emergence is a normal fear that gets amplified into a debilitating anxiety through repetition or an emotional trauma. For the repetition version, think Pavlov’s dog in reverse. Instead of receiving a reward every time something happens, a person receives a punishment. With enough repetition, a phobia emerges and the person avoids all situations where a triggering event has even the slightest chance of occurring. On the trauma side of learning, any significant emotional event can trigger a phobia. For example, getting locked for hours in a dark closet as a child can impact the child’s emotions to the point that he forever avoids all dark rooms or small spaces.
3) A biological emergence occurs when certain neurological or genetic factors magnify brain chemistry associated with a particular fear.
I mention these mainly to show the difference between fears and phobias. Everyone has fears, which are almost always accompanied by some level of nervousness, anxiety or emotional discomfort. Not everyone has phobias, which can be thought of as fears on steroids. Phobias can cause extreme reactions, such as panic attacks, tachycardia, dizziness and nausea, even when no real threats exist. Phobias need to be helped with cognitive behavioral therapy, but the fears I’m talking about in this article are common to everyone and can be managed rather easily.
The Downside of Fears
Now that I’ve pointed out some benefits of fears and highlighted the difference between fears and phobias, let’s look deeper at fears and how they hinder conflict resolution.
Three decades ago, my mentor and coach taught me that at least five fears impact our relationships. A few years ago, the magazine Psychology Today published a slightly different list, but I noticed that their list has a lot of overlap; the difference are mostly semantics.
And so, when working on resolving conflicts, our question needs to be, “How can I minimize these fears in me as well as in the people around me?” it’s a vital question to ask, because when we’re trying to resolve conflict with someone, fears get in the way of making progress.
The Five Universal Fears
The first universal fear is criticism. Very few people like being criticized. Sometimes we know we need it so we can learn where or how to improve, but even then, most people only endure it. It’s kind of like going to the dentist. We know the result will be good for us, but we still don’t like the process. If criticism is unsolicited, it usually stings pretty bad.
The second universal fear is failure. This is a powerful fear, because we usually place too much weight on what other people think of us. When that happens, or if we’re worried that others will lose interest in us if we fail, we can become terrified of failure. Like many fears, the fear of failure can be powerful enough to prevent us from starting what we know will be good for us.
The next fear is rejection. Human beings are wired to belong, so the fear of rejection can run deep. By way of illustration, in 1944, an experiment was conducted in the U.S. to learn how newborns would respond if not given attention or touch. They were housed in sanitary conditions, fed healthy food on a regular schedule and their diapers were changed when needed. But, after four months the experiment was stopped because half of the babies had “given up” and died! Feeling not wanted or abandoned can be devastating.
Fourth on the list is the fear of not getting what you want. Oftentimes people do not move forward on something because they’re afraid the outcome isn’t going to be what they expect. It’s different from fear of failure, but again, the fear can be so strong that a person doesn’t even try.
Last on the list is fear of losing what you have. Maybe you have something of value, whether it’s a position or a thing, and you’re afraid of losing it. When this fear of loss is strong, it can prevent you from engaging with others.
Again, know that everybody has these fears to one degree or another. If we’re trying to resolve conflict, our job is to try to minimize these fears, not only in ourselves, but also in the people around us. This is where good listening skills come into play. If you can help people feel heard, you will minimize these fears and improve your conflict resolutions skills. But more on how to do that in next month’s column.
– Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a certified behavioral analyst, a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. He loves working with teams and individuals to help them achieve workplace excellence. Reach Daniel through his website, www.MyWorkplaceExcellence.com.