fear

Who will catch me when I fall?

In the last couple of months I have taken up climbing again, after a break of about ten years.

It’s exciting.

The atmosphere at the indoor climbing centre I go to is upbeat, dynamic, friendly. 

When you hire out a carabiner and belay device - the small, beautifully engineered bits of metal which could save your life - the heavily pierced man in the hire shop will accept an RSPB membership card instead of a credit card as a deposit.   It’s that kind of place.

The background music is familiar and chosen to make you smile: ABBA, early 80s pop, 70s funk.

There are cheerfully written signs dotted around to point you to the café, yoga room and organic garden as well as to the more challenging ‘Stack’ and ‘Catacombs’ – fancifully named climbing walls.  Notices tell you that dogs are welcome, outside of peak times, but must not be tied to the safety equipment.  

There are people whose job it is to set routes that you climb on the walls.  They bolt on the brightly coloured artificial ‘holds’ in carefully planned patterns that allow for all levels: starting at an easy peasy grade 3 and carrying on right up to a surely impossible 8a.  They include tricky little challenges that you have to puzzle out and then implement – can I really get my foot that high and then push down on my hand to shift my weight on it?

Sometimes!

But don’t be fooled by the jollity and bright colours.  12 metres up is still 12 metres up, even if the holds you are balanced on look like spotted turtles or alien jellies.

I climb tied to a rope which runs from my harness through a metal chain fixed at the top of the wall, then drops back down to the bits of metal secured via another harness to my climbing partner.  This is known as “top roping” and the act of holding and carefully taking in the rope - which the non-climber does - is called ‘belaying’.  Your belay is the person in charge of making sure the rope will save you. 

Don’t worry, there is more to this post than a lesson in climbing terminology!

If you climb this way, with a partner who is your belay, there’s something a bit funny – in fact, a bit alarming - that I’ve been taught to do at the beginning of a session.

When you have climbed up high enough that your feet are above your belay’s head – around two metres - you are supposed to fling yourself from the wall, without warning the belay.

Why would you do that?

You fling yourself from the wall to prove to you both, the climber and their partner, that they will hold you.

And the beautiful symmetry of the partnership means that as soon as you are back on solid ground and have wiped the sweat off your hands onto your trousers, you swap over and belay your partner as they make their way up the route they have chosen.

You can also climb without a partner.

It’s not just humans who might stop the rope slithering through, halting your rapid descent and leaving you swinging gently instead of writhing in agony on the floor. 

Where I climb, there are also automatic belay devices – simple mechanisms which take up the slack rope for you and, like a car safety belt, stop you if you fall. 

So the thing keeping you safe when you climb – actually, keeping you safe when you fall - might be a person or it might be something else.  You test it just the same.  You fling yourself off the wall from a relatively safe position.

I am afraid of heights and I am especially afraid of falling.  Both those fears magnify a third fear – I am afraid of not being in control.

Even a couple of metres off the ground, I really don’t want to fling myself from the wall.  My palms sweat.  My feet - already in a gripping shape due to the tight, tight climbing shoes - curl further inwards in a reflex reaction to the very thought of falling.  They are trying to grasp the footholds.  I psych myself up and chicken out.

We fling ourselves from the wall at a safe height, so that we can be sure of being safe when we need to make a truly risky move twelve metres up.

Why we fling ourselves off the wall

In my life, I have put off doing some things that I really want to do, for fear of how bad it will feel if I fail.  I am afraid of the shame, the crushing of my self-confidence, the public humiliation.

Your fears may be different. These are mine and I suppose they must be very precious to me because I still cling on to them after all this time.

What’s enabled me to go ahead and do the exciting things anyway – including just in this last year - is my previous experience of coming back from failure and from the excruciating shame I feel when I think I have failed.

This fear of failing is strong stuff.

Even the anticipation of that shame is really powerful too.  I don’t have to actually fail, to feel the shame.  I just have to imagine it happening.

In fact my palms are sweating now!

I have lately come to accept that I will feel bad while I contemplate and plan my daring actions.  I will fall off the wall.  I still feel bad – I haven’t learnt to avoid the fear, and I’m not sure I ever will.  It’s more that I now see it as the price I pay for doing something really cool.  

I know that feeling bad is temporary.  I have strategies for feeling better again.  I have a coach, a 'thinking partner', supportive groups, yoga. When I fall, and I do, I am caught. 

Taking a test fall

I’m on the climbing wall.  My belay partner is relaxed and ready.  They have done this before, they trust the ironmongery and the rope.  They trust me.  They want me to experience the exhilaration and triumph of beating the challenge from the fiendish route-setter, of getting to the top.  

And yet, and yet….

OK, this is it. If I wait any longer, my pretend fall won’t be enough of a surprise to test the team. 

I reach for a hold with my arm, pushing away from the wall with my legs at the same time.  I’m airborne and falling for a split second, before the rope goes taut and I’m jerked to a stop.

And breathe.

A few minutes later, I’m 12 metres up, stretching for a hold I can’t quite reach, but launching towards it anyway because - what’s the worst that could happen?

I’m no gecko, but knowing I’m roped up to someone, or something, that will catch me means I’ve definitely left the grade 3 routes behind.

In fact, if I’d never fallen and been caught, I never would have made it beyond beginner graded climbs.

In our lives, we can all be climbers. We can all take practice falls.  We can all belay for someone else.

Over to you

·      What are you afraid of, that holds you back from doing the cool stuff? 

·      Who or what catches you when you fall?  

·      Who do you catch, when they fall?

Knowing that we will be caught when we fall – by a person or by something else - enables us to do greater things. 

Let us climb, fall, be caught. Let us catch others. 

First outing...

This blog post is based on a presentation I made at this weekly gathering of like-minded fellow-travellers. There's a periscope recording here. 

Do you #Dare?

The rather fabulous #DareConf is back in London next month.  It's taking place at the Arcola Theatre, which is properly local to me and a wonderful eco-building (think solar panels, wood-fired heating, DC microgrids - eh?!) and community space in its own right. 

So I was really happy that my friend and collaborator Jonathan Kahn invited me to do a session with him at #DareConf 2015.  We'll be in conversation, exploring what a facilitator can do to help a group find shared goals by discovering underlying needs.  Jonathan is really interested in power - how we wield it, how we give it up.  His facilitation style owes a lot to non-violent communication, and I'm learning loads from talking with him about the challenges and options when working in groups. 

(Regular readers will know that I'm really interested in anxiety and fear - how we display it and what we do to manage it.) 

This is a return visit for me, because I had fun sharing ideas on finding consensus at #DareMini last year. The live webcast was a new experience and means that people who weren't there can still check out "Stop assuming, start asking questions: how to turn conflict into collaboration".

#DareConf grew out of Jonathan's background in the digital profession and styles itself "people skills for digital workers".  Other contributors are firmly from this field: Rifa Thorpe-Tracey is a freelance digital project manager and organises SheSays BrightonLaura Morgan is Head of Product at Comic Relief (no, I'm not sure either).  And Holly Burns is a content strategist at Instagram, which I know is cool because my daughters (who don't do twitter or blogs) use it regularly. Although possibly not as cool as snapchat.

So as you can see, although I'll be hugely out of my depth digitally-speaking (plenty of opportunity for anxiety) I will at least be a local (plenty of opportunity for power) who knows which bus to catch and that people should pop round the corner to Dalston Eastern Curve Garden for a spot of bliss when we're done.

So if you're one of my neighbours - or even if you're not - do check out #DareConf.  Early bird discount until 7th September.

 

 

That might happen, and it would be fine!

I've been doing some more one-to-one facilitation training this autumn, with someone who is a natural. It's been a real pleasure from my perspective, as most of what I've been suggesting has been practically useful and made sense to the person I've been working with. Which is always nice!

The four sessions we had were spaced out so that three came before the crucial event which was the focus of the training, and one came after. 

In the first session, we mostly worked on crafting really helpful aims for the workshop: making them crystal clear and (where this made sense) empty of content.  What do I mean by that?  For example, changing "agree to set up a working group on X" to "agree what action, if any, to take on X".

In the second session, we worked on design: which tools, techniques or bits of process would best help the group meet the aims.

And the third session was where it got real: going through the draft design and running little thought experiments. What if someone doesn't like this bit of process?  What if people can't easily divide themselves into the two groups the process depends on?  What if the round of introductions overruns?  It became clear in this session that the trainee had a lot of fears about things "going wrong" in the workshop.  I chose to make these fears the agenda for our session.

focus on fear?

I realise that I have an important relationship with fear. It's the emotion that butts its way in and uses up my energy. I know that a lot of people have this too. And a lot of people don't. So when I'm coaching, it's important that I notice when I feel afraid and consider whether it's my own fear, or something from my client that I'm picking up. And I know that many coaches would rather choose to work with the pull (enthusiasm, dreams, hopes, visions) than the push (what you want to avoid).  I try to avoid focusing on the negative, but in this session fear seemed so clearly to set the agenda!  I decided that to ignore the fears would be stubborn and unsuccessful.

What are you afraid of?

So we listed the fears on a flip chart, and then categorised them into three broad types: things that could be managed through preparation (e.g. design tweaks, process alternatives, 'things to come back to' flips, prepping a friendly participant to model brief intros); things that could be responded to 'in the moment' with body language and words that the trainee could practice in advance (e.g. interventions to respectfully request the conversation moves on); and things that might happen but would be fine. 

In my mind, this third category had echoes of Nancy Kline's possible fact assumptions: to which the response from the coach or thinking partner is "That's possible. But what are you assuming that makes that stop you?"  (For more on this, see Kline's classic Time to Think.)

And that would be fine

So the trainee's feared scenarios might come to pass: the group might decide at the start of the day that they wanted to add in a new chunky agenda item. And that would be fine. 

The always-negative-person might complain and grouch. And that would be fine.

My trainee might be at a loss to know what to do at some point in the day. And that would be fine.

This part of the session was all about taking away the fear of these possibilities, and replacing it with curiosity, confidence or some other more positive emotion.  Coupling that less fearful mindset with thinking through what she might do equipped her to be the great facilitator she turned out to be on the day itself.