Don’t Let Fear-Driven Stories Ruin Your Conversations

January 15, 2012

You’re talking to someone. You’re trying to listen, but you’re also planning what you’re going to say. Your mind speeds up. When you speak, mixed up thoughts come out and the interaction is awkward. You know something is off even though the person is polite and doesn’t say anything.

I’ve been here many times, and unfortunately, I was the one making the comments. Last year, it irritated me enough to investigate, and I was shocked at how often I repeated communication blunders, many of which were based in fear.

Fear shows up when you’re not sure who you are or what you want, especially in your conversations. If you haven’t taken the time to learn what you want, or to analyze what you do, it’s a nightmare if these questions come up. And If you have meaningful conversations, they should come up.

So what do you do if you aren’t 100% sure of yourself? The answer is not to make stuff up, which is what happens. You blurt out comments irrespective of if they make sense and tend to spew out the stories inside your head. We spend 99% of our time trying to keep people out of our our heads – scary place – but here we lead them directly into it. Because you’re nervous, you make things up that feel true but are nowhere near your real truth. You say things you wouldn’t normally say, ask the wrong questions and veer the conversation off-course. When you notice you’re doing it, you become even more flustered. Talk about an awkward cycle.

Beating yourself up only makes it worse. Fear is a natural part of being human, but it doesn’t own your conversations. You own that outcome and you can change it to whatever you want. I learned to see mistakes not as innate character flaws, but as training ground – every weird interaction was fodder to strategically improve myself. Once I saw I could calmly maintain control, I trained myself out of traits that didn’t serve me – like fear showing up in casual conversations.

Here are the top mistakes I made. I know them well because I made them a hundred times each.

Let’s start with the biggest error and why it’s the title of the post.

1.) DO NOT LET THE STORIES INSIDE YOUR HEAD RUN YOUR CONVERSATIONS

We feel many emotions throughout the day – anger, nerves, happiness, excitement – spurred by the stories we tell ourselves. If you’re angry, a story might sound like “She shouldn’t have done that” or “I didn’t get what I wanted.” If you’re nervous, it might be “Why do they all think I’ll fail?” If you’re embarrassed a story might be, “They’ll laugh at me.” If you’re happy, you might say “I believe the universe wants to help me.” These are all stories and it’s critical which one you pick to tell yourself. It makes all the difference in the outcome: What you tell yourself, you also tell other people.

As an entrepreneur, we grapple with uncertainty and fear, so I tell myself stories that push me forward, rather than drag me down. This is exactly what you have to do in conversations with others: Tell yourself better stories so that you tell others better stories. Instead of focusing on negative stories that make you feel weak, like “There’s no point in trying, you’re not smart or creative or ________ enough to do it” or “You’ll fail or get rejected, so don’t even try” tell yourself something that strengthens you. One of my favorite affirmations is “No matter what comes my way, I have the resources and strength to handle it.” That takes care of the uncertainty bit. And the fear bit gets mitigated too. Keep your mind on the positive, ready to meet challenges and not to be overwhelmed by them.

Then, when you go to a dinner party and someone asks you what you’re up to, you’ll come from a place of ownership and say, “I’m working on a couple different things right now like X and Y that I’m excited about. While I’m not yet clear of the outcome, there’s nothing I’d rather be working on right now.” That way, you’re communicating a real, but empowered state of mind. And you’re not boring people with “But I’m worried about this and that” and “I’m not sure if I can do this” or “I think I’ll fail.”

Firstly, these are the WRONG. They are not real!

Secondly, they are YOUR stories whether or not they are real, so keep them to yourself. Do not share.

Good storytelling is so important that there’s a book on it called “The Art of Possibility” by Roz and Ben Zander.

Personally, if I’m in an uncertain place (which is most of the time since i’m creating my career), I used to bring people into my own wrong stories without even realizing it and then wonder why the interaction went down hill. Just because you I had a thought floating in my head 100 times a day does NOT mean someone else cared about it! Nix your own bad storylines first, and then focus on a good story during conversation. Once I did this, my conversations improved dramatically.

2.) KEEP IT LIGHT.
So many of our conversations are heavy, filled with nuances, mental chatter and assumptions. That’s why communication can feel so tired and annoying. But YOU can be the person who people actually enjoy talking to because it’s a safe space from what we’re used to with our families, work, and school. Keep your conversations open, with many pauses, and a lot of time to listen to the other person. Keep it spacious with periods of real listening and nodding, using body language more than words. Push the conversation forward with a funny joke or witty comment – no need to be intellectual – just push it in a positive direction. Encourage people. Empower them with real compliments, not false ones. Be light. Don’t spew out your stories in the first five minutes of conversation. Keep your wits about you. Go slow. Take in your surroundings.

3.) MAKE IT ABOUT THEM.
I still need to practice this. Listening is a more of an art than a skill and if you can listen, you will be magnetic. This is still tough for me because I’m an enthusiastic person, but honestly, talking too much wears me out. I’d rather the few minutes of peace that come from listening well to someone than the ego-rush of making someone think you’re cool. Plus, listening is learning. If you don’t listen, you serious opportunities to learn and also introduce opportunities to make a fool out of yourself.

PAUSE. GO SLOW.
If you watch The West Wing (and you really should), you know a character named Toby, who always has the perfect witty comment delivered at exactly the right time with a tone and delivery that hits the mark every.single. time. I watch Toby like a hawk each episode to see not only his strategy and smarts, but to hear his conversation. He is slow and sometimes awkward, but always tells the truth and like any good orator, you want to hear what Toby says. Always. He is also slow to respond, pauses a lot and thinks before he reacts. It is refreshing and marvelous to watch.

Another friend of mine is so content with who she is, that she doesn’t feel the need to overrun the conversation and fill every moment. She pauses and it is such a delight to talk to her because there’s no need to get to the end of the conversation. I find that I slow down when talking to her and it feels like bliss. I always want to talk to her because of this, even if I have nothing to say. Ask yourself, are you someone who other people want to talk to? Why?

4.) DON’T OVERLOAD ONE CONVERSATION WITH EVERY THOUGHT YOU HAVE.
There will be another opportunity for you to talk to this person. Guaranteed. This is a personal favorite because I sometimes get so excited about what we’re talking about that every last detail and thought about the topic comes out and overwhelms the other person. Initially you were both excited and now there’s too much of an influx of information and it wears the other person out. Once I started taking it in chunks and realized this would not be the last time I would ever see this person (hello dramatic), my interactions stayed exciting and high-energy. So take it slow and in pieces. Be a calm place for a person to come to instead of a tornado.

So, if you’re going to use 2012 to do anything at all, start by telling yourself a different story. Then keep the story inside your head. It’s the first step in improving how you communicate and how to stop allowing fear to show up in your daily conversations. Don’t worry about your mental microphone; others have one too. Know that you can control the broadcasts you hear and what you tell others. Keep your radio station attuned to a positive, empowered, and fearless state of mind. Then broadcast that to everyone you come in contact with.

xx Ishita

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeffrey January 15, 2012 at 5:37 pm

I haven’t identified with anything as much as this post in a LONG ime. Thanks!

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Peter January 17, 2012 at 2:58 am

Marvellous. These are great reminders on how to bring back the “art” of conversation and who could be a better mentor than Toby? Loved this post.

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Liva January 19, 2012 at 9:26 am

Thank You for inspiring!

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Pat M January 20, 2012 at 12:34 am

I liked the part about how to reframe an answer to a question that may have you a bit of kilter… I'mworking on a couple different things right now like X and Y that I'mexcited about. While I'mnot yet clear of the outcome, there s nothing I'd rather be working on right now. An example of this comes to mind. I’m about to start a blog and everyone has been asking me “what’s the purpose of your blog”. I don’t have a clearly defined purpose and I can chose to be all apologetic or go on about how I am struggling to come up with a purpose. Instead, this article will help me reframe my answer with something more on the lines of “At this time I don’t have a clearly defined purpose other than it’s what I feel compelled to do. By simply starting the blog the purpose will begin to reveal itself.”

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Ed January 23, 2012 at 1:50 am

Maybe should we call the fear-driven killers of conversation “fear filler” or “fear fluff”?

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