I work with lots of kinds of people: corporate professional types, lawyer types, entrepreneurial types, accounting types and others who don’t neatly fit into a type at all. As it happens, all of the people I work with generally have some things in common. They’re almost always smart; I would go so far as to say really smart. They are all striving for excellence, which is why they hire people like me. They’re also generally curious people. Despite all these incredibly positive attributes or perhaps because of them, they also fear failure. I probably have nothing new to say about failure. You can pull up at least a thousand quotes about failure and blogs and speeches. Fear of failure is widely discussed. What can be surprising is how much more pervasive it is among the bright, shiny, and brilliant. I sit across the table from people everyday who have more letters after their name than I have in my name and I have a hell of a lot of freaking letters in my name! These people have accomplished, overcome, achieved and contributed and still they experience fear. Fear that it’s not enough, fear that someone will surely find out they’re not nearly as smart and accomplished as they appear. I marvel at this anytime I encounter it although I myself shared a very personal story of my fear of fraudulence sometime back in one of my blogs.
I used to be a real hard ass. I was of the Just Do It, Make it Happen variety of people. I’m still a bit of a hard ass to be sure, but I’m keenly aware of our fragility (another ‘f’ word) as humans. The really beautiful (yea, I know that isn’t a word we use in the business world) thing about the work I do is that I get to be astonished and see people as they are and not as they wish to be seen. I say it’s beautiful because it’s terribly comforting to see our sameness and know we are struggling for personal greatness in a very human, mortal shell. In the midst of feeling fearful, fraudulent, and fragile take comfort in the fact this is the most ordinary thing about you.
Working with people who are negotiating a salary or large deal for the first time has taught me that everyone has some anxiety going into high stakes conversations where the answers could be NO, Hell NO and Who Do You Think You Are? Or at least that’s the fear that sits in the bottom of our stomachs gnawing at our innards. When you walk into such a situation feeling all that physical reality – just know that you are normal. Welcome to the human race. Everyone asks me how to get rid of the fear. The truth is you can’t. I’m not even sure you should try. The goal is to let it be there and be bigger than the fear. You can’t avoid asking because of fear; you must ask in spite of your fear.
High stakes conversations about salaries, opportunities, crisis or sales require very particular skills and thoughtful strategy. Learning what to say when and what never to say is worth tens of thousands of dollars. I have seen this in negotiations of all kinds. Don’t go to a gun fight with a knife. Walk into your critical conversations prepared. This will quiet your nerves and help you achieve the highest outcome. As for all the ‘f’ words – do your best to replace them and when you can’t, know that the person across the table from you is not better than you. The person across the table has grappled with his or her own of fears and fragility. Remembering this little bit of truth will help you to breathe and for sure you’ll want to do that. All, and I mean all, of the really successful people I know breathe.
Ann marie Houghtailing is a speaker and writer. Her speaker’s reel can be viewed at https://annmariehough.wpengine.com/speaking/
Her writing has appeared in Washington Post, Huffington Post, Daily Worth, Yahoo! Finance, XO Jane, Catalyst, Thought Catalogue and San Diego Business Journal.