Fear Factor – Fear and Loathing in the Round Pen

The Fear Factor is a popular show on television and I think it speaks to one of humanity’s common denominators. Fear is an essential survival instinct designed to keep us humans alive. We are all wired with the fight/flight/freeze response to fear. Despite the fact that our lives are rarely threatened in the course of the average day at the office, our bodies are primed to keep us on alert for the possible appearance of a saber-toothed tiger, no matter how unlikely that eventuality. Most, if not all of us, have fears that are easy to understand and relate to, such as claustrophobia or arachnophobia or the fear of getting stuck in the elevator. Some of us have debilitating fears and anxieties and are very reluctant to let our co-workers know about them in case of ridicule or of being seen as less competent. In fact fear of ridicule, being rejected, or being seen to be incompetent are possibly the most common fears experienced in the workplace and if we are completely honest with ourselves, we would have to confess that we all have had these feelings at times in our careers.

Emotions in the workplace tend to be discouraged and/or censored such that often we are not aware of when we or others are experiencing them. Happiness and enthusiasm are acceptable to an appropriate level whereas expressions of anger and fear are not really welcome. Anger is hard to disguise but fear in the workplace can show up in many subtle ways that may not be recognizable as fear. Silence or non-participation in meetings, reluctance to make decisions, aloofness, defensiveness or reluctance to take responsibility for one’s actions or errors can all be symptoms of underlying unexpressed fear. In an environment where these feelings are not part of the everyday discussions about performance, how does a leader or manager coach his or her staff to address these behaviours? Indeed how does a leader recognize, acknowledge, address, or process fear for him or herself in an environment where doing so would increase the risk of exposure to ridicule or loss of face?

Fear is something that comes up for some people when contemplating working with horses. Animals as large and powerful as horses naturally raise an awareness of risk or outright fear. Working in the round pen with horses amplifies this sometimes because of the sense of confined space. As a trained and certified horse trainer I understand horse behaviour and safety is always on my mind for my clients and myself; I am constantly assessing the interactions with myself, my clients and the horse to ensure safety is paramount at all times. Coaching with horses is actually a very low risk activity and yet there is always a possibility that fear can come up and coaching around fear and risk in the round pen is a powerful way to explore how it shows up for clients in their lives.

The sheer power and energy of a horse up close can light up every nerve ending in your body. This is in part where some of the magic lies. I know for myself I still can experience the shock and exhilaration of fear in the presence of a horse when I am taken by surprise. What has been so powerful for me in learning from these experiences with horses is becoming conscious of how I am with fear. What does fear really feel like when I am conscious of it? How does my body process fear? What goes on in my mind? How do I plan for and manage risk around horses so that I am safe even when I feel fear? How do I feel the fear and, as Susan Jeffers says, “do it anyway”?

Facing fear in the round pen and working through these feelings has been invaluable in my learning about myself and has informed my strategies and behaviours about fear and risk in all aspects of my life. Exploring fear in the round pen is real world practice and is in fact a really safe way to do it!