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Socially anxious? Shift your attention.

Imagine how you might feel before:

  • An interview - as the interviewer or interviewee;

  • An appraisal - as the appraiser or appraisee;

  • Meeting your new date for the first time;

  • A high-stakes negotiation;

  • A presentation to important stakeholders;

  • Chairing a meeting - at which you expect conflict;

  • Meeting new people at a reception or cocktail party;

  • A job trial at which you will be judged by potential colleagues;

  • A meeting of distant (all definitions included) members of your family;

  • Being asked to take in, sit with, and entertain the guest of honour at your organisational black-tie dinner, that guest being the ex-Governor of the Bank of England?

For guidance on dealing with these situations and your anxieties about them, search the web (use AI with the last two). But while you might find some useful tips and techniques to address the specific concerns, they would be unlikely to address the underlying fears that caused them. Those fears would manifest as anxieties again at a time and place of their choosing, typically.


Your anxieties arise from your fears

Any anxieties and their physical symptoms that you feel around such situations are the result of underlying, subconscious fears that typically sap your confidence and keep you playing small in life. Fears such as*:

  • The fear of looking stupid or ridiculous;

  • The fear of failure;

  • The fear of rejection (no-one wants to be outlawed by the tribe);

  • The fear of not being good enough (and of being found out to be not good enough);

  • The fear of your own potential greatness (and the domination over your life of maintaining that greatness).

*Conscious Capitalism, Chap 14, John Mackey and Raj Sisodia.


How your fears arise

I have known each of these. They arise from situations we experienced as adverse in our formative years. While deep-cut psychological surgery might exorcise these ghosts, this may not be practical when in the thick of dealing with life.


Fortunately, there is another way that is far simpler yet highly effective. First, though, it’s worth looking at the nature of fear before working out how to deal with it.


Only two places to put your attention

Imagine a simple model of the world in which there is you, and everyone/thing else. In this world, there are only two places you can put your attention: on you or on anyone else.


Why should placing your attention matter? Because where you put your attention is your focus of concern. Where you put your attention is what you are looking out for.


Put your attention on you, and you are looking out for you, over others. You are declaring in effect that there is danger/scarcity/lack present and that you need to look out for you. You are also declaring, implicitly, that your focus of concern is not the other person or people and that you are not looking out for them.


Trust is a function of where you put your attention

When, subconsciously, they get that, which they will from your demeanour, they won’t trust you, so a great relationship or a successful situational outcome with them is unlikely.


Conversely, when you put your attention on others and soe not on yourself, you are saying that you are there for them; that they are the focus of your concern in this situation, and so they can trust you. Once they trust you, rapport will grow, and the situational outcome is much more likely to be better for all involved.


Put your attention on them

So how do you deal with anxiety-producing situations like those above? In all of them simply:

  • Take your attention off you, and put it on them.

And you will find that your personal concerns, fears, and worries will dissipate and that the other person will respond far more warmly to you.


Sounds too simple to be true? Although the model of the world quoted is simplistic, think of how you are in everyday life: you are either looking out for you or for other people, but because your mind evolved to have you survive, you can safely assume you are looking out for you most of the time.


If you think that, “No, no, no! I am always there for other people. I spend most of my day being there for other people.” take a moment to think what that servitude might be buying you. The answer can be very deep like “I get to be right that I’m not good enough.” or “I get others to think more highly of me.” for example. It doesn’t actually matter. Putting your attention on the other person is very effective.


A practical example

Here’s what happened to me one time when I used to interview famous fund managers in front of professional audiences in the City of London:


I was at the back of the Plaisterers' Hall in London, with my guest, an industry icon, behind an audience of about two hundred investment professionals and press, waiting to go on.


The organiser announces from the stage: “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome your host, Christopher Jones-Warner!” and in that moment I experience something I’ve never experienced before or since: my mouth goes completely dry and my heart starts beating like a drum. I am paralysed with fear and can hardly speak.


But I recognise in that moment that my attention is completely on me and my personal concerns: will this interview go well? Will I look good? Will they like me? And of course, as I was at stake, my ego was trying to stop me from proceeding.


In that split second I thought, “If I were being there for them (the audience), what would I do?” and I didn’t even have to think it through because, in effect, I had reprogrammed my brain with a different concern. I beckoned to my guest and strode confidently down to the front of the hall, turned, and made eye contact with my audience (when you connect with anyone, fear becomes irrelevant). “Hello, I’m Christopher Jones-Warner and today we have the great pleasure of meeting . . . “ The interview was a success.


So in front of any important situation, you are likely to experience anxiety. This is perfectly natural but, not only is your attention on you, causing you anxiety, but you will now respond by trying to deal with that anxiety, focusing your attention on you even more!


Use your anxieties as a red flag

Instead, use the presence of any anxiety as a red flag indicating that you have allowed your attention to dwell on you. Consciously shift your attention and put it on them, eg “If I were being there for them right now, what would I do?’ And do it.


This doesn’t mean be a doormat. In a situation like that, it means listen, be present, get them so that they get, that you get, where they are, and then state your position, including establishing your boundaries if that is appropriate.


The presence of any anxiety is an indication that your attention is on you and is an invitation, if you are aware of it, to put it on the other, enabling you to connect with them and transcend your fears.


And situations involving ex governors of the Bank of England?

The situation with the dinner guest, above, actually happened. I had no official dinner duties that evening and was imbibing pre-dinner drinks freely (though not copiously) when I felt a tap on my shoulder and the Chairman asked me: “Would you care to take in our guest?”


My heart sank at the prospect of lil’ ol’ me having to converse with one of the great brains of the planet for an entire evening. But then I realised that my attention was on me. I was not thinking of our guest at all. I asked myself: “Who would I have to be for him to have a great evening?” Whatever I came up with, it worked - and we did.



Christopher Jones-Warner


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