Avoiding situations that frighten us is the most natural thing in the world.
For many people, speaking up in English triggers an immediate ‘fight or flight’ response, the same physiological reaction that happens when we’re running from a lion.
Many very talented people have experienced awful moments in important meetings where they start to say something, freeze, overthink, and end up incoherently saying half sentences. They feel stupid afterward and beat themselves up about it.
For some people it’s a threat to their identity. It can turn into impossible anxiety and stress.
This specific anxiety has been researched by psychologists (See: Foreign Language Anxiety: Horwitz and Young, 1991) and it can hit at any stage of language level, even if you’re fluent in the language. We can just call it The Fear.
How Bad Can It Get?
The Fear isn’t just struggling to find the right words – that happens to everybody. (It happens to me all the time even in my native languages).
People who suffer from The Fear really suffer from it.
What exactly is this?
There are 3 main causes of this type of anxiety. They may surprise you, but after over 15 years of coaching hundreds of leaders and teams, this is what I’ve observed: none;”>
- A native English speaker who matters to you corrects you or even criticizes you for making the same error for the millionth time – a family member, a partner, or a boss.
- False beliefs about how and why we learn a foreign language. As in, “I need to learn all those grammar rules once and for all”, or “I’m not good at languages”. These are myths.
- Unrealistic standards – Aspiring to achieve native-like perfection. Not your goal.
- It is entirely within your power to take control so you can increase your confidence, impact and visibility.
How do you deal with The Fear?
These tips can help overcome it:
- Stop avoiding discomfort. This is when real learning can take place. Stop avoiding those conversations.
- Free yourself from the negative feedback trap. Tell your well-meaning native speaker husband/friend/colleague/boss to stop correcting your mistakes. It’s not helping you, it’s blocking you.
- Hack your nerves with this breathing technique. I know this is like telling an angry person to calm down. But you’ve got to relax to perform well.
This ancient breathing exercise helps reduce stress in seconds.
It’s all about taking a big inhale through your mouth and then breathing out
slowly through your nose:
Breathe in for 3 seconds
Hold for 4 seconds
Breathe out for 5 seconds
By increasing the duration of your exhale after taking a deep breath, you trigger a “relaxation response”. There’s extensive neuroscientific research on the effects of such mindful breathing exercises on health, mental health and cognition.
One less known benefit of this kind of breathing exercise is that it actually helps you remember words when you’re speaking, even under stress.
Do this exercise before and during meetings. You will not only keep cool, you will be more fluent!