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The Coaching Diaries - Fear of exposure

Confidence. It’s always been a struggle. Being seen.

David’s a director in the UK arm of a global bank. He’s experienced, capable, personable, successful. From the outside you would never know it was an issue.

Simply walking around the office feels awkward, he says. He heads up a large department, housed in a big, open-plan space. “I want to stop at someone’s desk and have small talk,” he says. “Say ‘I heard about this and well done, really good work.’ But I don’t.” Every time he steps back to his office having not done it, there's a feeling of defeat and failure.

In a less public forum, the conversations are much easier. In the queue at the office coffee shop, say, he can chat with anyone. People are often surprised at first, uncomfortable even, but one-on-one David can put them at ease. The reality is he cares about those in his charge; he wants the best for them, actively supports where he can. It’s the praise conversations, particularly when there’s an audience, that he finds so difficult.

He longs to change - he's tried, but doesn't know if it's possible. Now there’s a business need too. A new policy has been announced to develop a culture of greater engagement between leadership and their teams, including through direct acknowledgement and recognition - exactly what David struggles with. “I feel so embarrassed about it,” he says. “I just think, ‘how can you be a director of the business and have such a fear?’”

“You’re human,” I say. “You get to not be perfect. And you’re trying to change - that’s a wonderful, admirable thing.” There’s a pause. This has hit a nerve. “Thank you,” he says, quietly.

We dig in: what about it feels scary? Not doing it right, he says. Not finding the right words. The exposure, being seen to get it wrong. Another silence. There’s something here. “It’s the one thing I never had growing up,” David says. “There was never any praise. Nothing was ever good enough.”

As soon as he acknowledges this, he dismisses it again. It was a long time ago, he says. He knows he would have liked recognition, knows others would too. It’s no excuse.

So many of us do this. We think that by the time we’re adult – smart, capable, rational adult – we should have learnt it all. Even things that we never got to experience and absorb, we expect ourselves to have somehow picked up nonetheless. Even complex interpersonal skills, that take repeated exposure and practice. Even where we have emotional scars which make it harder still. And where we haven’t yet mastered them, so often, rather than give ourselves the space and support to learn, instead we feel shame and label it failure.

“No wonder you find it hard to do,” I say. “You’ve got to give yourself a chance to learn.”


Most of us have things we'd love to do but we avoid because we don't know how. What do you want to learn? What are you not saying or not doing out of fear of looking bad? How is it holding you back? What's one small step that you can take? Take it, and cheer yourself on - however it goes.


Produced with full client permission, names changed.

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