I taught a communication course at a local university for a number of years. Mostly what that meant was that I helped college students prepare and deliver speeches in class. That experience repeatedly proved to me what folk-wisdom has long held: public speaking is a terrifying activity. One student even said, “Honestly, I would rather die than give this speech.” And I believed her!
It isn’t only college students who are afflicted with anxiety when it comes to public speaking. Maybe you have stood up to give a speech and noticed as you moved to the podium that your hands were sweaty, your mouth dry, and your breathing rapid. Maybe as you reached down to open your notes you noticed your hands trembling a bit. And maybe if you have never spoken in public, just imagining such an assignment is enough to produce the same effects. What you are observing is the effect of anxiety. Up to 75% of the population is in that same boat with you when it comes to public speaking!
What is it about public speaking that makes us anxious? Viewed from the perspective of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST), it is the experience of being focused on. The entire room is watching. Listening. Paying attention to only you. The moment feels as if everyone is saying at once, “We hope you do well! But we’re afraid you might not do well!” That is a lot to carry. BFST observes that the one who is focused on receives the anxiety of the group.
By the way, it is worth noting for the much smaller percentage of the population that find public speaking (or performing) exhilarating, even transcendent, that this experience too is born on the focused attention of the group. In this case, the focus produces the same internal physiological responses, but the performer identifies those responses as exciting energy rather than fear.
Being focused on changes a person.
The leadership key is to recognize that the one who is focused on is changed by being focused on. Mostly that change makes things harder—like shaking hands and a dry mouth—because being focused on raises our anxiety which simultaneously and automatically lowers our thinking capacity. Sometimes for that smaller percentage group, the change initially feels positive (I live for the stage!) but can ultimately create an over-dependence on the group for a sense of well-being or purpose. In either case, one’s emotional maturity is impaired. That is to say, in the language we use at The Leader’s Journey, our ability to be both defined and connected is diminished.
Dr. Roberta Gilbert, a psychiatrist whose practice is guided by BFST, will sometimes observe with parents she is working with that worry (an intense species of focus!) is a hostile act. Then, when parents worry about their children, she will ask, “Why do you want to be hostile towards your child?”
Do you see the point she is making? Being focused on changes a person. It raises anxiety. Which is to say, it turns on adrenaline and other complex cocktails of hormones; it promotes inflammatory processes; it impairs thinking and creativity. Being focused on does all of that. Whether it is the focus of a college speech class or the focus of a worried parent. Or the focus of a stressed-out CEO. Expressing worry (I am concerned…), doubt, derision, fear of failure, and bleak predictions is like pouring toxic soup into another person’s life. Rather than rising to the challenge, most of us are impaired by it.
What can leaders do?
When I had students who were most challenged by the focused-on-experience of public speaking, I would sometimes just move to the front and stand with them. Right next to them. Sometimes I would engage with them in an interview-style approach to their presentation. Both of these moves had the effect of sharing the focus of the room. Diluting it. Often just a small shift like that was enough for a student to find her voice.
When leaders – of organizations, congregations, or families—observe that one member of the group is receiving the focus— worry about a diagnosis, anger about poor performance, gossip because of a bad decision— we can do two things.
First, observe the process.
Notice with curiosity how the youth pastor underperforms even more as the youth group parents and board members’ complaints increase. Wonder about how conditions change if you see an improvement in the youth pastor’s performance. A parent can recognize the frustrated worry in one’s self as one child in the family falls further and further behind in school. Become skilled at identifying where the anxious focus is directed in your organization.
Second, stand with the one who is being focused on.
Leaders who have observed well can find a way to stand with the one who is being focused on. Speaking to someone’s strengths instead of their weaknesses, making a light, conversational connection without directly addressing any pressing issues, or enlisting the focused on one for a special project are all ways leaders have tried to stand with the recipient of anxious focus.