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what are your strategies for dealing with fear?

April 15, 2014

We all experience fear and we all have strategies for dealing with it. Applying for a new job; asking for a pay rise; submitting proposals; cold calling; annual performance review; submitting proposals; asking someone out – all can be rich sources of fear!

Not surprisingly when the question was posed recently in a LinkedIn group for sales professionals it provoked a large number of responses. They ranged from one liners like Take action. “The antidote to fear is action”  to lengthy and wide-ranging posts from people who clearly have many years of sales experience.

The question is an important one because as author and sales coach Jill Konrath (who posed the original question) reflected … the other thing I discovered as I thought through my first year in sales — was that my ability to deal with this fear was what made me successful. It kept me in the game till I actually learned how to sell.

So what advice did people have to offer?

  1. A common piece of advice was to practice – something I am very passionate about. Role playing possible sales conversations is said to build confidence and self-esteem.  I agree.
  2. Taking action by just facing your fear and picking up the phone and calling was another popular suggestion. A more direct form of practice I suppose. The common wisdom seemed to be that you will improve your sales call by making sales calls – a possibly higher stakes version of the role play. Absolutely.
  3. Keeping busy so you don’t have time to think about being afraid, preparing well (even by repeatedly playing back a recording of yourself) or saying to yourself it isn’t personal – the person on the other side of the conversation doesn’t want to hurt you, also got a mention. Yes.
  4. One alternative was to suggest that some people just aren’t cut out for it so make that clear up front and weed them out early – or “find the fearless” among the young who don’t know that they should be afraid! Perhaps.

Regardless of what you think of the answers I think they are asking the wrong question and in doing so they are trying to treat the symptoms and not the cause.

Fear, real fear of the oh my god the lion is going to eat me kind, is critical to our survival. It is designed to cause a change in behaviour like freezing or running away. In that respect advice like remember the other person in the sales conversation doesn’t want to hurt you makes good sense. But we aren’t expecting a prospect to eat us so what are we afraid of?

What we fear is that they will say “no”.

That’s all. One word. No. So why does one word have the same power to instill fear as a lion that might want to eat us?

It is because of the implications that one word has for a number of aspects of ourselves that we care about deeply. You can see some of them in Jill Konrath’s own comments to the discussion:

I felt fear that I wouldn’t make it in sales. I was scared that I couldn’t make my monthly quota. And, when I finally did, I was fearful that I couldn’t do it again.

Some of the things I think we all care deeply about are:

  • Income. A “no” can mean no income. It can mean no income for me and my family.
  • Professional reputation. A “no” can mean my reputation suffers. Too many no’s and my competence may be called into question. If my boss doubts my competence she may decide I am not suited for the job which would mean no income. See point above.
  • Self-confidence. A “no” could mean I am not as suited for this job as I thought I was. See point above.
  • Self-esteem. A “no” can mean I am no good. A no could be a rejection of who I am. See point above.

Holding onto a handrail for supportThose are the no’s that we do not want to hear. Those are the no’s that we fear. They strike at the heart of who we think we are and the things we are most interested in protecting and enhancing.

In Silvan Tomkins’ Affect Script Psychology what I have just described are the classic triggers for what Tomkins called the shame affect. Tomkins believed we had nine innate affects – interest, fear, startle, distress, anger, enjoyment, disgust, dismell and shame. For sound evolutionary reasons the shame affect is hardwired into us to let us know when something is getting in the way of something good that we want.

It needs to feel bad in order to capture our attention and it feels bad in proportion to our level of interest or desire in obtaining the positive outcome. You cannot not trigger these innate affects – you simply could not live without them.

Generating income is something into which many of us invest a lot of time and energy. We all want to be thought well of by others and particularly by our partner, our friends, our peers and our employers. As a result our level of interest in obtaining, and maintaining, both our income and our professional reputation is high. Any impediment to that interest triggers the shame affect and we feel bad, very bad. (That is part of what is happening when people are made redundant.)

What makes it worse is that we are clever creatures and, once we have survived our teenage years, we can project into the future and anticipate the bad things that might happen to us. We learn to anticipate events that might trigger the shame affect in us and we do what we can to avoid them.

Our affect system is the cause of all the symptoms and it is the place you need to direct your awareness. If you want strategies to “deal with fear” the better questions to ask are:

What are my strategies for dealing with the shame generated by my anticipating that someone will say “no” to me?
What are my strategies for dealing with the shame generated when they do say no to

Answers to the first question are what gets you to pick up the phone and make the first call, the answers to the second are what keeps you making those calls even if they repeatedly say “no”. It is what keeps you in the game until you actually learn how to sell, how to get to “yes!”

I would go so far as to say that the best sales people have no shame and I will tell you why that is in my next post.


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After you have subscribed, send this post on to your friends. Go on. You know at least one person who should read this post and three more who could use a bit of shaking up… seriously. Do it now. You read this far so send it on! I promise they won’t judge you or think less of you if you do.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ratnadeep permalink
    April 15, 2014 10:20 am

    Great Post Paul. Looking forward to next one!


  1. the best sales people have no shame | finding my own Way

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