Working With Your Clients’ Fear
“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth” — Pema Chödrön.
As coaching and consulting professionals, we often find ourselves accompanying our clients as they navigate their spoken and unspoken fears. Am I enough? Can I adapt? What does the future hold? These fears are a natural part of the growth process, particularly when our identities, beliefs, and values are at stake.
Dr. David Drake, the founder of Narrative Coaching and Integrative Development, offers a fresh perspective on fear in working with clients. He invites us to see fear not as a challenge for them to overcome but as a character in their unfolding story that illuminates what they need most right now. He also offers a framework for helping clients move through their fear, one small step at a time.
We’ll explore all of this and more in the blog below. To start, let’s hear from Dr. David Drake:
A Note From David:
I went to four different schools by the time I was in second grade, often on my own. I coped with my fears by developing an early love of reading and a rich inner life. Both have served me well.
Luckily, my second-grade teacher opened up the space where I could slowly move through my fears to learn about belonging. I came to see myself in new ways and grow as a result — a pattern that would repeat itself with my amazing sixth-grade teacher, my freshman English teachers, my youth group advisor, and more. Key moments became portals to new worlds.
Each one helped me to step more fully into myself amid the fears that were present — and, as a result, helped me to see myself and what was possible in more expansive ways. Like them, we are often there to open doors once closed by fear so that our clients can see themselves and be themselves in new ways.
Understanding Fear and Its Impact on Goal Setting
Fear is a natural, healthy response to perceived threats in our lives, and there are indeed circumstances where fear is a justified and appropriate reaction. However, the focus here is on the fears that hinder us from achieving what we want for ourselves. These fears stem from our stories about what might happen in the future or about what happened in the past, each of which is detached from what IS in the present moment.
This detachment is why we at The Moment Institute focus on the present moment in what we teach rather than traditional goal-setting for the future. Projecting goals into an imagined future creates a chasm in which fear can flourish and sabotage our progress. Keeping the clients in the present allows them to face their fears within the safety of our coaching or consulting relationship. This is one of the many reasons behind one of our core beliefs: What clients often need most (and almost always lack) is a safe place to practice. To confront their fear, to try out a new stance or voice, to let their guard down to face deeper truths and more.
Exhaling Around Fear
The first step to helping your clients work through their fears is to invite them to become aware when they hold their breath. When fear strikes, the reflexive response is to gasp and take in more oxygen to prime their body for a fight-or-flight response. The problem arises when they keep holding their breath — often triggering a series of biological reactions (a pounding heart, clouded thoughts, a sense of suffocation) that are not conducive to accurately assessing their situation or making a clear-headed decision.
Teaching clients to exhale around their fear helps them to release from their current state or story so as to make space to breathe with what IS present. This enables them to take a deeper breath in as a resource for what they are being invited to be or do in a new way.
Fear as a Character in Their Story
Another strategy for helping clients to see their fear more openly is to approach it as a character in their story and ask: What does this character represent? What does it need? What is it asking of us in this moment?
This also allows your client to stay in the present moment, notice the stories they are telling themselves related to their fear, and create the space for alternative stories they can tell themselves instead. This exploration gives clients the courage to navigate critical thresholds as they shift their self-perception and worldview.
Working With Fear To Cross Thresholds
Small actions performed consistently yield more significant results than bigger ones done sporadically. With this in mind, it’s best to work with fear in small steps so as to lessen defenses and scaffold confidence. This is particularly important at threshold moments which represent significant shifts in the growth process, like when a client takes something done in a coaching session and wants to try it out in the client’s life. To do this, you can use the Narrative Coaching model as follows:
Start with: What are they afraid will happen? Then move through these questions:
- What can they accept in this moment?
- What can they be aware of in this moment?
- What can they act out in this moment?
- What can they be accountable for in this moment?
Keeping each question grounded in this moment allows you to assess what they’re ready for so that you can best support them in taking small, manageable steps right now.
Accompanying Clients Through Their Fearful Moments
With the above framework in mind, let's explore in more detail how each question can support your clients in effectively moving through their fear and across their developmental thresholds.
1. What can they accept in this moment?
Fear often constricts our awareness. The opportunity here, through your breath and presence, is to invite the client to stay in the what is of the present moment. What can they accept for now, even as they recognize it may be part of a longer journey?
2. What can they be aware of in this moment?
Fear often constricts our attention. The opportunity here is to invite them into what if, not about what happened before or might happen later but about the steps that can be taken now (which, seen this way, are often quite doable).
3. What can they act out in this moment?
Fear often constricts our sense of agency. The opportunity here is to invite them to remember what matters most to them and to activate their fuller self in the moment in service of it. This can be through guided imagery, centering exercises, etc.
4. What can they be accountable for in this moment?
Fear often constricts our sense of autonomy. The opportunity here is to invite them to remember what works for them and to focus on the next step to be taken. In doing so, help them to stay in the present moment and notice the steps as they take them.
I have found this process quite helpful in my own life and in my role as a parent and as a coach. Give it a try for yourself and then with a client to see for yourself. The key to helping clients cross the thresholds of change and growth in their lives and work is to address their fears in the process and take one step at a time.
Join the Live Conversation With Dr. David Drake
This discussion of fear comes from the May session in our free Beyond Coaching Experience series. You can watch the replay for a more in-depth discussion of the Narrative Coaching framework introduced above.
While our replays are a powerful source of insight and inspiration, it is even more powerful to experience these sessions live. We invite you to experience this for yourself by registering for the next BCE here. We can’t wait for you to join us!