In my life, I’ve been called many things. I’ve been called a cat lover. I’ve been called a wallflower. I’ve been called names, most of them Nicole. But I’m almost never called a good communicator.
Possibly that’s because the prospect of saying anything aloud can make me anxious. Glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking. Or just speaking in public. At the hair salon, I:
- mentally rehearse telling the hairdresser what I want,
- panic and forget all language besides “don’t cut it too short,”
- watch the hairdresser snip off six inches and ask for my opinion, and
- tell her I love it.
I know no other way.
So when I chose to attend the LeaderShape Institute, a national six-day leadership development camp sponsored by my university, I was skeptical. Maybe I’d make some friends, but I’d gone through enough leadership programs with repetitive and vague content to keep my expectations low. I only applied because some friends highly recommended the “life-changing experience” and said there’d be free food.
During the first hour of lecture, one facilitator asked for five volunteers. Four students raised their hands. There was an awkward beat. I reluctantly raised my hand before noticing too late that there was a section of people who’d actually wanted to volunteer to the right of me. But by then I’d made eye contact, so I accepted my fate.
I was to read and interpret “Leadership begins with the heart and ends with results.” Most of the time when I speak, my mind is so blank it’s like I’m not thinking. (I’m told that other people get to formulate thoughts before they talk? Sorcery.)
So saying anything, for me, is like freestyling unless I’ve planned a bit beforehand. In this case, I’d written before on servant leadership, so I regurgitated some of that content easily.
During the first break, two people came up to me separately and said they’d liked hearing me speak, which caught me off guard because I’ve always assumed everyone suffers when I open my mouth. Maybe they were just being nice, but no one had actively, directly complimented me for that before.
Something had changed. In our family cluster (small groups of ~10 in our cohort of 50), I participated the most I’ve ever in my life. I spoke so often that I began to worry I was participating too much. It definitely wasn’t because I was voicing more intelligent things.
Things that came out of my mouth during LeaderShape
- Impressions of parrot squawks.
- *to an invited guest leader at a networking dinner* I’ve heard the politest way to eat cherry tomatoes at dinners is to not eat them. (She proceeded to put her fork down.)
- Can I roast s’mores on this clothes hanger?
- Let’s ration out chicken salad sandwiches over the week.
- Is cereal soup?
Yet I felt freer, like a new person, and it was wonderful.
Toward the end of LeaderShape, after numerous activities and team challenges and an impossible number of metaphors, we held one-on-one feedback sessions with each member of our family clusters. I discussed with one family cluster member (FCM) about my public speaking phenomenon.
Me: I think it was the supportive environment. I’m not sure how, but I felt safe. Like, I felt like I could walk up to any other person here and talk to them and they’d have to be nice to me.
FCM: Yeah, it’s really open. Maybe it was setting that tone with guidelines in the beginning.
Me: Maybe I just need even more validation than I thought I did.
FCM: For me, also, once I spoke that one time in the large group, I got this sense of legitimacy. It was like after I participated there, I could do so in the family cluster, too.
Me: Oh. Like once you’re seen as speaking confidently from the outset, it’s much easier to live up to.
I thought of the times I used to feel self-conscious of how little I was contributing to class discussions. How that would make me contribute even less. How I would get so anxious as the clock ticked closer and closer to the end of the period, and my throat would hollow like something was stuck, yet when I opened my mouth there would be only air.
And I looked at my LeaderShape nametag, affixed with superlatives given to me by fellow participants throughout camp. One said “outgoing.” Two said “leader.” It’s difficult to describe, that feeling of possibility. Like even though so many factors had probably had to go right for this outcome, I knew that this version of myself existed, and always could be.
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