The Fear of Private Speaking

2016 September 8
by Dr. Zachary White

Few of us like being the center of attention. As we stand apart from others, in front of others—our bodies begin taking us places we don’t often experience.  Hands trembling, face blushing, heart racing, and voice crackling—we know every word and movement will be judged.  Judgments about not just what we’re saying and what we look like to others—but judgments about who we are.

As someone who has taught countless people how to do this thing called public speaking, I understand the apprehension and dread associated with public speaking—but there is a growing fear in contemporary life that is as deep as our fear of public speaking.  The only difference is that few people notice this fear—our fear of private speaking.  Creating connections with another human being can be as daunting as public speaking because personal engagement  . . .

  • Requires us to open ourselves to another person. Interpersonal engagement means a willingness to interact beyond a quick smile or a generic hello.  It means slowing down long enough to relate beyond the protection of clichés and comments about the weather.  Most of us walk through these moments, perfecting the “I’m busy” look that disinvites interruption.  It’s not that we’re not nice, we just convince ourselves that we don’t have time for our schedules to be co-opted by others.  In private speaking, we don’t walk onto a stage—no, we walk into someone’s life.  We don’t look up at speakers, we look across, up close and within reach of the person in front of us, reminding ourselves that we’re particularly vulnerable.
  • Asks us to embrace difference. This means listening to someone who might not agree with us.  Someone who might say something that challenges us.  Someone who might represent something we are not comfortable with.  This kind of willing connection with another requires us to go where the conversation and the interaction transports us, oftentimes beyond the safety of our habitual beliefs and expectations.  This can be scary territory for those of us who always like to type in our destination into Google Maps before we depart.  Public speaking allows people to walk in, speak, and walk away.  Private engagement, on the other hand, necessitates a willingness to be changed, not simply by what is said or proclaimed, but by what we create with another person.
  • Is remarkably inefficient. Interpersonal connection is completely inconvenient.  It can’t be planned like a public speech.  It happens when we least expect it, in the course of everyday life.  Not when we carefully plan it into our schedules or send out a neat and tidy meeting request.  For many of us, the anxiety of not knowing when, and under what conditions, connection might occur is overwhelming.  Since connection can happen anywhere—at the grocery store, walking your dog, waiting for a doctor’s visit—we can’t prepare for it like we can for a formal speech.  Connection is possible all the time, anywhere and everywhere.  Only when we allow ourselves to follow the inefficiency of possibility can we know the joys of unanticipated connection with those we may have least expected it.
  • Motivates us to care beyond ourselves. We can’t just listen.  We can’t just nod our heads.  Authentic connection means a willingness to share parts of ourselves that are called into action because of another.  Opening ourselves to others means that we have to break the association that protecting ourselves always means concealment.  Sometimes it may, but other times, hearing ourselves speak out loud to another allows us to see ourselves anew.  Giving ourselves permission to create connection by acknowledging challenge and struggle requires just as much courage as walking up to a podium in front of thousands.  Mixing our sorrows and joys and struggles and fears with others’ sorrows and joys means relinquishing our role as mere spectator and becoming a participant in the unfolding stages of our everyday lives.
  • Invites us to risk proving ourselves wrong. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we are alone—that it’s us against the world. No one understands.  No one can understand. No one cares.  No one can care.  People are different than they used to be.  Life must be coarser.  More inhumane.    Genuinely engaging others means we might prove ourselves wrong.  That person, yes, that person we’ve walked by too many times to count but have never approached, that person may remind us that the world isn’t as different as we thought.  That person we believed couldn’t understand us and our situation might very well understand what we’re going through in ways we would never have been able to predict.  Unlike public speaking, private engagement means we must do more than tell others what we already think and know.  Authentic engagement means allowing the person in front of us to create themselves in ways that may contradict who we thought they were.

I applaud people who stand above us on the stage, but I am much more moved by those who engage me on the small but poignant stages of my life—the unplanned, non-strategic encounters that don’t necessarily call attention to themselves, but bring life and meaning to the now.

Character and leadership aren’t only demonstrated behind a podium, or in a debate. No, they are also revealed in moments we seek out with another when it’s least convenient.  Deeply camouflaged within the recesses of everyday busyness, this kind of courage reaches out to us and allows us to reach out beyond ourselves . . .

4 Responses leave one →
  1. September 8, 2016

    This is so so so true. Thank you – sharing.

  2. April permalink
    September 9, 2016

    Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom! I really appreciate this post!

  3. September 10, 2016

    Thanks, April!

  4. September 10, 2016

    Thanks, Donna!

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