Step Two: Fear Fact, or Fear Fiction?

In the last newsletter, we covered the first step to having a difficult conversation, unpacking the fear.

The human brain is a meaning-maker that creates stories to explain its experiences. It then defaults to a host of tendencies–science calls them cognitive biases–to convince itself that the stories are true. But our internal narratives about what’s happening in the world around us don’t necessarily reflect the facts. It’s important to discern between fact and fiction, between what is actually true compared to what could be a story our brain is spinning.

I was reminded of this in a profound way during a coaching session with an extremely intelligent, capable and successful client who described the anxiety she suffered in her role as a financial adviser when conducting preliminary phone consultations.

I’m just not assertive,” she said.

In trying to determine what was keeping her stuck in this thought, we discussed scenarios where she experienced the most discomfort. Initially, she recalled feeling hesitant to bother people with the calls–even though they were scheduled and expected. Further discussion revealed she was most off-balance talking to people she already knew.

Which bears repeating: She felt more comfortable talking to strangers than to people she knew.

Assertiveness, a firm prerequisite for cold calling, was clearly not the problem—an “Aha” moment that paved the way for more revelations. For example, she realized that her discomfort began seconds before asking specific questions about personal finances—notwithstanding that she made it perfectly clear that specific answers were not required.

The information “ask,” then, was also not the issue. We had to strip away beliefs and self-judgments, to reach down to my client’s most basic, primal feelings.

I asked, “In the seconds before you ask a specific question about personal finances, what are you afraid of?”

After a few thoughtful moments, she answered, “I’m afraid they’ll get angry at me for asking.”

Another revelation. Given the information we had already highlighted, there was no logical basis for her fear. But logic and fear aren’t necessarily aligned. Shedding light on my client’s dark worry gave us a chance to go a step further and compare reality to the stories her mind was creating.


We differentiated between Fear Fact and Fear Fiction by identifying what was true and what narratives she was creating to contradict them:

Fear Facts:
She was providing a service that she developed through extensive training and hard work.
She was offering her time and expertise with integrity and professionalism.
She was asking questions so that she could do the best job possible.

Fear Fiction:
She was not assertive enough.
She was bothering people.
The people she called would get angry at her questions.

This exercise allowed my client to reconnect with her logical thoughts: The facts were clear and presented no reason for anyone to become upset by her questions. The trick was to override the story her brain was fabricating. Raising her awareness was an essential first step.


As is the case with most new skills, practice makes perfect. This valuable exercise would require repetition and resolve if my client was going to be successful in re-training her brain. After all, we humans have sticky minds and will revert to old habits in a heartbeat. Consistency and tenacity are key when it comes to shifting what’s keeping you stuck.

Practice: Think about difficult conversations you’ve had and how many of them have involved “fear fiction” instead of “fear fact?” Did you find yourself going down a rabbit-hole based on narratives your brain was creating or did you stick to what you knew to be true?

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