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At our April speaker event in London, Hilary Gallo presented to us ‘Hacking Fear’ – what we can we learn if we treat fear as our friend?

With a background as a lawyer, Hilary Gallo frequently found himself fronting large scale negotiations on behalf of clients, where he was frequently under excessive pressure.  Occasionally he would almost, under stress and without warning, freeze at a critical point.  He noticed that when we negotiate we can easily adopt inflexible positions which meant that we lose the ability to be flexible and to negotiate strategically.  This is clearly limiting and he set about to try to analyse the situation and find a solution.

He concluded that his and other’s reaction was perhaps as a result of irrational fear rather than anything tangible and he set about trying to identify the circumstances and the trigger for the reaction.

The Fear Hack has three phases:

          Understand >  Reframe  >  Grow

  • The first phase is understanding one’s own and others’ fears.
  • The second is a phase where we challenge the story we have adopted and in which one tries to reframe the narratives of fear.
  • The final stage is the ‘grow’ stage when, having learned and understood the source of the fear, one can choose a different strategy which moves us towards the fear

1. Understanding Fear

When we face fear it stands as a huge wall in front of us.  But what we need to do is start to “Befriend” Fear and instinctively address it in a positive way as an automatic reaction.  While undertaking the research Hilary found that anyone working with the mind and acquiring or using knowledge is more at risk of facing a wall of fear, with all its negative effects: those with manual work were less exposed. The imagination is a superpower but that power needs to be understood and managed because it can have a negative effect as well as a positive one.

Mitigating the effects of fear is all about the importance of “psychological safety”.  Leaders are most at risk because they have to confront different fears as a result of having to confront different environments concurrently.

The Fear Hack uses a “Fear Wall” where people get to see their fear in context with other’s fears. This results in much discussion and many breakthroughs as to what fear is for us and for others.

What kind of fears do we have to try to address?

  • Standing in front of people
  • Being judged negatively
  • Letting people down
  • Fear of Failure
  • Dealing with adversarial correspondence.  Something curiously powerful and mitigating about the less impersonal post note attached to any correspondence.
  • Health fears: we are concerned not so much about the inevitability of ultimate death but the real fear is that we are not making the most of our lives and that we are  facing down the realisation.

Addressing fear is best achieved by “Binding People Together”.   The feeling that  “We are in this together” has the effect of a challenge not being a unique experience and we have higher levels of resilience working in teams.

It is important to draw a distinction between “Fear” and “Danger”.  Danger is real and is a tangible threat.  Fear however is “not real”: rather it is just a narrative and a story conjured up in our minds.  How many times have we been in a large building on one’s own and we are unnerved by noises which we can’t understand but which could easily be simply the central heating boiler bubbling?   The mind gives us too much room to manouevre, resulting in fear which goes so far as to embed patterns of anxiety and behaviour.

Extrapolating forward, fear is freer to respond as long as a range of uncertainties are accepted as possibilities.  One way in which the mind can control fear is to reduce uncertainty by adopting a more relaxed frame of mind such that it will not allow fear to take hold.  Stand up comedians are a good example of how confronting fear can be done through sharing and collective support.

Another feature of fear is that it is Forward Looking.  The problem is that it takes hold when there is uncertainty about our direction of travel.  This is a hugely personal matter and determining direction can help us to hack fear, the most effective way being to identify a small series of steps, allowing ourselves the luxury of changing a step where and when necessary.

70%-90% of senior leaders are affected by “imposter syndrome”, and the problem is that leadership can be a lonely existence.  Many avoid the feeling by staying in their own comfort zone but this neither confronts the problem nor does it confront the fear which it feeds off.

Fear makes the “wolf look bigger”: however trying to crash it out of the way does not work.  Different frameworks of power need to be in place such that you can use different elements to prise it away.  Observing children can be a useful experience: many boys are fearless with their activities and have internal power:  we can learn a great deal about understanding our own fears from observing them.

2. Hacking

The Hack part is about how we fundamentally shift the narrative.

Fear acts as a sign which says “Keep Out”.  However identifying the “Sign” is critical because once seen and witnessed it becomes “Safe to Engage”.  All useful material to help us engage positively is “located” beyond the sign.  Taking this one stage further, what scares us holds the greatest clue to why we as individuals develop fear and understanding this enables us to take steps to shift the narrative. What we need to achieve is a complete reframing of that Sign.  The mind along with the Ego instructs us to escape, with the Ego trying to keep us safe.   Causes of fear can be complex but once the Sign is identified and the routes beyond visible, hacking the fear can be so much easier.

For most of us, two common causes of fear are identified:

  • Extrapolation forward – fear of failure, as previously mentioned
  • Scared to stand in front of room – panic in the moment

Unfamiliar personal “States” puts the nervous system on high alert.   We all perform differently if we feel safe: it is rather like a traffic light system with the nervous system moving between different levels of consciousness.  In order to address this we need to find ways of managing the nervous system – to think about our “state” – our being – as well as what we are wanting to do.  In other words we need to develop strategies for calming the nervous system and find a “Positive State”enabling a sense of direction.  If we fail to do this, fear takes over.

Another way to look at Fear is as an addiction: fears are habits.  And like other addictions people need help in building strategies to deal with fear.    Do we breathe or not breathe?  And how deeply do we breathe or does it really not help?  Different people have different ways of coping with fear as an addiction but finding a way of dealing with it is the core foundation of strategy  Unpicking the roots of the addiction is critical to devising and implementing the strategy.

The crucial thing is not to allow fear to dominate. The way to address this is to identify the point at which worry become disabling, which comes back to the identification of the “Sign” as discussed earlier..

3. Grow Your Strategy

Fear is in essence a socially and behaviourally derived emotional response to protect ourselves. Psychologically speaking, fear can be build up over years through processes such as classical conditioning and social learning theories, where repeated behaviours and experiences have enhanced or cemented our fears.

Identifying one’s relationships and containers of safety enables us to think clearly about alternative strategies for Growing out of Fear.

One should try to explore routes out of fear as part of the conversation: while this incurs elements of personal risk, this is infinitely preferable to ignoring the problem.  Taking mini paces along the exit path enables change of direction as and when necessary or appropriate.


So, there are three main stages:

*          Understanding stage

*          Reframe

*          Grow – opening up better strategies

Understanding:  It is quite normal to feel discomfort but what is important is to explore and experiment.  While there is a risk of taking one or two steps back, you inevitably move forward, albeit perhaps slowly at first.

Reframe: it is not wrong “to have butterflies”.  However, denying does not help: what can help is regarding the reframing process as “excitement” rather than tackling fear.  The thoughts of fearhave to be identified, welcomed and then embraced as something positive, difficult though this may be, then change the narrative.

Grow: People need to feel psychological safety to deal with fear, along with actionable strategies. If we feel safe, we can then welcome a challenge.


In conclusion, how do we approach this, applying the information and approaches supplied from the session:

  • It seems that in the information provided, a lot of psychological theories are touched on or alluded to.    For psychologists, the question is how do we unpack this while ensuring we still ethically adhere to our duty of care.
  • We need to break down what our fears are and where they came from, looking at a roadmap with ways to approach in future.
  • In essence, the ways we can best unpack and properly approach fears which are build up psychologically and emotionally over time, is to use a multi-method approach, drawing on theories from across psychology as well as practical psychological therapies such as Cognitive behavioural therapy, Dialectal behavioural therapy, positive psychology, and critical reasoning approaches.
  • In addition is seems that psychically speaking, using tools such as mindfulness and meditation are best applied for unpacking and addressing fear related anxiety and stress outcomes.

By reframing our fears, using these tools effectively, we can therefore manage and tackle our fears more effectively.

By applying new therapies and methods derived in the likes of dialectal behavioural therapy and CBT, we can find ways to balance our emotional responses and mental reactions to a middle ground area, where we are not reacting purely emotionally.

Areas to consider are the applications going forward, specifically with regards to executing in the business world and ethically speaking, how to ensure that we do not overstep the line into other psychological domains such as clinical psychology ore counselling. It is a fine line and these areas need to be tackled carefully, with well derived methods and approaches routed in statistically proven and established psychological methods.

Report by Richard Taylor.  Additional material contributed with thanks by Nicky Thompson, Board Member

9th April 2019

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