How to Talk About What You Most Dread

“I have a question,” a woman we’ll call Tricia said to me during the break at a leadership training class I was teaching, “and I’d rather not ask it in front of everyone.” Everyone being her colleagues, the other heads of departments at a financial services company.

We stepped outside the classroom. “It’s my number two person, Joe,” she told me. “He’s a good performer but he’s constantly taking credit for things, and goes overboard to try to get visibility. He thinks he’s a team player but it doesn’t feel that way to me or others in the group.”

Hmmm, I wondered, why is she hesitant to talk about this in front of the others? Then, almost as an afterthought she added, “I think he’s after my job.”


There are two issues here:

  1. Joe hogging credit and visibility
  2. Tricia’s fear that Joe is gunning for her job

Normally Tricia would have no problem talking to Joe about the first issue. It’s the second issue that makes the first one hard to discuss. The negative fantasy goes like this: If I talk about Joe’s ambitions I might put the idea in people’s heads. My boss and peers might start to think, “Hey, you know what? Maybe Joe should have her job.”

Tricia’s not alone. We face this double whammy all the time. You bungle a project but don’t talk about it because you fear you’ll get fired. You’re overworked but hesitate to raise it because you worry about exposing your lack of capability. You’re concerned a client isn’t getting enough value but resist mentioning it because you’re afraid you might lose the client.

The first issue — the bungled project, the overwork, the client’s possible dissatisfaction — is public, professional, observable, and matter of fact. It needs to be discussed.

The second issue — the fear — is private, personal, emotional, and often, paralyzing.

Tricia doesn’t know that Joe’s after her job, she just senses and dreads it. No one knows he’ll get fired for a bungled project so ignoring it seems safer than addressing it. But, of course, it’s the opposite. When you go into denial and ignore something, you don’t act. And if you don’t act, you can’t prevent what you fear from happening. In fact, your inaction may even make it more likely.

Here’s a general rule: the more you fear a conversation, the more you probably need to have it. Think of fear as an indicator of a problem that needs to be addressed.

So how do you talk about your fear, dread, insecurity and foreboding? You don’t.

If Tricia raised her concerns about Joe wanting her job, he would immediately deny the accusation and, in so doing, make her feel foolish for raising it. They’ll both leave the conversation with less trust in each other than before. Raising your suspicions about someone’s negative intentions is almost always a bad idea.

But if you don’t talk about your fear and you don’t ignore your fear, what should you do? Sink your teeth into it.

“Tricia, I want you to make an assumption.” I told her, “Assume that Joe is after your job. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s ambitious and you’re in the job that would be his next step. It’s a reasonable assumption.”

In other words, assume the worst case. Assume your job is at risk. Assume you lack capability. Assume your client is planning to leave. Let’s make it even worse: assume everyone else knows it too.

The sooner you accept the situation, the sooner you can do something about it. Instead of shying away from the answers, dive in. Remember: use the fear as a catalyst, not a focus. Your focus needs to be the underlying problem. If you think your boss wants to fire you because of that last project you bungled, ask him to debrief the project and help you plan the next one. If you’re worried that raising the issue of overwork will expose your lack of capability, talk to your boss about increasing your capability to manage the workload. An at-risk client? Let the client know you understand why they might be at risk of defection. Then listen.

We often avoid conversations that make us feel vulnerable. Things that touch us deeply, our fears, our self-image, our future. But here’s the thing: not talking about them is what actually makes us vulnerable. Once we confront the underlying issues — say them out loud, ask about them, explore them — we feel, and become, much stronger, much less vulnerable. And then we can take powerful action.

So, how to deal with dread?

  1. Notice it
  2. Understand the underlying problem it’s signaling
  3. Talk openly about the problem, not the dread
  4. Fix the problem

“Fine,” Tricia responded, “I can see why it would be reasonable for him to want my job. But I’m not ready to leave, and he’s not ready to step into it either. How do I fix the problem?”

“Help him fulfill his ambitions.” I said, “Try it with me.”

“Okay,” she said. “Joe, you’re smart and capable and a strong performer. My job — when you’re ready — could be a good next step for you but I’m not going anywhere for now. What else interests you and how can I help you get there? I’d like to help you grow — whether it’s here or even if it means going to another company.”

“Great,” I told her. “Then you can also talk about what might get in his way. That whether he wants your job or another, taking sole credit when others deserve some is a bad idea. And you can help him perform even better. As an ally. And from a position of strength, not as someone threatened by Joe, but as someone who can help him achieve his goals.”

“Sounds easy,” Tricia said

“It’s not. Not if you’re still afraid.”

She laughed. “Afraid of what?”