A few years ago, an old friend caught me off guard when he said to me, “You’re not afraid of anything.” In an instant, I felt stunned, and slightly flattered.
Of all the people I’ve known, he was the last person from whom I ever expected to hear this. Many years before, we dated, albeit briefly. Our relationship ended because our actions resembled like-sided magnets. Pushing against each other at every turn, we let go of the relationship that simply didn’t work. A few years later, he asked me to return to the hospital and work for the EMS unit he ran. Because I respected his knowledge and his ability to lead, I agreed. We’ve remained friends since.
Working in EMS is difficult from the get-go. Working in a male-dominated field makes it just that much harder. Add to this the stress that flows from trying to manage critical medical conditions, and you can be sure that fear has played a role in my life. This friend trained me as a paramedic. He watched me resuscitate patients, hold the hands of distressed family members and challenge physicians. He saw me do what he taught me to do. In all that time, despite all those situations, we never talked about fear.
When I turned 18, I passed the test to become an ocean lifeguard. Although it doesn’t have the waves and rip currents seen in the Pacific, the Atlantic should not be underestimated. One of the seminal tenets of ocean lifeguarding is to respect the power of the ocean. Our captain made clear that a healthy fear of the ocean would make us appropriately cautious. From that cautious place, he suggested that we might just learn a few things, and we might be able to save a few lives. As he predicted, those things happened. And, one more fundamental thing took place: my healthy fear transformed into respect.
What did I ultimately learn? Do the work necessary to transform fear into respect. I’ve never forgotten this lesson. Looking back, I believe I’ve woven this tenet into each job I’ve held.
I have always believed that my friend operated without fear. I never observed him act in a way that suggested he was afraid, but certain comments he made that day suggested otherwise. It struck me as odd that he thought I operated without fear. After my initial surprise at his comment, I responded by saying, “You’re kidding, right? I am always afraid. But I never let it stop me.”
Never let fear stop you. Instead, take that fear, acknowledge that it is a healthy response, and then use it as motivation. Do the work. Undoubtedly, the transformation from fear into respect will follow.
As a litigator, I am often called to prepare witnesses for deposition and trial. I have a few instructions for every witness. One seminal instruction relates to how a person answers any question: think quickly, speak slowly. Indeed, the stress of a trial or a deposition can trigger nervousness, and nervousness can lead to quick responses that are sometimes not thought through. My instruction to my clients and witnesses is intended to remind them that there is no set period within which an answer must be given. Rather, they should take their time and answer the question posed carefully and thoughtfully.
Outside of litigation, I’ve encountered situations that parallel trials and depositions. I’ve encountered people who are aggressive, who push for answers. Instinctually, I’ve felt compelled to provide an answer to their questions, even when the question seems inappropriate, or when time was needed to put together information to provide a proper answer. Stress and nervousness crept into these exchanges. I know I gave answers simply to stop the aggressor from continuing to push. But, one of two things happened after I answered: either the aggressor continued to push, or my answer was not entirely correct. Neither result gave me solace. Have you ever experienced this?
Since I became a litigator 15 years ago, I’ve tried to follow what I teach. Now, when I encounter that pushy person who wants information, that person who is aggressive and is demanding a response, I take the time to think through the question, to process and analyze the information available to me, and then to provide an answer. When I am unwilling to answer a question, I now say, “I am not comfortable answering that question.” When I don’t have an answer because I don’t have the facts, I now say, “I don’t know that answer. But, once I locate that information, I will follow up with you.”
It is up to you how you want to proceed. If you find yourself in similar situations, set your boundaries with your response. Take the time to think, process, analyze and then respond. It is not a sprint. This isn’t Jeopardy. You are not being timed. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.