Help, I’m drowning? Overcoming the fear of speaking in public – a lesson in Speaking Circles

One rainy cold day in February, 2011, I found myself walking towards one of France’s Grand Ecoles, situated in Toulouse, la ville en rose. I was on my way to a training session in a technique called Speaking Circles developed to overcome the fear of public speaking. I had been invited by Peter Lake, who was in fact head of the language department in the Grand Ecole for Engineering and he was just completing his training in Speaking Circles and needed willing volunteers. I didn’t know Peter, but he contacted me through my TEFL Toulouse contacts and so off I went.

My background in teaching and education and later on as a manager, working in Local Government, meant that I didn’t need anymore training in overcoming fear in public speaking. Yes indeed, I still suffered from ‘stage fright’ but only in a minor way and the nerves soon disperse once up there and speaking. I wasn’t a John Lennon, who reputedly was physically sick before every performance of the Beatles, so I suppose I could count myself lucky. I loved public speaking and was considered good at it, nerves aside.

So here I was. At this time, I was also in the throws of finishing off my Shiatsu course in Toulouse and preparing for my impending exams in Paris for September, so busy as usual; however, I was intrigued to be invited and because of my background in communication, I wanted to know more.

On arriving, I found Peter unassumingly arranging the chairs in a rather drab classroom, much the same as I had taught in, in the UK, so I rolled my sleeves up and helped him set up the room. As well as arranging chairs, we were to be filmed doing whatever he needed our cooperation in, so there was a video camera as well. Once the other participants arrived we introduced ourselves (some who had done these training sessions before). Peter explained the process. Speaking circles had been developed by Lee Glickstein in the US for helping actors, primarily, overcome stage fright. “OK, why not”, I thought, being somewhat superior and egotistical, thinking, I’d been here before. Funnily enough I had been, but in another context, in Buddhist meditation.

Peter is a very gentle soul and you cannot help but warm to his soft approach of willing you to succeed and in breaking the ice between people who had come together for the first time. So what was it we had to do? Working in pairs we had to develop a relational presence by looking into each other’s eyes. Yes we could blink, but there was no escape, this was not for the faint hearted who look at you for a fleeting second and that’s it. Firstly for 15 seconds, and that seemed an age, then 30 seconds and then …. a whole minute. By the end of this we were smiling genuinely at each other. Next, we had to take turns in talking to each other, literally whatever came into our heads, there was no subject matter. The next task we had to circulate around the room taking it in turns to work with a different person from the group.

Now, it is no good coming into Speaking Circles with preconceived ideas of how it is to be, remember, I am highly trained and experienced over many years, and to leave my ‘baggage outside’ is not easy for me, lets face it, I have also trained people in public speaking and been in relational presence with clients, as a practicing psychotherapist, huh, I know it all (well almost). To suddenly find myself being told to talk to someone I didn’t know, firstly by staring at them and then on a topic of my own choosing, or indeed to remain silence, was unchartered territory for me, a ship without a captain. Before Speaking Circles, all of my ‘performances’ were in a classroom, or in front of the general public, or politicians, I was well prepared, well researched and ready for anything, ah ha, not so in Speaking Circles. Our next task was, literally to stand up in front of each other and give a presentation, again without preparation and on a topic of our own choosing, umm, very interesting and …. this is what we did.

We now come to the section entitled HOW WAS IT FOR YOU? “So what happened next” you ask. There I was being filmed standing in front of an audience, with nothing prepared and 1 minute to speak. “Only a minute” I hear you say, but in 1 minute you can say an awful lot, and indeed I did. There was no preparation and words and sentences came to me from nowhere and very coherently. At the end we had to give impartial feedback on how we found each performance. This feedback was to be non-judgemental, concentrating solely on the content and the relational presence of the person and not their personality; it also had to be positive. Wow this was very empowering and I felt both warm in giving feedback and in receiving it; in fact it was very useful and something I could take away and reflect on and use. The whole process left you walking taller, feeling enveloped in an atmosphere of unconditional love (oh strong emotions but very true). There was an openness and honesty between the group and remember we had only just met and even now, over a year ago, I can still remember and see the people in that group as if it was yesterday.

As I walked back to the metro, I was smiling to myself; I felt good inside and my ideas on pubic speaking and relational presence had been overturned. Yes I had studied this both in Buddhist meditation and as a trainee psychotherapist and manager but not really experienced it as strongly as this, this was the theory in action, and it worked and felt good. Hats off to Peter.

One of the strong components of Speaking Circles is the power of silence. It is true that when you stand in front of an audience you have this feeling of panic, (well I do and I believe others do as well) that you have to speak. The result is perhaps a dry mouth, ‘butterflies in the stomach’, sweaty palms and a brain that wont cooperate, “why am I here?” Silence is of course the raison d’etre of meditation. It is through silence that we calm our minds. This is important for a number of reasons. Unfortunately I don’t have time to go into Quantum Physics, but you can find lots on this subject on the Internet to demonstrate the power of silence. Silence is the power behind the thought, it is the power behind the decision and it is the power behind the potential. We don’t use silence in our society, we work against a background of noise, and if not in our heads then around us in the world we inhabit. As human beings we have a belief, and an unhealthy one, that we exist as individuals, this is not so. We are connected to each other and to everything on the planet; we do not exist in a bubble. Through the study of Quantum Physics it is shown that we are what we think because thoughts are energy and energy is a universal component that can neither be created nor destroyed, it just is. When you go into silence you connect with this universal energy, I am being very simplistic here. I believe that it was Einstein who discovered this, although the ‘mystics’, so to speak, have known this for centuries; however, in our science driven global community we are always looking for proof, whether it is proof of God or something else, but of course things which are considered occult.

Often when we stand up in front of an audience we feel very alone, exposed, and there is also an element of feeling out of control, that’s why we like to have everything planned beforehand so that nothing can go wrong. Yet, if we reflect on these sentiments, what can go wrong? Yes we want to do our best, but consider this, we won’t die if we make mistakes and more importantly mistakes become our tools by which we learn, but why am I talking about this, it’s because habitually we think in the negative, we think about potential mistakes and that thought creates an emotion, mostly fear that then grips us and so we become paralysed unable to move in any direction because of the ‘what if’ factor. If we ‘think’ we have all the answers, then – we are wrong, this is where silence comes in, it enables us to connect with another part of ourselves that knows, that is connected to everything around us and can draw upon knowledge outside of our logical brain that think it knows but in actuality is no more than an extremely cleaver computer.

Indeed standing up in front of an audience with nothing prepared, the only place you can start is silence and once there you also realise that it really doesn’t matter if you don’t say a thing. As I learnt in subsequent workshops with Peter, the need for me to speak became less and less and I just enjoyed the moment of ‘hanging out’ with people, this was a rare opportunity. You see when you don’t speak, and you stand there, you create a relationional presence with your eyes, something else comes in to take the place of words, something deep and profound. You can use the word love, if you like, but you see, in this situation already words are inadequate. I expect some of you reading this will say “oh love” does that mean ….. etc etc, whatever you want to attribute to this word and then you get lost in the analysis of the word and then what happens, through the analysis of the brain, the relational presence is lost. So the only way forward is to experience this power of silence and of course Speaking Circles offers you this unique opportunity just to be and in the profound presence of other people. “Do I want to”, well that’s up to you, but I can assure you there is no greater gift than to be with another person, really be with another person as a reflection of you, and this is the greatest gift you can be offered as a human being. Remember fear keeps you isolated, love brings you together.

When Peter proposed another workshop, for one day this time, I jumped at the chance and once again I found myself on my way to Toulouse, this time on a sunny warm day in June. A whole day in Speaking Circles, I thought “what luxury” and yes it was. Quite organically Speaking Circles takes you to places you would never have dreamed of visiting. This particular workshop proved to be very emotional for me, connecting with events of my past that had been traumatic and had shaped my personality. It was clear to me that they needed airing, to come out, to be looked at in a non-judgemental environment and then let go. As human beings we spend our lives burying ‘stuff’, painful thoughts resulting from what people did or said to us and we carry this ‘stuff’ around with us. I am all to well aware of this as a Shiatus practitioner, as I feel the emotions frozen in people’s bodies manifested as physical blockages, through my hands and not from the result of illness, but the result of resistance from holding back on both finding unconditional love for the self as well as for the person we considered the wrong doer in our lives. In the context of Speaking Circles some pretty heavy stuff came up for me, and for others as well, it would be true to say there were tears all round and much unconditional support as well.

Having read this, I expect you are thinking “I don’t really want to go here, it’s all too emotional, I don’t think I will be able to handle being emotional with very private things with people I don’t know”, and yes I understand. Every person’s experience of life is unique, we are unique, andt we don’t celebrate ourselves, Speaking Circles breaks down these self made barriers and gives us the rare opportunity to taste and experience our full potential as human beings. Our holding back on who we really are creates division, misunderstanding of other people and leaves us living less than fulfilling lives, we live in fear that often results in physical illness and often serious, you only have to read Louise Hay, ‘You can heal your life’ to understand this connection. Having been to 3 Speaking Circle events now I can honestly say there wasn’t one person who regretted the experience, everyone came out feeling energized as if now was the beginning of the rest of their lives, cool eh?

If we go back to the beginning, Speaking Circles is about overcoming fear of Public Speaking, and to my mind about overcoming our fear of being in the presence of other people, this in fact was something one person said in one of the workshops and I felt it too; but after the Speaking Circles training, there was no holding any of us back, we loved being seen and heard for the  unique beings that we are and felt renewed and invigorated to go out into the world and to connect fully and authentically with our fellow human beings. I can only talk from my experience but in conversation after the Speaking Circes training, we all felt a change at a very deep personal level.

My final training experience, again in Toulouse, and this time was with Jennet Burghard and Koos Wolcken from Holland, two Speaking Circles trainers from Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) backgrounds.  This was a three day event and where we also embraced the more practical models of presenting ourselves and our ideas using the Speaking Circles format. I have already written to Peter to say that I have never attended a workshop that was so perfect in terms of facilitation, content, organisation and outcomes. Jennet Burghard and Koos Wolcken have been all over the world teaching Speaking Circles, they are very experienced, enthusiastic and empathic; it was a joy being with them. My question to myself now is where next? As you can see I am a convert and I believe that through using Speaking Circles as a practical communications tool, we can all become the authentic human beings we already are to realise our potential and above all, to connect at the deepest level with our fellow human friends. Yes I look at this from the perspective of a Yoga teacher and a Shiatsu practitioner, as well as a communicator. I see how Yoga changes people at a deep level through meditation, silence, relaxation, proper breathing and exercise and I help people back to physical and mental health through Shiatsu. I already know of people working successfully with businesses across Europe in applying Yoga to improve interpersonal relations and communications and this is something very close to my heart from my background. Imagine these techniques combined with Speaking Circles and you have a powerful recipe for positive change, this is my dream.

Well happy readers all I ask of you now is to watch this space, I do sincerely believe that now is the time to let go of our fears and be who we really are meant to be.

Namaste and Thank you

Frances Hassett



About Yoga - Sunyata

I have been very fortunate to have trained with some of the best teachers in their fields. In the UK I learnt Yoga under Cheryl Sayers in Cambridge and later with Sivananda in France. Cheryl was an authentic experienced Hatha Yoga teacher who hadbeen taught by her father in India from the age of 7, she became my spiritual teacher. I learnt Reiki and Indian Head Massage with Chris Cuzons, renowned Natural Therapy Teacher in East Anglia. I studied psychotherapy with the Central School for Counselling Training and I practiced for a while in the Chatteris Doctor’s Surgery in Cambridgeshire and here I championed the introduction of holistic therapies in the local Primary Health Care Trust with the aid of Help the Aged. Latterly I was a connsellor in France in my clinic there and provideing a telephone service as well. I am again studying Mindfulness based Psychotherapy with Karuna Institute Devon at post Masters level. I was lucky to go France and learn Traditional Yang style Tai Chi with Anya Meot, Philippe Pastor and Master Tung in Toulouse and Paris. I learnt and practiced Shiatsu and Chinese Medicine with Daniel Menini in Toulouse and I opened my own practice in France in the small canton town of Aurignac in the Haute Garonne. I went to Japan to continue my studies in Chinese Medicine with Masanori Okamoto in the Tokyo Therapeutic School. Latterly in Ireland, I have undertaken continued professional development with Eddie Dowd in the College of Oriental Medicine. As a teacher of meditation I studied with the Western Buddhist Order in Cambridge, Shambhala in Toulouse France and Tibetan Buddhist mindfulness in London and Ireland. I studied Mediumship at the Arthur Findlay College. My studies do not stop here.
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