In one of those literary side alleys of which I occasionally turn, I’m currently reading Keith Johnstone’s seminal work Impro, which came recommended by theatre produced Phelim McDermott with whom I had a fascinating conversation a few months ago.

Fairly early on in the book, Johnstone talks about his own discovery of the work of Joseph Wolpe in dealing with people’s phobias. If people are afraid of something then Wolpe’s approach, Systematic Desensitisation,  encourages a gradual approach to dealing with fears rather than the sort of in at the deep end type approaches that seem so beloved of many self-help gurus.

Johnstone applied this thinking to what he thought was a fairly universal phobia of appearing on a stage. Rather than try to conceal fear which, on a stage, will always shine through anyway, he developed techniques to help his students to make gradual steps to address the underlying phobia.

Fear of change is often cited as a reason why people are resistance to initiatives that are trying to get them to work in new ways. If such phobias (metathesiophobia, to give them their formal name) are real, then big bang approaches to change will be surely, if Wolpe’s work is to be believed, destined to fail. JFDI isn’t a useful approach if people are scared. Anxiety will overrule, and people will cling even more tightly to their established habits and behaviours.

So what would a phobia-friendly approach to change look like? Wolpe’s psychological approach was to start by getting clients to understand a hierarchy of their anxieties. For example, if someone had a phobia of beards (pogonophobia) then the low end of the scale might be a photograph of somebody with mild stubble, through to the prospect of a meeting in Shoreditch, through to sitting on Santa Claus triggering cataclysmic panic.

I wonder when it comes to change if “change” per se is the thing of which people are fearful. Possibly things like “Making a mistake” or “Not seeming to know what I’m doing” might be actually the underlying issues.

Getting people to individually understand those types of fear (from, maybe, having to re-work something because it wasn’t done quite right through to making an unholy mess of things that gets you sacked) would be an interesting starting point. Just that discussion, understanding that not all errors are equal, would start to enable people to understand that we maybe associate far too great a threat to relatively benign issues.

The next step in the Wolpe method is to learn coping mechanisms. For deep-rooted fears this can include things like learning meditation techniques. In my own life I know that I have been able to create a pattern of behaviours that enable me to harness nervous energy that stems from a fear of performing whenever I’m about to get on stage to give a talk.

When it comes to change, part of my work around Play has focused on the idea that we need to change the language used to describe experimentation within the workplace; it has been a very conscious decision to not use the word “Fail” despite it’s widespread use in business at the moment. Failure is quite simply too culturally loaded a term to use when at its extremes it remains very negative (and a big failure will quite rightly see you lose your job). Talking in terms of play, tinkering and experimenting might well be a good coping strategy to help people re-frame the fear of making mistakes.

The final step in Wolpe’s approach is to gradually increase the exposure to the fear-inducing things and learn to apply the coping mechanisms. Photo of stubble: deep breathing; meeting in Hoxton: deep breathing; Santa Claus: meditate kind of thing.

It feels like there is a process in here for helping people to identify ways of removing the fears that they associate with certain types of change by re-framing them, and understanding further up the hierarchy when it is right and proper to submit to the fight or flight response. Yes – play with that. No – accept that that change has an unacceptable associated risk of redundancy.

I feel a workshop coming on…

One thought on “Metathesiophobia

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