As I’ve been writing about courage lately, I thought I’d share a few concrete tips on how to practice courage and flex it like a muscle, so it can grow stronger. The stronger it grows the more you gain confidence and the more courageous you can become! Good news: You don’t need resources, funds, or special skills to do so. What you do need, are determination and – go figure – a little bit of courage.
WeWork.com has defined three types of courage: try courage, trust courage and tell courage. Here are 3×3 ways to develop them:
Try courage is the courage “required to take the first step in something”.
#1 Try something new
This is a relatively easy exercise because you decide how far you are willing to stretch outside of your comfort zone. Trying something new doesn’t mean that you have to risk life and limb. Trying something new can be as simple as choosing an unknown dish in a restaurant, taking a route you have never taken before, wear an outfit that is not your usual style or do an activity that you have never tried before. If you want to be a little bolder, you could sing in the subway, talk to a stranger, do something silly in public, or face your fears by doing something that you know you are afraid of. To try something new, you don’t have to go all the way and travel to an exotic country, quit your job, go bungee jumping or skydiving. You decide how much risk you are willing to take and if you do this regularly, you can slowly increase your courage doses along the way.
#2 Think through scenarios
This is more thinking than doing related, but it can also be an effective exercise, especially for people who are analytical and cautious by nature. This exercise is particularly helpful when we have to take decisions. When we shy away from decision-making that requires courage, it often happens because we are afraid of something that might happen. In other words, it is nothing but a possibility, an idea or a potential outcome. It is not even real. Yet we allow fear to take over, regardless if it is irrational and factually unfounded. In this case, think of a scenario and the different outcomes that could materialize – the good, the bad and the ugly. Let your imagination run wild and force yourself to also consider the scenarios that your natural disposition tends to ignore. Make sure to vividly picture the worst-case scenario and its consequences. Now seriously consider the likelihood of the various scenarios and take a more balanced decision. Often this approach helps to feel more encouraged than if you had simply followed your autopilot caution.
#3 Commit to action
This is sort of the interim step between #1 and #2 – you chose to be bold, but you have not yet acted on it. If you need a little nudge to get you moving from decision to action, you can practice courage by announcing to yourself, or even better to others, that you are committed to doing something. By saying it out loud, owning it, and having others hold you accountable, you increase the chance that you will eventually work up the courage to act on your commitment. Setting the intention to act is where it starts and when you take the first step in something – which is what defines ‘try courage’.
Developing ‘try courage’ is a way to start small – you can get used to being courageous without much risk. Eventually, you will get to the point where you are willing to take bigger risks. Yes, you might fail; you might get it wrong or embarrass yourself. Or you might do something incredible and discover something amazing!
Trust courage is the type of courage “required to relinquish control”.
#1 Let it go
Even though Disney character Elsa belts out this tune with so much grace and fervor, most of us find it less easy to give up control. Whether you interpret letting go as delegating or breaking free, ultimately it is about trust. When you delegate tasks, authority, or responsibility to others, you have to trust that they are competent, able and willing to meet your expectations. Rather than knowing what the outcome would be if you did it yourself, you can practice ‘trust courage’ by delegating, giving space to others, and allowing them to step up and shine. Another way of letting go is to allow yourself to shine, for example by letting go of your fears of what others might think or say of you. As Elsa sings, “It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small and the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all”. Even if you find it hard, you can start by taking baby steps in letting go. Stand back, take a helicopter view and test how it feels to share control before you let go completely. Once you do, you may find it incredibly liberating!
#2 Solicit support and encouragement
This in itself can be an exercise of practicing courage if you are a person who does not like to ask for help. But the point here is not to approach someone when you’d rather deal with an issue on your own. The point is to rally support from people who will cheer you on when you need it, prop you up when you fail and celebrate success with you. A support network is an incredibly powerful asset in pretty much any life situation, but it is especially helpful when you need encouragement, comfort and a safe space to share your doubts and concerns. These are the people who will help build your confidence, and they are in the position to do that because they trust you and you trust them. Trusting others is a huge arena and bears the risk of disappointment, deception, and abandonment. Yet, by asking for support when you are facing a daunting challenge, you allow others to strengthen your courage simply by being by your side, holding you accountable and encouraging you when you falter.
#3 Admit mistakes and apologize
Another way of developing courage is to admit when you are wrong. Remove ego and pride, own up to your errors and correct them, if possible. Even better, apologize if appropriate and demonstrate that vulnerability does not equal weakness. On the contrary, admitting failure shows that you are resilient and willing to turn errors into learning opportunities. How is this linked to trust, you ask? Well, admitting mistakes and apologizing means that you need to extend trust to the people around you, trust that they will not judge you, not hold your errors against you and that they will be able to see past your flaws. Depending on the circumstances, this can require a tremendous amount of ‘trust courage’. Use this training ground when you feel psychologically safe enough to do so, but also challenge yourself from time to time and don’t give in to convenience, fear, or arrogance.
Practicing ‘trust courage’ can feel a little more challenging, depending on your life experience so far. Those of us who have experienced backing and security in our childhood, in our relationships and social settings, will find it easier to extend trust in others, often without being aware of the huge privilege this is. People who have experienced permanent disappointment, betrayal, and trauma have a much bigger hurdle to overcome. Still, the universal law of reciprocity applies to trust in the same way that it applies to smiles: You are enhancing your chances significantly if you go first. Smile, and someone will smile back at you. Extend trust, and trust will be extended to you.
Tell courage is the courage needed “to speak openly and with conviction about your beliefs and ideas”.
#1 Speak up
The degree to which this is a challenge is highly personal and, again, at least to some extend depends on what life has taught you so far. For some people it requires courage to say something in pretty much any setting because they prefer to leave most of the talking to others. For some, it requires courage to speak in front of a crowd or to speak up in a group or meeting. For many people it requires courage to object to a majority or to share an unpopular opinion. Practice this kind of ‘tell courage’ by looking for opportunities to speak up and start by choosing those that are less risky. Learn to speak openly and with authenticity without becoming emotional, insulting or defensive. If you struggle with this, practicing speaking up with people you trust or getting support from a professional coach can be very valuable and an effective way to build your confidence.
#2 Talk about feelings
Again, this is not necessarily challenging for all of us and probably depends on the context. Yet, when we notice that we struggle with talking about our feelings, it is an opportunity to develop courage. In this case, I’m afraid there is no shortcut or silver bullet – developing means practicing. In other words: Just do it. Whether you are afraid of rejection, for instance telling someone that you have romantic feelings for them, or the other extreme when you need to explain to someone that you don’t reciprocate their feelings. Whether you are embarrassed to disclose that you are afraid of something, or that you feel overwhelmed and not able to cope. It is, of course, hard to talk about feelings if you associate that with being humiliated, rejected or unworthy. Yet when you dare to practice this kind of ‘tell courage’, there is a fair chance that your personal disclosure will be met with respect, acceptance and empathy.
#3 Raise a tension
This is another frequent challenge that requires ‘tell courage’ and is a great opportunity to develop it. Related but not exactly the same is giving candid feedback. Doing this can be scary, especially if the feedback you need to provide is of constructive nature and what you have to say is going to make someone feel uncomfortable. The same is true for raising tension, which is why so many people find this difficult. The human brain is wired to seek companionship and acceptance – this is how our species survived, and why some communities and cultures thrived more than others did. We all want to be liked and belong. Our limbic brain may prevent us from getting involved in conflict, which bears the potential risk of being expelled from the tribe, yet interpersonal tension exists and by not addressing it, we allow it to fester. Developing courage around raising tension is a fundamental social skill and demonstrates high emotional intelligence if done well.
Surprisingly enough, while ‘tell courage’ appears to be so simple, it is certainly not easy. In fact, many people struggle to speak openly, to share how they feel or to address conflict. It is a distinct attribute of Courageous Leadership to be able to speak with authenticity, determination and compassion.
Having reflected on these three types of courage – try courage, trust courage and tell courage – I cannot help but feel like one type of courage is missing: be courage.
#1 Be authentic
To develop ‘be courage’, first and foremost be yourself. This does require having the guts to get to know yourself and to embrace your light as well as your shadow. Being authentic does mean to be true to your own personality, style, and convictions, even in moments when that is difficult. It does not mean that you have permission to behave like a bull in a china shop. Learn to be authentic and sincere, while being respectful. Look in the mirror of self-awareness and act in congruence with who you are, even when it would be easier to follow conventions, meet others’ expectations or choose what’s easy over what’s right for you. This requires courage and you can develop it by being and becoming you, every day a little more.
#2 Stand by your beliefs
This is similar to being authentic, yet it emphasizes the situations when your beliefs are challenged, and your steadfastness is put to the test. Steadfastness means being dependable, faithful, and purposeful. Steadfastness is remaining true to yourself no matter what. When we are steadfast, even when we have doubts, in our hearts we remain committed. When we are steadfast, we can shrug off the doubts because down deep we know where we stand. Therefore, you can practice steadfastness by being committed. First of all, you need to decide if something is worthy of your commitment. Once that is done and you have firmed up your belief, pace yourself and stand by your commitment. Just put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Over time, you will increase your confidence and strengthen your courage.
#3 Stay in your power
Maybe I kept the hardest for last, but this is the champions league of developing courage. If we are courageous, we persevere and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. In other words, we possess control and authority over our reaction to a situation. As soon as we relinquish this control, we give power to someone or something else, which can be as abstract as thoughts, ideas, emotions, or expectations. Therefore, courage is the mental strength to stay in our own power. Letting go of our inner power is perilous, as we risk that our mind will lose its clarity and confidence can weaken. Staying in your power means that you constantly remind yourself of what you know and who you are. Practice that and be comfortable in your own skin. Trust and respect yourself, look after yourself, take care of yourself and demonstrate high self-esteem without being arrogant. Staying in your power allows you to control your emotions, assert yourself when necessary and maintain clarity and focus on your mission and goals. It is a vital component to Courageous Leadership.
Power Practice Tip: Document your learnings in a journal, take note of moments when you feel courageous and upon reflection, write down what gave you confidence. If you do that regularly, you will become more daring over time.
What is your experience with the different types of courage? Which courage do you find easiest to demonstrate? Which one is hardest for you? What exercises or practices have helped you flex your courage muscle so far?
Authored by Martina Mangelsdorf, Chief Strategic Dreamer at GAIA Insights
Read more about Courage in our blog series: