We all know what rabbits do when caught in the glare of car headlights: they freeze. It’s not just rabbits though, many animals do it; in fact, it’s often a deer referred to as freezing in the headlights. But why does it happen? It is believed animals freeze stock still in such moments to reduce the chance of being seen when they perceive danger and, in many cases, an animal’s skin or fur shade often helps them to blend in to the surrounding scenery.
So natural is this that it forms part of many animals innate survival instinct; an instinct that is most commonly referred to as ‘fight or flight’. A famous phrase which has recently been expanded to incorporate two further Fs: ‘flock’ and ‘freeze’. The idea of flocking together in an attempt to feel safer can be seen on many wildlife programmes, when a group of animals sense danger. They do it to reduce isolation from the pack and to appear larger in the eyes of would-be attackers. This is something we do too. We often feel safer and stronger when part of a pack. So, what do we do when isolated from the pack? Of course, we have the fight or flight options, and the bodily responses associated with fight or flight kick in for us very quickly: tense muscles, shallow breath, increased heart rate, focused vision, and searching for quick ways out are examples.
Now, put yourself in the situation of having to leave the safety of the pack, of having to stand in front of a group of people at work and speak to them. There is nothing actually dangerous in such a moment, it’s just you speaking in front of others. In fact, it is mostly the case that the others want to hear what you have to say. Why is it, then, that many find presenting or speaking out in meetings so scary? I believe it is because we feel we’ve left the safety of our tribe in that moment, that we must have done something wrong for them to all be looking at us, especially when standing at the front and facing them when presenting. In such a moment we, either consciously or unconsciously, evoke the fight, flight, flock, freeze response; we let the situation affect us.
So, here’s a tip for next time you sense a situation affecting you similarly: change the perspective. Many people, in such situations, focus too much on all the eyes bearing down on them, just as the rabbit does when the headlights focus on them. In this moment, here’s the tip:
Don’t be the rabbit in the headlights. Be the rabbit who gets in the car and drives it!
While we may have evolved to be the perceived height of intelligence on the planet, we still have in-built mechanisms which kick in to help protect us when we feel threatened. These mechanisms are actually very useful, being designed to save us from imminent danger, yet we mostly don’t need to evoke such powerful responses. Professor Steve Peters highlights this perfectly in his acclaimed The Chimp Paradox: there’s a part of our brain designed to highlight danger, however it can get in the way when it misreads the situation.
This is what happens when we sense everyone looking at us in a meeting or when presenting: we’re misreading the situation. ‘They’ aren’t the enemy about to attack. The situation is not dangerous. You have done nothing wrong.
So, next time you feel this happening, instead of thinking that everyone’s looking at you, change the perspective. I ask you to think this:
I know you’re all looking at me, but guess what? I’m looking at you.
Don’t let the situation drive your response, move yourself in to the driving seat of the situation. Change the perspective:
You are there because you have been invited to speak.
You are there because of your knowledge or experience.
You are there because you have something to offer.
By moving in to the driving seat you focus on what you are there to give them. After all, that is your role, to offer them your knowledge, your experience, your tips, to be the one to question for the benefit of the team, the project, the organisation.
There are many situations where we encounter discomfort and need to apply this advice, to move away from letting circumstances drive what’s going on with us, to shift the perspective and step in to the driving seat. Next time you feel you’re moving toward being a rabbit in the headlights:
Relax your muscles
Breathe lower down in to your abdomen
Calm your thinking
Change your perspective
It is, after all, just your mind and body thinking they need to help you survive a situation, which, in reality, isn’t actually that threatening.