I was reminded recently of the challenges facing an adult learner when they try something new and out of their comfort zone. I started adult swimming lessons.
When I was growing up in Edinburgh, I had swimming lessons in the local pool. I was a physically unadventurous child (much to my father’s disappointment!), and afraid of the deep end. A series of deep-end encounters which involved repeatedly jumping in, while my stern, heavy-set teacher Mrs Grassock held one end of a long pole and I clutched the other, did very little to improve my confidence. Getting over your fears by “jumping in the deep-end” literally didn’t work for me!
I remained a weak, uncertain swimmer – right up until last year, when I decided to learn properly, and hired a teacher for private lessons.
As I went through the first few lessons I was reminded of how tricky it can be to try new things as an adult. Basically I felt uncomfortable, I’m sure I looked uncomfortable, and I sometimes got incredibly frustrated.
Keeping a sense of humour helps a lot at these times!
If you’re a reluctant public speaker coming to me for help, we nearly always discuss these themes:
1. Practice. How do you feel about practising, and getting frustrated, and making mistakes?
If you’re like most adults, you’re used to feeling relatively competent and ‘performing’. You tend to avoid situations where you might struggle. (This idea of ‘performing’ is also perpetuated by many of our educational and corporate systems, which frequently reward performance and penalise mistakes.) But to improve in public speaking, you have to be willing to go through a period where you feel uncertain and even foolish.
2. Belief. Do you realise that it actually doesn’t matter if you believe in yourself or not?
As long as you’re willing to give new ideas a go, take action and persist, you’ll learn. Thinking that if you just believed more in yourself you’d be ready to confront your fears will stop you dead from moving ahead – in any area of life.
Think about it: the fact that you doubt yourself doesn’t stop you from wanting to learn, or going through the learning process. It just takes guts to start, and maybe some support to push through the resistance.
3. Aptitude. You think you need some natural aptitude to begin with, or you’re a hopeless case.
Again, not true. You can start out being pretty awful and improve rapidly.
For example, Winston Churchill was known as one the 20th century’s greatest orators; yet he started out with a speech impediment, and couldn’t do impromptu speaking at all. He learned through writing his speeches out and delivering them in front of a mirror.
If you truly ‘get’ this, then you understand that your goals are about what you want to communicate through your speaking, both for yourself and others – whatever your intention is. You find a safe group to work with, and you practise.
I’m still having swimming lessons, two terms later, and it’s still an effort to co-ordinate my freestyle, crawl stroke without sinking in the water like a tug boat – disappointing, when my goal is always one of gliding, hovercraft-like, along the surface. But I hold my hovercraft intention, and have told my patient teacher John about it, and I persist. I’m not comfortable, but I’ve improved a lot. I can even hang around in deep water now without panicky thrashing!
So, how willing are you to become a learner for a while?