Rebuilding Trust by Managing My Anxiety

I recently wrote about a key moment in which I had to make a decision about how to handle a Saturday evening. The choices I made were relatively small in the grand scheme of things but allowed me to experience an enjoyable evening with my wife that could easily have been otherwise.

Although small, such incidents are important. They establish a pattern of being aware, visualizing what is important, and making conscious, deliberate choices about how to think, feel and behave. Out of such small choices I gain mastery over my life and learn that I can create the state from which I experience life. So often these are experiences in which I have learned to manage my anxiety by changing my story.

As I look back on my career, I recognize that I’ve regularly confronted key moments, some pretty big. At least that’s how they felt at the time. A lot of the consulting work I used to do was high risk and high reward. I was often navigating touchy situations, helping management teams shape their strategy, design their organizations, build teams or work through issues related to trust and their ability to work together.

An Opportunity to Rebuild Trust

A few years back, someone invited me to submit a proposal to rebuild trust with a city council. I interviewed with the mayor and a couple board members and they selected me to do the work. Once on board I began to learn just how dysfunctional they were. Several issues had occurred in the past several months in which certain members felt betrayed. Their trust and ability to work together had been serious fractured. Many of the board members could barely be in a room together, let alone talk to one another. They had shouting matches during some meetings and a few had even walked out of their public meetings leaving the remaining members embarrassed and floundering as they tried to conduct business.

I was commissioned to facilitate a two-day retreat to help them rebuild trust as well as create a shared vision for the future. I attended a public meeting of the board prior to the retreat. I needed to explain, in an open forum, what we’d be doing in the retreat. Following my remarks, the mayor looked at me and said, “Dr. Allen, you have an impossible task. It will take a miracle to get this group working together again.”

Confronting Myself

I have to admit that my anxiety edged upward as I left the room and pondered my approach to bringing a group of estranged people together. Initially, I told myself a pretty negative story. “These people really dislike each other… They don’t want to repair their relationships… They’re waiting for the next election… What makes me think I can get them to cooperate? How did I get myself into this in the first place?” Bottom line, I told myself this was an impossible task and drove home with a feeling of foreboding and dread, realizing that my first order of business was to manage my own anxiety.

I didn’t like how I was feeling over the next few days. I also realized that I was telling myself a story. Furthermore it was a story and not the truth. So I took responsibility for the story. I was the author of the way I was talking to myself. I looked at the consequences of the story and realized that it was not serving me or the board. And so I began to construct a new story.

A New Story

I started talking differently to myself. “They don’t like how they’re feeling… It’s in their interest to work through their resentments and work together… I know it and they know it… I understand exactly what I need to do to bring them together… They selected me for a reason… I’m the right person at the right time to not only help them heal old wounds but become excited about new possibilities…” And so on. As I shifted my self-talk, I was not only managing my anxiety but began to feel confidence and trust in myself, in each of them, and in the process I would take them through.

I visualized myself handling this event in a positive way. And I took productive action by sending each of them a letter acknowledging their mistrust and challenging them to put the interests of the community and board as a whole above their grievances. I included a contract or set of ground rules by which we would communicate and insisted that they sign and bring it with them to the session.

Choosing Success

The day for the meeting arrived. I recall driving to the hotel still feeling some twinges of anxiety. I greeted each of them as we entered the conference room and then excused myself and went to the men’s room. Fortunately, the door locked from the inside. I didn’t want anyone bursting in on me as I went through my final emotional preparation. I stood in front of a mirror and grounded myself in the story I choose to believe: “It’s in their interest to work things out… They selected me for a reason… I trust my process… I trust them. I’m excited about new possibilities.”

And then, for good measure, I looked myself in the eyes and repeated my credo. “I am a positive, powerful and caring man.” I repeated the words several times, giving myself a good chest thump each time I said the word “powerful.” I left the bathroom, not doubting, but knowing we’d accomplish a good work together over the next few days.

Achieving Success!

And we did. It was tense at times. However, the members of the board got real issues on the table and talked them through. They expressed feelings of hurt, betrayal, resentment. The dialogue went on a long time until at some point they were ready to reengage with each other and move forward.  For me, what had begun as high risk became high reward. In fact, I received a letter from the mayor a few weeks after the event and he told me I had pulled off a miracle.

Actually it wasn’t a miracle. They did the hard work of rebuilding trust and committing to work together for the good of the community. The win for me was knowing that I could choose how to handle my key moment. I chose to manage my anxiety by changing my story; to come from trust and confidence rather than fear and anxiety.

How About You?

Have you ever had an experience in which your initial reaction was fear? And yet you caught yourself and chose to come from a better place? Share your thoughts below.



  1. S. Iftikhar

    Thanks for sharing, powerful ideas here about the story each tells him or herself.
    What’s key is the final emotional preparation and the “homework” you did in the shape of personal letters.

    • rogerkallen

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, the letter was key. It was the same one for everyone with my expectations for the retreat as well as ground-rules I would insist we live by. That is what gave me confidence that it would not devolve into chaos.


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