Avatar photo

“I could never do that”; how to view a threat as a challenge.

How do you turn something that appears as dangerous and threatening into a challenging and exciting experience? I’m sure we all know people who do what we would consider as dangerous and crazy activities. These audacious activities may range from sky diving, or simply agreeing to undertake a work project without the resources or know-how to deliver. These ‘adventurous’ people interest me; they must be a different species, because I could never do that. However, when I have spoken to them, they appear very normal, and surprisingly, pretty similar to me. However they freely do things that I would see as darn right dangerous. So, if they are the same species as me, there must be another explanation.

I would consider myself a fairly cautious person and not at all adventurous. But during this summer school holiday, I set about creating some exciting activities for my daughter and myself to provide extra interest during the long summer break. We went indoor skydiving (despite the fact that full blown sky diving is in my ‘crazy activity’ category), indoor rock climbing and kayaking. When talking to friends about these activities, some said, “you’re brave, I’d never do that, it’s far too scary.” During the activities I certainly felt my heart rate increase with the excitement, but I didn’t consider myself as a member of the crazy club.

So what explains these differing views of either an exciting challenge or a dangerous threat? The answer to this lies in how risk is perceived. Research has shown that it is an individuals’ appraisal of situational relevance to well-being that leads to either a feeling of positive challenge or a negative threat. A threat is perceived when something has the possibility of doing harm with the danger of injury, or possible loss of some kind. However, a challenge refers to the possibility of a gain or benefit, and an opportunity to prove capability to yourself or others.

So it is our perception that is the key. Perception can be influenced by thousands of things; our previous experience, parents, stories, films, anecdotes from friends and colleagues. But as we know, perception is our interpretation of reality, it is not reality itself. Because of this we have the ability to change perception. But why would we want to do this?


In Challenging Coaching we talk about courageous goals, maximising our potential and achieving greatness in a way we each choose to define it. This is about living a life less ordinary, in pushing our boundaries and taking risks. However, if we are overwhelmed by a threatening sense of danger, we will be frozen in place, not able to take the steps to change. If we can replace this with feelings of excitement, then we are able to step into a new world of possibilities.

This is easily said, but not so easy done in reality. So here are some things to try:

  • Unexpected stressors are appraised as more threatening than those that were expected. Preparation can help with scenario planning to expect the unexpected. When coaching someone, ask them to consider all the possibilities, I often ask, “what is the worst that could happen?”
  • Use imagery (or visualisation) to recreate past positive experiences or rehearse future performances, such as making an important presentation, or confidently and actively participating in a Board meeting. To be as powerful as possible, engage as many senses as possible, by including sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
  • Reinforce the sense of a positive challenge by using self-talk. “I can do this”, and “breathe” and “relax” act as reminders of key triggers to overcome threatening feelings.
  • In the world of elite sports, athletes use pre-performance routines to create positive feelings. For athletes these routines can range from listening to specific music tracks to get them in the zone, or eating certain foods at set times before a competition to ensure peak physical performance. John is familiar with me humming and circling my arms around to warm-up before a presentation.

These tips can work on an individual level. But how can we work with our coachees so that threatening goals are turned into challenging goals? Also, how do we know if a coachee discards a goal and chooses a safer option because of the perceived threat level?

Post your tips and thoughts on our Linked In group.