Apprehension – Fear or Understanding?

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

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Thinking about the meanings of word can often lead to a better understanding of our view of the world and place in it. I don’t mean debating the meanings in the dictionary – I mean discovering which of two definitions you prefer and why. Self-knowledge can be increased by acknowledging linguistic preferences.


Language can be a complicated thing – particularly when it comes to those curious words that have multiple meanings. It’s not so much the existence of the meanings that intrigues me but the choices that people make. How a person chooses to use a particular word can tell you a great deal about who they are and how they see the world and their place in it. Take, for instance, the word ‘apprehension’. I’ve noticed that few people actually use the word – perhaps because of the complex of meanings that surround it – but, when it is used, it generally is deployed in description of a situation. Let’s start with three definitions:

  • fearful expectation or anticipation: “the man looked around the dark alley with apprehension”
  • understanding: the cognitive condition of someone who understands; “he has a solid understanding of the situation and its implications”
  • the act of apprehending (especially apprehending a criminal): “the policeman on the beat got credit for the collar”

That is a wide range on meanings for one word. Now take a minute to reflect on the meaning which you attach to the word. It is probably a good idea to spend some time thinking this through. I am sure that your natural inclination is to opt for the meaning that has the highest positive loading. But, and here is the rub, the real question is how you face the world as you find it and which of the meanings tend to dominate your approach.

It will be easy to think of this exercise as a ‘word game’ – multiple choices with a single right answer. That’s not going to get to the nub of this. You see, your tendencies are at the core of how you see yourself and the world around you – and (this is the important part) how you see the people around you. Maybe three examples might help .

Coaching and Personal Growth I work with senior executives, entrepreneurs and members of boards. They tend to be very well educated and have a complex understanding of language – they are good at it and being good at it allows them to be successful. But it also presents traps that are hard to avoid and very difficult to escape from.

Bob’s Story: A while back I had a coaching engagement with a CEO (let’s call him Bob) who is building his second business. Early on I noticed that he had a well-defined approach to major challenges – he avoided them as long as possible. When I first directed his attention to that habit, he reacted strongly and negatively to the suggestion. He was, after all, a leader and founder of two businesses.

The first evidence of his tendency came when he had to terminate a senior member of his team. The relationship had a considerable history but it was clear that this person was not producing. Bob avoided confronting the problem even as it caused more damage to the potential of his business and increased tensions among other members of the team. Our sessions got tenser until one day Bob exploded. The emotions came flooding out. “I can’t change the team. Think of all the bad things that might happen.” When I asked him to describe those ‘bad things’, he began to outline the likely reactions of the team member. “He might sue us or cause the company to fall apart.” Bob was apprehensive about making the change – the negatives of having to take the action were all he was seeing.

A while later we began to focus on a part of Bob’s personal life that was heading for a crisis. The behavior was much the same. He avoided making decisions – taking any action – until things approached the boiling point. I pointed out the similarity of the pattern. This time – and in the light of the other issue – he was far less dismissive. As he described his dilemma and tried to rationalize his approach to it, it became clear that he was again focused on the possible negative consequences of acting. Bob was taking the route of apprehension that lead to being apprehensive.

Linda’s Story: Linda is CEO of a mid-market company. She has built a fine team that is producing at a very high level. Our sessions tended to be future focused. We talked about possibilities and probabilities. One of her strong points was the ability to grasp new and complex ideas and put them to work quickly. A second strength was an ability to see and understand what was going on around her and the people involved in the company.

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