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This blog post is an excerpt from the Trelus Transition Readiness Webinar Series featuring Denise Logan, Business Transition Expert and author of The Seller’s Journey, and Curt Cyliax, Managing Director at Strategic Exit Advisors.  

Most owners who sell a business experience nerves, worries, or outright fear at some point during the process. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Fear is a normal part of being human. However, if you don’t examine and process those fears in a healthy way, they can negatively impact the sale—or sink it altogether.

Unacknowledged fear can drive a range of behaviors that poison otherwise strong business deals: impatience, aggressiveness, impulsivity, withdrawal. The fears behind these behaviors may not always be obvious. 

How do you recognize fear-driven responses and protect your sales process from being influenced by them? Read on to learn more.

Where does fear come from?

First, it’s important to understand where fear originates. Fear is regulated by the amygdala, a little section of the brain that manages emotional reactions. The amygdala is the oldest part of the brain, sometimes referred to as the “lizard brain.” Its other nickname is the “fear center.”

Being a fear factory might make the amygdala sound like a liability, but it’s actually quite useful. It scans the environment looking for threats and can help you anticipate problems before they harm you.

The drawback of the amygdala is that it can’t always distinguish between real threats and perceived threats. A perceived threat is something that may not be threatening from an objective standpoint, but your brain interprets it as threatening or associates it with past threats.

For example, if you had an abusive authority figure in childhood who always made a certain angry face before flying off the handle, you may feel fearful every time anyone makes an angry face. Logically, you know that not every angry face is a precursor to yelling and punching. But your amygdala has been trained to fire when you see that expression, and it causes a fear reaction that shuts down other, possibly more helpful responses.

Not every fear response is triggered by something so dramatic. Everyday stimuli can subconsciously trigger anxiety. It’s likely some of those triggers will occur during the long process of selling your business. 

If you don’t understand and recognize those triggers and your fear responses, you may behave in ways that aren’t helpful to the sale.

The Five Fear Responses

Human beings demonstrate five types of responses to fear. These responses may look a little different for everyone, but they fit into general categories.

  1. Fight—be aggressive, tackle the problem head-on
  2. Flight—get away from the threat as fast as possible
  3. Freeze—unable to respond, shut down
  4. Fawn—overly accommodating, trying to please and appease
  5. Submit—give up, give in, stop putting in effort

Most of us will default to two or three of these responses when afraid. These reactions can be helpful, even life-saving, in the face of real threats, but can work against us when the threat is only perceived.

For example, if you are insecure about your financial management skills, your fear could be triggered when an investment banker asks to see detailed financial documents. A person whose automatic response is “fight” might respond to that discomfort with a challenge: “Why do you need those documents right now? It’s too early in the process.” Someone who reacts with “flight” or “freeze” might delay sending the documents, or might not even acknowledge receipt of the email.

By understanding which responses you’re prone to, you can catch yourself in the act and learn to choose healthier actions.

Cut Off the Fear Cycle

One of the reasons it’s so important to rein in your fear response is that it can actually trigger the unconscious fear responses of other people involved in the deal. Then you become stuck in a cycle of escalating fears.

Denise Logan, former business owner and author of The Seller’s Journey, has seen it happen more times than she can count. Logan works one-on-one with business owners to help them navigate the emotional journey of selling a company. 

As a participant in business deals, Logan explains that “knowing how I act can help me to tame my own amygdala and keep myself a little more centered.” This helps lower the temperature in fraught situations. 

Logan recalls advising on a sale where the buyer and the buyer’s attorney were both “fight” people. The attorney feared repercussions if he didn’t do his job well. For him, “fighting” that fear looked like warning the buyer of every possible problem with the sale, so he couldn’t be accused of oversight later. However, the constant warnings triggered the buyer’s own fear and “fight” response, so she became increasingly aggressive—which made the attorney even more fearful. The deal was stagnating as a result. When Logan explained to the attorney how he and the buyer were triggering each other’s fear responses, he managed to curtail the urge to imagine every possible problem. This made the buyer calmer. They moved forward with acquiring the business.

This is why many sales deals fall through, Logan says—because of unprocessed negative emotions. When we’re gripped by things like fear, grief, and uncertainty, we lose some critical thinking capacity. That critical thinking is what helps the deals get done. If we give ourselves space to acknowledge and process our emotions, our “lizard brains” can simmer down and our thinking brain can come fully back online.

“If it’s all lizard all the time, deals don’t get done,” Logan quips.

Advisers Should Stabilize, Not Trigger, Your Fears

As you select an advisory team, look for even-keeled individuals who will not contribute to the fear cycle. If you already know that you have strong reactions to perceived threats, proactively look for those who can balance out your natural responses.

This means finding professionals who are not just technically proficient at their job, but who are emotionally intelligent. They’ll need to “tune in” to your feelings.

“When you’re interviewing an advisor, there’s technical proficiency, which of course you require,” Logan says. “Of course you need a technically proficient MNA advisor. You need a technically proficient lawyer, accountant, wealth manager—you need that. But how present are they with you on the other issues?”

Take Back Control

Business sales run more smoothly if everyone is caring for their own emotional health and approaching others with empathy. Put in the work to confront and resolve your fears, find advisers who are attuned to your wellbeing, and remember that others are having fears and concerns that you don’t even know about.

When you become better at identifying fear cycles and deescalating them, you come to a place where critical thinking, and not the lizard brain, is in control of your business sale.

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