How to be more confident in challenging situations

Andrea Schüller on November 4, 2014

The treacherous transience of confidence

Easily one of the top five issues people ask me to coach them on is how to appear more confident in challenging situations. This could be in the context of an especially tricky meeting, a phone conference with lots of important stakeholders, a presentation that they feel could either make or break their career…

When I ask what they perceive to be different about how they interact in these situations they say that they are simply a lot more self-conscious. Wanting to do especially well can have an adverse impact on performance. We’ve known that since the famous Yerkes Dodson law, dating back to the 1920s.

Digging deeper into the situations that see their confidence deflate as if punctured, coachees often mention that it’s less the content they struggle with. That can be prepared and mastered. It’s the audience. Trouble begins if there are quite a number of ‘observers’ of which my coachees feel, they haven’t yet established their credibility with. There is no ‘good will’ stemming from a track record of good performances. This is it. Win or lose. The performance right now determines the ‘box’ they will be put into. The pressure is on.

Interestingly, almost all my coachees perceive ‘everybody else’ being so much more confident in similar situations. Nobody else seems to battle with their nerves, quickening their delivery trying to keep up with their panicked, over-rapid thinking, nobody else is as likely to ruin the punch line of their opening joke and fidget as much with their hands, at least not to the point of their personal struggle.

Yes. There are people who are less affected by an audience and less likely to be distracted by noticing their own signs of rising panic. Naturals, who never questioned that they can have the impact they chose and want to have.

Yet most people battled and fought their way there. They found ways to project confidence where it was acutely lacking, by learning how to deliberately slow down their delivery, walk and work the room with assured steps, holding eye contact with their audience – one at a time, cleverly using props and stories, pausing for effect, peppering their speech with questions and making the most of other ‘pull influencing’ techniques like summarising, paraphrasing, building on points. After years of practice they smoothly insert oral signposts such as ‘I’d like to make three points here, in the order of their importance’. In essence: they are no longer petrified of speaking up most of the time with most people in almost all circumstances, only some of the time with some people in some circumstances.

They’ve trained themselves to survive in the power play, with ‘power’ deftly defined by Barry Oshry as

“the ability to act, as if you can make happen, whatever it is you want to make happen, knowing that you cannot and being willing to work with whatever does happen”.

The most fascinating thing in working with those hugely talented people is: despite how far they’ve come, they never feel that’s good enough. They’ve got here, but now, how do they get ‘there’ – to this elusive place where worry does not consume them and get in the way of them being at the peak of their game – ever? The place, other people seem to naturally inhabit?

Confidence has many sources.

  • Most importantly, expertise and experience.
  • Yet ‘presence’ in the room and an ability to give any debate a forward spin towards a solution that people actually buy into are just as important.
  • This correlates heavily with energy – the energy we bring and project. It’s often said that we have to act our way into a new way of being. So, simplified: we need to continue to act confident to feel it, to become it. Well, actions and thoughts influence our feelings. This is why Amy Cuddy’s ‘power posing’ is so effective (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ks-_Mh1QhMc) . So only by putting ourselves out there again and again will we become more confident. This does not happen in a vacuum.
  • But can’t we also think our way into a new way of being? If we really knew, deep down, that what we’re saying is worth listening to. How would we be in the room, on the phone? What if we knew that we enjoyed having the floor. How would that affect how we play things? What if we knew for a fact that most eyes are on us, expecting and willing us to do well, rather than waiting for us to fail. How would we return the favour and include people in our delivery?

And finally: what if we simply stopped worrying, or better still, accepted the worry as a necessary pre-condition to giving a spirited performance?