Over the years I’ve heard a common phrase being said in many different industries with a wide range of professionals. It is heard when tackling career development, interpersonal challenges, even personal growth in an existing role – “I need to work on my confidence” or, in the worst cases, “I have no confidence”.
Confidence issues rarely resolve themselves, especially if we use them as a default response to challenging situations. Public speaking or engagements are cited as good opportunities to work on these issues, but the impact is more subtle and more immediate. If we struggle to speak up, we reduce our chances for new opportunities, we remove ourselves from ideation and strategy planning, we effectively remove ourselves from the room altogether.
So how do people remedy this? Often the in-pocket suggestion is to take a public speaking course. Does it help? Well, maybe, it depends. How often do you present to a group of people? Even still, it does not resolve the underlying challenge – to understand where confidence issues come from. Not understanding this can lead to self-sabotage.
Say you’re in a meeting, the topic is being presented by someone else so you’ve nothing prepared. Suddenly, someone asks you a question. The floor opens beneath you as your heart races, your mind fogs, and you become very aware of everyone staring at you. Only moments ago, you had a brilliant idea, but without warning you’re unable to articulate. You blurt something out until the room seems satisfied, then attention returns to the speaker, and you sink a little lower in your chair. ‘That public speaking course was money down the drain’ you bitterly think to yourself.
So, before we make this transformation, let’s try to understand confidence a little more.
They say confidence is like a muscle, and like any muscle it needs exercise to become stronger. We all know the pain that comes from hitting the gym too hard after a long break. If your body is not used to what you’re putting it through it will feel awful! Sometimes enough to make you regret working-out in the first place. The key to any successful gym regime is starting small and pushing yourself a little more each time. Confidence is the same, it is about finding those little exercises to practice regularly so, in time, you are prepared for anything life throws at you.
So how do we exercise Confidence? With Control.
Control has many subsections, but in my opinion, it starts with the control over your mind which will thereafter enable to control your body.
It is important to remember, the brain’s main function is to keep us alive, not to make us happy. So, when presented with challenging situation our first reaction is to drop everything and run.
And this is where you exercise control. Controlling your mind. The words we use to support ourselves are as important as the ones we say to others. Yup, talk to yourself as you would talk to your best friend. Control how often you address yourself negatively – ‘I can’t do that’, ‘this is too hard’, ‘oh, I don’t know, I am not qualified enough’. Language has huge power over our subconscious.
You may be right, you might not be good enough now, but no one is when they first begin. When people say it was an overnight success story it has most likely been ten years of backbreaking work and sacrifice.
Confidence is built through practise, and you can control how much you practice.
Consider an A-list Hollywood actor. They might spend months rehearsing for a role. Doing research, understanding the time, character, background, why they say what they do and how. Building relationships with another characters, rehearsing each line until they can speak or sing them, make them into a comedy or tragedy – what ever happens they will be able to deliver the lines. They rehearse, they try and fail then try again. They get continuous feedback. They work on their technique, widen their range, work on their body and mind to be able to sustain their level and excel as time goes. Constant professional improvement is the mark of anyone truly invested in their career. There is a big difference of doing and practicing before doing.
Last time when you had to present, how much time did you spend rehearsing? How did you feel afterwards? Did you ask for feedback? Could you have practiced more? Did you choose not to think about it afterwards and hope you won’t ever have to do it again?
Practise does indeed make perfect. It also makes it easier as challenges arise. A great example of years of practise is Martin Luther King’s famous speech. He famously made it up on a spot, but does that mean he wasn’t prepared? Every speech he ever delivered, every conversation he had and listened to helped create a library of material that MLK was able to draw on and improvise within that moment. And he was able to do that because he had the practice, and control over the situation. He was able to keep his mind clear in a highly charged moment and create something original.
We spend too much time looking at perfect executions of what we ourselves want to achieve. We spend a lot of time talking about success stories, overnight successes, and performances of top artists, regardless of the field.
We don’t talk enough about challenges, failures, and learnings.
Don’t self-sabotage yourself by thinking you can’t do it. Research how others make it happen, learn the process and be endlessly curious. Not so much about their success but the failures that gave them the learnings and experience.
After finishing school, learning is often seen as a hobby rather than a necessity. Therefore, most of us see the perfect version, the end-product of each performance. We lack the visibility to the practise that made it possible. And yes, that creates anxiety. They make it look so very easy; how can I live up to that?
Only a very few people can. But most people can when they practise, and that practice is the key to confidence. Practise equals control.
That can only happen if you achieve the control over your body, the second part of your control journey.
Our bodies and mind are controlled by our breath. When in extreme situations we try to get a lot of it. When we intake too much oxygen in small dosages we go into overdrive. Your brain will want to get you out of the situation and rest of your body will do everything to make that happen.
Take a deep breath and calm down – something that is often said (and very true!). The problem is most of us don’t know what that means. I ask you now to take a normal breath. See your chest raise and get a small intake of oxygen. In most cases that would be the 20% of your lung capacity and will not serve you for long so soon you will take in more. In panic mode this can very often lead to hyperventilation.
There are many techniques that teach how to take actual deep breaths, that will help engage your diaphragm and support your voice when speaking, giving you a more confident sound and an ability to deliver content with conviction all the while staying cool, calm, and collected. Here is an example how to make a start. It is by no means an easy fix, but continuous practice will help you to calm your mind in challenging situations and help prevent self-sabotaging.
How do we to catch ourselves out on self-sabotaging? Practise active listening. That means, when someone is speaking, you are not thinking what you will say next, instead you listen what they are saying and then respond. The moment you catch yourself wondering what other people are thinking while you are presenting- unfortunately that is a sign that you have disconnected yourself from your presentation, so if you can’t entertain yourself why should they? And by allowing this speculation you will most likely create anxiety by thinking what others are thinking and interpret their reactions/expressions as direct feedback to you. Controlling where you allow your attention to go is important. They might just look miserable as they missed breakfast, truth is, you don’t know, so best you can do is deliver your message, it is all about the message. Get feedback later when you can listen and discuss.
It is important to remember that it is Ok to be anxious. We should talk about it more. It is part of the journey and talking about it help others. It shows people that feeling this way isn’t dangerous – nothing terrible will happen because of it. Second, it means the anxiety is not permanent – it wont last forever. And third, it detaches you from the fear, helps you to see it as something external and temporary, like a passing virus.
Elite sports are tied to high-wire act of failure, self-doubt, and injury, as well as of great success and acclaim. It is about high stakes which come with ups and downs of emotions. The experience and exposure have thought them that with ups there will be downs, and even thought the downs are painful they are also temporary, controllable, and not central to who they are.
Think of something that you are great at and how you got there. Think of something that you found incredibly difficult and then overcame and how?
Most likely it all game down to repetition, practice, and consistency. It is the same formula that helps us with everything else, may it be a new skill or achieving a goal. Don’t allow a challenge to become a roadblock but use it to make a change. Take control over your confidence.
Credit: Kirsi Swinton, UK Sales Programme Manager | Executive Support to VP & Managing Director UK | Member of The Association for Business Psychology I The Assistant Room Ambassador