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How to master your nerves

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It’s intangible, invisible and the most important professional asset you’ll ever possess. ShortList’s Simeon de la Torre investigates the skill of self-confidence.

Consider, for a moment, British golfer Rory McIlroy. At last month’s Masters, the then-21-year-old soared into the final day four shots up, having played sublimely for three rounds. His head was held high, his confidence in the clouds. But then, at about 5pm on the Sunday afternoon, he stepped up to the 10th tee and… choked. His tee shot bounced off a tree, took a sharp left and flew a country mile off the fairway.

What followed on the subsequent holes was just about the most harrowing loss of confidence ever witnessed in sport. We could see — in glorious HD — the tell-tale signs of a man bottling it. You knew that behind the fixed grimace and wide eyes, his brain was in panic mode. And it was acutely embarrassing for us all, because we’ve all done it.

McIlroy might have been out on a sun-drenched golf course when he had his meltdown, but he was nevertheless working. It was no different to a designer suddenly blanking during a presentation or a salesman floundering while closing. Ultimately, in business, confidence counts. It helps you get results. It gets you noticed.

THE MOST VITAL SKILL

James Bywater is the head psychologist for intelligence firm SHL. “Confidence impacts a great deal upon business, particularly in western civilisation,” he tells ShortList. “It’s a prized asset, a skill that is placed above a number of others. We’re an oral culture — people don’t write formal letters any more, for example — and confident people thrive in roles such as sales and leadership, which are incredibly important to many organisations.”

François Moscovici, one of the UK’s foremost HR experts and director of White Water Strategies, agrees: “People who project low self-confidence do not get asked to do the interesting work. In any situation where you have a professional relationship with other people, confidence will be an extremely important aid.”

As programmes such as The Apprentice have demonstrated, society is becoming ever more confident. “Compare the baby boomers with today’s emerging generation. Those entering the workforce now are immensely confident,” says Moscovici. “They were born into globalisation and real-time multiple social interaction. They have no fear in talking to anyone.”

Now, while you could be forgiven for momentarily fearing that the entire nation has evolved into a race of arrogant, besuited phone-bawlers, you might be uncomfortable admitting that you may struggle with public speaking. That the thought of making a presentation terrifies you. Maybe just talking through your ideas with the boss fills you with dread. Well, you’re not alone.

“Interestingly, you find people with low confidence at all levels — even in the highest positions,” says Moscovici. “If you talk to senior management people, I would estimate that one in two have experienced it. The interesting thing is that most people believe it only happens to them.

“I have a client who is a vice president of a global company, but because of his low self-esteem, he felt terrified of speaking to his senior vice presidents — people he should have been comfortable talking to. He felt, ‘Why would they talk to me?’ It can be a real blocker, even at the highest levels of organisations.”

And while it’s reassuring to think that those way up on the top rungs of the career ladder fret about choking in front of their peers, it’s also encouraging to know that confidence isn’t a magical attribute conferred upon a select few by the gods. “I think that people can make a concerted effort to learn the necessary skills,” says Bywater. “You can improve your networking or presentation technique by working on it. The end outcome —that social polish — is very much trainable.”

Given the worth placed upon confidence in the workplace and beyond, it has become a valuable commodity, with its own industry and millionaire exponents. Some command a cult-like devotion and encourage their devotees to walk through fire and buy expensive ‘vitamin’ mixtures, while others preach from the good book of the blindingly vacuous, with talk of ‘personal mission statements’ and facile breathing techniques.

We gave both of these groups a swerve and went instead to respected performance coach Mike Duckett. It would seem that, if you’re feeling a lack of confidence in any given situation, it’ll take a bit of soul searching to overcome it. “The context is absolutely vital,” he explains. “You have to define what the specific circumstance is that you’re not confident about. You could be great when talking to your team, but go to pieces in front of the board. So, why is that?

“I’ll answer that with three questions: do you know how to do it? Well, yes, you can clearly speak to people because you can speak to your team. Often that realisation is enough to set you on your way.

“Do you know what to do? In other words, do you have the knowledge or skills to answer their questions? That’s something for you to answer. And if it’s a ‘no’, then you should work on that knowledge to take away the fear.

“Finally, do you believe you can do it? If not, we can deal with that.”

In essence, most ‘nightmare situations’ can be overcome through self-knowledge and preparation. You’ve just got to drill down to identify that anxiety point — by having a brutally honest conversation with yourself. Something as broad as, say, ‘presenting to the board’ often won’t be the problem. You may find that it’s ‘presenting to the board and them asking a question about X’. And why is that? ‘Because I won’t know the answer.’ The solution? Find out the answer. Get prepared.

And if it just comes down to you believing that you don’t have the confidence to triumph, that belief is the issue, some further mental techniques can help.

TRAINING YOUR MIND

“I work with a number of professional sportspeople,” says Duckett. “You know when you see downhill skiers rocking back and forth before launching themselves off the top? What they’re doing is rehearsing cognitive scenarios — ‘If this happens here, I’ll do that. And if that happens, I’ll remedy it by doing such and such.’

“What I do with the people who come to see me is encourage them to imagine the future. So, they’ll get right in the moment and they’ll watch a screen of themselves performing the way that they want to — at their very best. They’ll go through difficult scenes, ‘rewind the tape’ and come up with the perfect response. You can do it yourself by sitting quietly in a chair and thinking it through.”

Interestingly, this cognitive technique throws-up an insight that will also physically help you to improve your confidence. When you imagine yourself performing at your very best, note what clothes you’re wearing. From then on, it should be your ‘power outfit’ and when you wear it, you can revel in the confidence it gives you. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of it,” says Duckett.

“It’s how it makes you feel. Watch how you walk, too.”

With a bit of practise, you can arm yourself for action in any situation by taking yourself to your ‘confidence zone’ — the place where you’re untouchable. And if you want to instantly transport yourself to that place when you’re out facing the real world, create a psychological anchor.

“I did some work with an international tae kwon do expert,” says Duckett. “To get him into the confidence zone, he has a handkerchief infused with a smell that he doesn’t smell anywhere else [an essential oil would be ideal]. All he has to do is take a sniff and he’s right back in the zone.”

So you’ve run through the scenarios, you’ve got all the answers, you know what to wear and you’re in control. What can possibly go wrong? Well, life can.

“You can’t legislate for everything,” explains Duckett. “Recognise that you are not in control of the outcome. The best sportspeople do not focus on winning or losing — they just concentrate on doing their best. You can’t control the fact that the MD has had a row with his wife and he’s in a foul mood for your meeting. It’s out of your hands.”

Because sometimes, you drive a ball off the tee and it soars towards the pin. But then at other times, it bounces off a tree, takes a sharp left and ends up a country mile off the fairway.

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