We walk a tightrope between battling anxiety and building inner confidence
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No matter how experienced you are, the lead-up to a challenging presentation or a conflict-filled meeting can still send shivers down your spine. The anticipation of tough questions, potential pitfalls, and the pressure to perform can unleash a wave of anxiety, no matter how many years you've spent in the business. While experience might grant you some immunity, those nerves can still chip away at your confidence and psyche.
Several years ago, I found myself deep in the trenches of a complex project.
Assigned by a senior client, let's call him Paul, I and my team were tasked with an extensive review of a large business transformation program Paul was sponsoring.
This was a complex piece of work - in fact, it was the largest single investment Paul's organization had made that financial year, with spend in the hundreds of millions. I had been asked to perform a thorough analysis of how that transformation was going and to come up with a set of recommendations on how to steer the ship so that certain organizational objectives would be met.
It was a big task that required delicate maneuvering.
While Paul stood by our side, not all his peers shared his goodwill. Corporate environments often breed power struggles and hidden agendas. Executives build their own kingdoms, which tend to thrive on influence expansion, often leading to inefficiencies. My role as an external consultant was to pinpoint these inefficiencies and provide guidance for realignment.
However, a problem named Graham stood in the way.
Graham was a senior executive with old-school convictions, who harbored a deep aversion to external consultants. Meetings with him were battlefields where he openly ridiculed our insights, especially if they hinted at improvements within his domain.
A big executive presentation was about to take place: imagine 5 or 6 very senior people in a room, including Paul and Graham. I was going to be the main presenter, tasked to deliver some hard messages and a bunch of tough options for the board to consider.
The anticipation was electrifying, and the nerves undeniable.
I knew Graham would be hard to handle in that meeting, but the extent remained uncertain.
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The day came and, as the presentation began, true to expectations, Graham fired off questions aimed at derailing my agenda. I held my ground, answering his queries professionally and collectedly. However, it became apparent that his goal was to obstruct our progress. Without a method beyond courtesy to counter his barrage, the situation turned intense for me for the entire 1-hour meeting.
After that session, the adrenaline slowly went away and that's when my body felt it all. A bad headache grabbed me, and I was literally shaking thinking of the absurd objections Graham was raising, the arrogant demeanor he was keeping throughout the whole session, and the rudeness with which he openly voiced: "Why are we paying these guys?", referring to my team.
Debriefing with Paul, I expected reassurance but was taken aback by his praise for my poise throughout the ordeal: "You were very calm", he commented.
Calm? He must be joking - I thought. I was sh*tting myself!
Paul was a very experienced guy, a senior member of the executive team, at least 15 years older than I was at the time.
He gave an advice in that moment:
“Don't let him get under your skin.”
Of course, he was right.
But how to do that?
Building inner resilience
Confidence, I realized, is an internal struggle.
External circumstances sway our inner equilibrium, causing fluctuations in our mood.
When that happens, we need to remind ourselves that, no matter what we are going through, we are always the same person.
Think about a time when you've aced a project, nailed a presentation, or cracked a tough problem. That sense of accomplishment… that's the fuel of confidence!
It's not an accolade others give you; it's the self-praise, the "I did it" chorus echoing inside you.
When you've nurtured your skills and gathered experience, your confidence grows organically.
No Graham in the world will be able to break that.
Confront your comfort zone: growth doesn't sprout within the confines of comfort. Stretch your boundaries; take on challenges that make your heart race.
With each hurdle conquered, you're essentially telling your confidence, "Hey, we're unstoppable".
Think of your comfort zone as a rubber band.
The more you stretch it, the more it accommodates. As consultants, we know this: every time we've stepped out of our comfort zone, we've returned with a wealth of experience, insights, and newfound confidence.
What Paul was telling me is that our mind is like a fortress, well-guarded and strong. But just like any stronghold, it has vulnerable spots – our emotions, our self-esteem, our peace of mind.
Graham was trying to breach those defenses, infiltrating my emotional sanctum. Paul was instead encouraging me to strengthen my mental armor, to build a shield against external opinions or provocations.
This doesn't mean suppressing your emotions or being impervious to criticism. Rather, it's about developing the ability to process these inputs without them affecting your inner peace.
In consulting, interactions can be intense, and opinions can be diverse. The ability to not let external pressures seep into our core can be the difference between maintaining clarity and succumbing to stress.
By the way, I still have an excellent relationship with Paul. I worked with him for many years after this.
As per Graham, he left the organization 6 months after this infamous meeting happened. And I never heard of him again.