Finally, you surrender to exhaustion, feeling yourself sink into the support of your bed, when thoughts of your upcoming performance review jolt you back to consciousness. You’ve lost the last three nights of sleep imagining the evaluation over and over. You’ve silently mouthed the words of your defense on the train. (This display has been met with strange stares by the other commuters.)
For many of us, the mere thought of certain types of communication—or communication with certain people—can ratchet up our stress levels to "11". Sometimes the stakes are high (income may be determined, an opportunity granted or denied, a proposal accepted); sometimes, on closer examination, they are not so significant. Regardless, we worry.
Do genetics determine our comfort in communicating? Parental modeling? A high gluten diet? I would be willing to accept that these factors and more may contribute to how we approach our interactions but, as a speech and communication coach, I’m most interested in what we can do about it.
For starters, here’s some good news:
OK, sometimes you can and should trust your instincts. And people being self-involved may sometimes be bad news. But hear me out. What often dominates our thoughts as we anticipate challenging conversations, meetings, presentations or conflict situations, is ourselves. Our worst case scenarios generally involve how we will be perceived. When we see ourselves as the most important element, our fight or flight instincts prepare us to BOLT at the first sign of danger. What are your instincts telling you?
"They’ll discover I’m not good enough." "They’ll think I’m an idiot." "I’ll screw it up." "They’ll say ‘no.’" "They’ll regret giving me this job."
But what if your instincts are wrong? What if nobody really cares that much about you? Well, then the path is clear for you to have more confident communication! Let’s face it, to humiliate another requires energy, focus and time; three things most people have in short supply. Besides, these concerns are all about you, and they’re just not that into you.
What are they into? Their wants, their success, avoiding their own humiliation. How might things change simply by framing your message with that awareness in mind? What if you approached the conversation or meeting as an opportunity to provide assistance, devise a solution, or appeal to their knowledge and expertise? How does this change the dynamic? I’ll tell you how: it takes you off the hook and makes you more confident. When we are offering to attend to another’s need, we are at our best and are more likely to be heard. We aren’t groveling for approval, we are seeking to be of assistance—we are Solution Masters.
How might your experience change if you:
This new approach takes creativity and planning, but it flips the interaction on its proverbial ear. It allows for your best, most confident self to shine through. You become the hero of the story. Crazy, you say? Preposterous? Try it—see what happens. (Side benefit: your thoughts will have better structure and shape because you’ve devised a strategy—not only for getting what you want from the situation, but also for bringing out your best by giving others what they need—a better use of your time than losing sleep from anxiety.)
Make notes—don’t leave it to chance—and test your thoughts against the question, “How can I frame this to be in my listener’s interest?” When possible, bring those notes with you, so you don’t have to rely on memory. Depending on the circumstances, you may acknowledge the notes upfront saying something like, “This is a very important topic. I want to be sure I don’t leave anything of value out, so I’ll be referring to some notes I’ve made. . .” Could any reasonable person knock you for that? (Do we care what an unreasonable person knocks us for?)
My message is simple: Don’t trust your instincts. Treat everyone like a supreme narcissist! Or, here's the less cynical version: A great first step to confident communication is to stare down your fear-based instincts and choose generosity in your approach instead, framing your message with the needs and interests of your listener front and center.
WJM Faculty Member Stephanie Silverman is an executive coach specializing in public speaking and all areas of spoken communication. She has been working as a performer and voice/speech/presentation coach for over ten years. Stephanie is also a voice over performer and may be heard narrating numerous audio books, in commercials, corporate recordings and educational tools..