Think back to the last time you felt insecure or unsure of yourself in a professional setting. What happened? Did your mouth dry up? Did your words dry up? Did your breathing become shallow and your heart race? Did you overcompensate by talking too much or too loudly or too fast? Did you flap you hands as you spoke? Did your mind go blank? Did you stutter? Sweat? Go red?
Now think of someone you know who, in a high stress situation, absolutely aces it. What’s different? Picture them in your mind. What are they doing? Saying? How do they look? What are they looking at?
At Verosa we often work with clients who face some of the most demanding and highly stressful situations on a daily basis. Board meetings where they are scrutinised intensely in the round and required to be accountable; high value sales pitches, where the very future of their company is at stake; public speaking engagements before massive audiences made up of the brightest and the best. Often we are asked for help in overcoming feelings of self doubt and in developing credibility and that all important professional gravitas.
For these situations and many like them, we will introduce clients to two concepts. The first is regulated diaphragmatic breathing (RBD). RBD is a skill that can be taught, practised and mastered and which can have a dramatically positive effect on many of the physical symptoms that go hand in hand with high stress states. I first came across RDB as a young singer, performing on stage as a classical soprano soloist. I knew how to breathe properly – I had been taught this as part of my classical training. What was remarkable though, was that I could use these techniques not only to support my singing voice, but to slow my heart rate and clear my head, ahead of a nerve wracking performance.
So, we start with breathing. RBD relieves stress and anxiety due to its physiological effect on the nervous system. Research from the past two years has shown that by breathing slowly and mindfully we can activate the hypothalamus -which is connected to the pituitary gland in the brain – to send out neuro-hormones that inhibit stress-producing hormones and trigger a relaxation response in the body. And it’s also found to be the case that the more you practise deep breathing, the more relaxed you can become on a more consistent basis.
The second tool we introduce our clients to is POISE, an acronym that helps remind us of the following:
I (Eye) contact
Think back to your professional ace in that high stress environment. Where are their eyes? Are they darting backwards and forwards or studying their shoes? Are they looking skywards, as if to invite heaven sent answers to their prayers? More likely, they are looking right at you and holding that eye contact. Not in an uncomfortable way, but in a way that suggests they are present, they are in the room and they are here to be taken seriously.
And silence. Oh silence. So hard to do. Next time you feel those familiar ‘out of my comfort zone’ signs, try saying nothing. Resist the urge to fill the space with something of no value. Resist doing or saying anything. Try simply being. And maintaining eye contact. It takes a brave soul to sit in silence, but as the acronym suggests, it can be very powerful indeed.
That brings us to empathy. Without empathy, silence and eye contact can be simply cold and off putting. So, yes, you might well convey the impression of being extremely capable and credible, but you may lose your audience entirely unless you meet them with empathy. As you stand or sit in silence, making eye contact (light housing if you are looking around a room at several people), consider their position, their journey. Pay it more than lip service. In your silence, as your breathing allows you to overcome those physical inhibitors, push to make an authentic, unspoken connection with those you face. It might be a wry smile, a nod, or a fleeting expression of understanding that you allow to pass over your face. It might be expressed in your body language as you adopt an open but strong posture.
All this you have done before you have even uttered a word. And within this calm, controlled and open setting……..go ahead and make your point.