I am having an interesting week. I was asked to coach someone who has failed to hold up his end of the Team Presenter Pact. Apparently, the two most recent presentations were, according to one team member “abject failures.” According to another colleague, “he shows up unprepared and then proceeds to damage our reputation.” I heard these comments before my first coaching session, so you will not be surprised to learn that I was fully prepared to meet an arrogant know-it-all who has nothing to learn. Insert audio of the Jeopardy “wrong answer” buzzer.
It turns out that “Mark” (name changed to protect the innocent) was doing his damnedest to mask a deep-seated fear of public speaking. Because he wants to stay in his job, and because he knows he can’t get out of the team presentations, he has been playing the role of the “too-busy/too important” colleague.
In our session he said, “My problem is – and always has been, ever since my first failed speech in college – that I walk right past reason, and confidence, and assuredness; and run headlong into fear. I know it’s irrational. I know I should stop. But I can’t.”
I asked Mark if I could talk to a few of his colleagues to get a better picture of what we would focus on in our sessions. Here are the things people said about him:
- He’s never willing to take the laboring oar. He just shows up at the last minute when all the big assignments have been doled out
- I didn’t get any great warmth from him; he seemed to not want to be there
- When the technology failed during one of our presentations, he barked some orders at us like we were his underlings
- He handles the door jamb conversations really well, so I know he can speak in an engaging manner; I’m not sure why ‘that guy’ never shows up when we need him.
My first question to him was, “Why would you want people to think these things of you when they’re all simply by-products of your attempt to mask a phobia?” His response was exactly what you would expect from any career professional, “It’s time to take control of the situation. How can I fix this?”
We began by identifying the instigators that induced a chemical bath of fear. We decided to challenge the assumption that his crippling fear was a “destination,” as if it were an Amtrak train barreling toward Penn Station when he wanted to go to Poughkeepsie. Instead, we labeled it a “connecting flight.” That is, he would not likely eliminate the anxiety in the foreseeable future, but he didn’t have to be reduced by it. At SpeakWell Partners, we call this “Notice it, Name it, Negotiate it.”
We then began working on a particular coping mechanism designed to refocus the brain away from thoughts related to anxiety and toward thoughts about success. Neuroscience researchers call it a “toward response.” I asked Mark to come up with a question he could ask himself when the fear started to take over. We ended up with: “What would an optimistic, capable person do in this situation?” One of the key findings about a toward state is not visualizing perfection. Instead, it’s about summoning a mild to moderate positive emotion. That’s what allows us to make small changes that then lead to bigger successes.
Given the comments from his team members, Mark was not in an ideal position to use another confidence-building technique: the Power Posse. Most of his colleagues were mad at him. Not much of a chance they were going to fill the role of motivator, friend, or cheerleader. He was able to make a list of a few people he could call on when he was preparing for the next presentation. Their job was to identify specific things Mark had done in previous meetings or informal presentations that would help him redirect his thoughts toward his strengths.
We ended our session by re-writing his definition of fear. Instead of a debilitating experience, Mark began to see that it could also be used as fuel. The kind of fuel that comes from caring, from wanting to do a good job, from valuing the audience. And, of course, no one leaves one of our coaching sessions without learning some breathing exercises. Bottom line, it’s about controlling the breath and using that primary source of energy to enable our best work.