Virginia Hicks, Comma’s MD, talks to coach, Edith Wilkinson, to understand more about confidence – why it comes and goes – and what we can do to help ourselves.

Q1: How would you describe confidence?

A1: I think that outward confidence comes from an inner feeling of being connected to something bigger than yourself. It’s that feeling of being alive.  If you want to see that connected confidence in action, ask someone about a hobby or somethin

Q2: Don’t we all lack confidence at times?

A2: Absolutely. We all have days when we don’t feel confident, we are all human and that’s a part of the human experience whatever level we might be at. We wake up – we feel low, we don’t feel in the flow of things, things seem difficult.  It’s the same for everyone.  It’s not helped by the negative voice in our heads that’s telling us things are going to be awful that day or that week. We create a whole negative script about how things will play out.

Q3: What affect do you think COVID has had?

A3: COVID I think exacerbates this thinking because we feel less certain about things – security of our jobs, safety of our families – and, on top of that, we are faced with doing things in different ways. Life has become a more unknown quantity than ever before making people more fearful.

The virtual environment isn’t a comfortable place for everyone.  Where once people could rely on building and nurturing in-person relationships to persuade and influence they are now having to do this two dimensionally with the only reference points a voice and picture of someone you may never have met. What you don’t get online is a sense of people’s energy. That intangible something that enhances the connection between people.  The technology itself can have some challenges – knowing how to use it so you can look and sound the best you can.

Q4: What is the biggest barrier to confidence?

A4: Fear.  Whether this be fear of not being good enough, not knowing enough, not being interesting enough, not fulfilling one’s potential, not being taken seriously, families being ill – the list goes on.

Whatever the cause of the fear, physiological affects appear when you feel threatened.  In times gone by you might have been threatened by a sabre-toothed tiger.  You had a choice – fight or flight – your reaction is a conditioned part of your limbic system.  It’s a throwback to when you needed to save your life.  Now even if you are in a well-lit conference room, or on-line meeting the same things happen if you feel anxious. You feel stressed, your heart starts pounding cortisol starts racing round your body.  You start breathing shallowly, your voice weakens and before you know it you are looking and sounding much less confident. Less assured. All of that starts because of the anxious or fearful thought about what might happen.  Your mind is the best special effects system ever. It takes you from calm to stress very quickly. Then the voice in your head chips in and starts to say `I can’t do technology’ and you’ve set the tone for the meeting ahead.

Q5: What can people do to help themselves?

A5: There are some simple tricks that can help.  All around presence, grounding and gravitas.  These small changes make a big difference to how people feel.

Trick 1 – Breathing

The key one is breathing properly, making sure you are breathing from your diaphragm and not your chest.  A lot of people don’t know the difference.   When you are nervous your breath becomes shallow and this impacts your voice and how you speak – making you sound ‘breathy’. If your nervousness transmits to other people that also detracts from your presence. 

There are a couple of ways to find out if you are breathing from your diaphragm or not.

Lie on your back and place a heavy book on your stomach– you will know when you are breathing from your diaphragm when you feel the book moving up, matching your breathing.  Or try it standing up, hook your thumb under your rib cage and breathe.  You should be able to feel your diaphragm pushing your thumb back out.  

When you do speak, be conscious of your breathing and speak as you exhale a breath. This gives your voice more power and your speech clarity. 

Trick 2 – Grounding 

Secondly, you need to ground yourself.  Often when people are in virtual situations they will wind their feet around the chair they are sitting on.  If you want to feel in control, have your feet firmly on the ground. 

Q6:  And what about gravitas?  We hear it mentioned a lot.

A6: Trick 3 – Gravitas

It’s one of those things that people tell you that you need, but what the heck is it? I’d describe it as an energy, a presence, a calm stillness. It allows you to influence. It implies seriousness with a touch of dignity. In other words, people take what you say seriously, and your words have impact. Everyone has it to some degree and you can develop more with practise. 

Q7:  How can people improve their gravitas?

A7: As communicators we are often the ones that need to have the “emperor’s new clothes” conversation with leaders. That’s tricky because they don’t all want to hear the truth.

Start by putting your own oxygen mask on first – control your breathing – manage your own state. Be grounded and present. Listen to others to understand – not to work out how to respond. In meetings before you speak, listen to what is being said and tune into what people mean. Listen to the language people use and reflect it back. People pay attention when they recognise you’ve been listening. 

Good conversation is like a dance: Thomas Edison, the inventor of the telephone, once said “communication is the response you get”. He was right.  If you’ve connected successfully with someone then they will respond in the way you need them to.  If you match the same pace and tone as someone you fall into a conversational rhythm. Retain a sense of curiosity not defensiveness.

If I had a pound for every senior leader who has told me they’ve suffered from impostor syndrome, and lack of confidence, I’d have a pretty tidy sum in the bank.  Never forget no matter how senior the leader, they are human beings too.

Q8: People are finding technology challenging.  Looking at a screen instead of being in a live situation. Any tips there?

A8:  That is the biggest mistake people make, looking at the screen or your own image on screen – instead of looking down the lens of the camera. You can overcome this by placing some books under your laptop to raise it up so only your head and shoulders show on the screen and make it easier for you to look into the lens.  Doing that means you are virtually making eye contact and it will help your presence.  It’s a good idea to practise talking to camera – whether this be in preparation for a meeting or an interview.  Putting a few key notes on a Post-It note next to the webcam means you won’t keep looking down.

From a technical point of view my advice is test the technology the day before – headphones and mics – and sit as close to your router as you can so you get the best possible connection.

Q9: Anything else?

A9:  Yes, dress for the occasion, like you would in-person; make sure you have no distractions on screen – like other programmes being open and have nothing in the background that will divert attention from you. It’s also important to keep your hands controlled.  If you know you are someone that is quite animated, control yourself by keeping your hands below chest height or, if all else fails, sit on them!

Q10: You’re a coach.  How does coaching fit into helping people who lack confidence?

A10: Most people don’t want to be coached – what they want is the outcome that coaching will help them to achieve – their goals. Whether that’s to gain a coveted role, be less anxious, be more confident, find their purpose, fulfil their potential, get unstuck or have more days when life just flows.  They see coaching as a way of supporting them to achieve that.  If you’ve not been working for a while people often want to understand how they can improve their impact in professional situations or in interviews.

Q11: What could someone expect in a first session?

A11: The first session is usually about a coach getting into someone’s world – understanding where they are coming from.  And where they want to get to.  Good coaches are good listeners.  That is the starting point and coaches build from there.

Q12:  And, finally.  Anything we can be reading to help us understand confidence, how to get it and how to keep it?

A12:     Yes there are. I have two in particular that I would recommend.

Presence – How to use positive energy for success by Patsy Rodenburg and 

You are a Bad Ass – How to stop doubting your greatness and start living an awesome life by Jen Sincero. 

Edith – enlightening.  Thank you.