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Go for it

Confidence, and self-confidence, are very important issues in the organisations where I work.

Lack of confidence can lead to all kinds of problems: sometimes it can freeze us  – we find ourselves completely unable to enter new territory. A simple example: having the confidence to sell a new type of product or service to a new type of client.

I think it was in a book by Jesper Juul that I first saw the distinction made between self-confidence and self-esteem.

Self-esteem, the way I read it, is about how I feel about myself, regardless of my skills or abilities.

Self-confidence, by contrast, relates to my view of my skills, my abilities, and my behaviours. If I think I am good at things I do – then I am self-confident.

Following this approach I can, if my self-esteem is good enough, feel good about myself even if I am demonstrably rubbish at something. And if I unfreeze and take the necessary steps, then I’ll learn and build the skills I need – growing my self-confidence.

Children, of course, learn new skills like sponges, and only at a certain age start to worry about their skills and abilities. By the time we are adults, many of us seem to be depending on our skills and abilities to maintain our self-esteem.

So that’s the theory. But how can I ‘operationalise’ this? (I love that word). What can I actually do that will help me become more fearless and act as if I have high self-esteem, even when I have zero self-confidence in a certain domain?

Three things come to mind:

  • Tell the truth. Maybe I am the only one, but a lot of my fears and worries are fears of being ‘found out’. Fear leads to inaction. Without action I cannot develop the self-confidence I need. So to avoid ever being put in a position where I will be ‘found out’ I find it useful to always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

When I was younger, if someone said something I didn’t understand I might try to bluff my way through it. You can imagine the results. Anxiety and tension that only escalates as the situation gets more complicated because of my failure to understand a key point. Then scurrying away afterwards to research what I didn’t know.

A big waste of time. Today, if I don’t know I’ll say. That way I can put my energy into doing whatever I should be doing (like really listening) instead of wasting time watching my back.

  • Work as a team. Drop the commonly held expectation that you are somehow ‘serving’ the other person, in the sense of being inferior to them. I do believe in one sense that we always serve others. But often the worst way to serve another is to act as if they have some kind of hold over us and to pander to their demands.

Much better to treat other people as peers. The easiest way to do this is to change the language you use. If someone asks you a question, don’t always jump to answer it. Instead, use language that assumes you are working together in a team. Say “we”. Say “that’s an interesting question, I wonder what the answer is. Shall we work it out together?”

  • And finally, stay in the moment. Handle what’s in front of you “one step at a time”. Stop planning ahead. A year. A month. A day. Even a few minutes.

Instead, focus on your breath. On your body. Tap into your emotion. Feel the earth (the seat) beneath your feet (bottom). Look around. Listen carefully. Extremely carefully – to what is being said. And what your body is saying.

And respond to that, what ever it is. Don’t worry about what might happen – in the future. Bring your focus back to the present and respond to that. OK, so you don’t know the answer. What does that feel like? What’s happening to the other person? When you have an answer, respond. Take the next step.

Rinse and repeat.


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The need to please

I have a strong need for acceptance.

Whenever I have done personality tests I have always been grateful for the kind psychologist’s desire to cast the most positive light on this aspect of my personality. Words like “introverted”, “extremely sensitive” and “would enjoy working one-on-one with others” could, of course, be written in a less positive way: that I fear rejection and have a deep-rooted need to please others.

But hold on. Rejection is something we all suffer from, isn’t it? And haven’t I heard it said that the sales person’s greatest skill is overcoming rejection? That confuses me a little because sales people always seem to me to be so focussed on their relationships – perhaps paradoxically they also have a very high need for acceptance, but show it differently from me?

My personally preferred route would be to avoid human contact a lot of the time, and avoid rejection at all costs.

But, in business, that isn’t always possible. And over the course of my working life I have probably done quite a lot of selling. Several things have made it possible for me.

Firstly, major bits of reframing. I see selling not as the activity of using my charm and personality to win someone over to my point of view. Rather I have learnt to see it as a qualification exercise: one where I simply ask questions to find out if this person desires whatever I have to sell.

I see selling as helping. After all that is how I sometimes experience being sold to. If I need something and a helpful salesperson gently guides me to the product I want, in the right size and the right colour; and gently removes my fears – about what I’ll do if I change my mind later, for example – I am a happy customer.

And I have learnt to see the word “no“, or indeed any other word which signifies the conversation is not heading in my chosen direction, with great curiosity. “What on earth do they mean by that?”, I ask myself. “What are you really trying to say?”. I have built my curiosity muscle – and if I use it often the conversation may take another, sometimes quite unexpected turn.

Essential to all of these is reducing the emotional burden behind the thoughts. I am a fan of cognitive behavioural therapy and actually enjoy the process of trying to reframe my thinking around the harder areas of my life. But I know that if there is deep-seated emotion still sitting around in me while I try to see the world differently, reframing will have only limited success.

Awareness is, for me, the most powerful way to lessen that emotional burden. Gradually, over time, inch-by-inch I think I am becoming stronger, and more able to deal with my need for acceptance; and this seems well correlated with my growing awareness of it.

And finally to action: Testing my beliefs to destruction seems to give me the ultimate proof I need to make real progress. Each time I find myself in a sales situation, and I practice “helping”, I practice asking those questions, and I practice just sitting with those difficult feelings, I seem to get just a little bit stronger.

I break my old habits and I forge new, more appropriate ones. That’s how it seems to go for me. What about you?