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  • Writer's pictureJen

The Confidence Trick #1: overcoming intimidation

Updated: May 25, 2023

My mum and Nana Barbara in the 70s. Hair was different then

It has been a revelation to me in my coaching career that there is one thing that levels us all. It seems to be the result of a mind trick that we're all playing on each other: we think the rest of the world has it all figured out, sailing through life entirely certain of themselves, while we quake inside and are just making it up as we go along

If you don't believe me (and most people look askance when I suggest that we're all just faking it, some people are just more convincing than others), I have worked with every C-title there is and can honestly say that I've seen every single one of them in a moment where they're not quite sure of themselves. But here is an even more astounding example. I saw an interview with the highly decorated FBI agent who headed up the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers, who had literal lives in his hands, and the weight of a country's expectations on his shoulders. When asked the hardest part of the job he said, "Standing at that podium reading out the statements about our progress to the press. I don't feel confident speaking in public."

So, in other words. Standing in front of people saying things>>>> finding terrorists.

Depending on who you talk to, confidence wears different hats and fake moustaches, but it all boils down to the same thing - putting yourself at risk by being vulnerable in front of other people, in a situation that is, at best, half under your control. Whether it's presenting in court for four days straight (hello recent poser of that question!); going to the interview for the job that you have convinced yourself is your dream come true, and are still pinching yourself they've selected you for the short list; asking for a promotion or a pay rise or any of those cringe-inducing work situations we'd all rather hibernate through; or just standing in front of a room of people and saying words.

As someone who studied Latin, I know the root of the word "vulnerable". In case you studied something more directly useful in the 21st century, I will save you looking it up. Vulnerable comes from the verb "to wound". And that's often how it feels: like by speaking up, or speaking out, we're exposing our soft underbelly to a world full of spears.

Because, as I'm often reminding people, that's pretty much how it used to be; back in the day, even before the Romans were making up words that would comfortably outlive them. In our early human society, speaking out and getting it wrong had real consequences, like being thrown out of the tribe to fend for yourself. So is it any wonder that there's a primal part of your brain hissing "SHUT! UP!" when you don't agree with the hive mind you're part of?

There is no magic guide when it comes to confidence. If there were, I wouldn't be writing this post, I'd be in a bank vault counting my billions. But what I can say is that there are some things that work for me. And knowing what a universal need it appears to be, on my one woman mission to make the world a more confident place, I figured maybe now is the time to share them.

And so today I give you instalment 1:

Overcoming intimidation

In my professional life, I have encountered plenty of people (mainly, it has to be said, men) that are considered intimidating: people with fancy job titles, who assert their opinions as irrefutable facts, who demand don’t ask, whose first response is to raise their voice or release a tirade of disappointment in CAPITAL LETTERS. But very few of those people have actually intimidated me. Because there is a voice in my head that says —ummmmm… is that really the best you’ve got? Either of my grandmothers would have shrivelled you in a second.

I am descended from generations of fierce matriachs, women who ruled their families with an iron fist. Women who built their own lives, way before it was “allowed” (fuck the patriarchy and whatever it thinks it has a say over, they just got on and did it any way.) Who raised their children pretty much single-handed, either through circumstance, or not really seeing the need for another point of view. Who were used to the responsibility for deciding when, and where, and how, and not seeking permission. And 100% definitely not caring about approval.

Does the word “grandmother” bring to your mind some cosy Mary Berry-type, teaching their grandchildren to make scones in a lovely honeysuckle-covered cottage? Maybe someone in a fluffy cardigan who joins a tearful shopping trip to a bridal boutique, offering to pay for your gown and snuffling into a tissue about how beautiful you look? Lizzy Hogan’s recipe for stone soup (that is not a typo, yes, stones as in, small rocks) died with her, and Nana Barbara's soggy celery still haunts my nightmares. And they both could strip someone down to their raw core with one look and a well-chosen comment, so the only person snuffling into a tissue would be the bride.

Which is why I say, put either of them in a room with any opinionated executive team in corporate America, and I’m certain who would have come out best. No woman who was seen by her husband as "a punishment for my sins" (don't Catholics have a wonderful turn of phrase?) is going to be intimidated by a "why didn't we meet the quarter" tirade. And no woman who ran her own hairdressing business in Huyton (Google it) would have any patience for painstaking "alignment meetings" when we could all just say it straight and/or do what we're told.

So, confidence trick #1(a) - imagine Lizzy and Barbara are in the room with you. Even though you've never met them, I'm sure you get the idea. I'm sure you know someone like them?

Imagine what they would have to say when someone tried to be self-important. Imagine how they would react to someone being pompous and rude. Imagine them dressing down the person in the room that someone tiptoes around, calling them out on their nonsense instead of kowtowing to it.

Now imagine how the so-called intimidating person would react. Pretty confused, I'm sure. But also, maybe a little shaken? Taken aback? Knocked off their pedestal? Human? What people who lead through intimidation most fear people finding out is that that's exactly what they are - human and flawed. The bluster is normally to ward off those spears we talked about. Do they feel quite so unapproachable now?

Intimidating people aren't always intimidating because they're mean and dominant, they're sometimes just intimidating because they're important enough to get their headshot on the website, have a title that somehow translates to "has the answer to everything." Titles would have meant nothing to Lizzy or Barbara. They would have seen them as a collection of letters on a page. So what gives anyone the right to throw their weight around based on a few words on their business card?! Pah.

Which reminds me: Barbara once told a nurse in the hospital that my job title was the Vice President of the United States (technically she was correct, she was just missing a few details in the middle.) But she was much prouder of the fact that I had my own car. That's something real after all. She would also often muse that "it's funny how people make a living these days." She really had no truck for any of the things your average leadership team gets worked up about. A great leveller for anyone, Vice Presidents of the United States included.

For the advanced class, and only for those who feel able to pull it off, I give you confidence trick 1(b): channel your inner Lizzy

Lucky you, you don't have my genetics, so you aren't predisposed to your inner Lizzy appearing unbidden every so often (hey, we're all works in progress!) While Lizzy could be politely called "intriguing", and slightly less politely "volatile," one thing that she was very consistent about was people being treated fairly and respectfully. She would not tolerate rudeness or dismissiveness. She was the queen of answering back.

Now. I'm not suggesting that every conversation should turn into a battle, far from it. But what stops most people speaking out is the fear of going against the crowd. Of not agreeing with the direction of a conversation, or knowing that someone has their facts a bit wrong, but not wanting to be the outlier.

"Just speak up!" is not helpful advice. If life were that simple, we'd all be doing it. And there are lots of reasons why we don't. Past negative experiences, company culture, being on the other end of bias of any kind, just for a few.

So I don't claim to have a one-size-fits all panacea, it's for that point in a conversation where you want to be brave and forthright and make a point clearly and firmly and not be cowed by the person in front of you. The problem is that 1. That thought in itself takes a while to form 2. How do you become the person who would do that in a second?

That's when I ask myself - what would Lizzy do? And I know. She would do all of those things I just said and more, and she would not give two hoots who was in the room. Because the right thing to do is the right thing to do. And in that moment, I channel my inner Lizzy. And when I was younger, frequently it came with a wobbly voice, and a dry mouth, and maybe even shaky hands. But these days, more often than not, it comes as a firmly spoken point that deserves listening to. Because that's the thing about confidence tricks. They all get better with practice.

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