Were you ever in a situation where you wanted to make a really good impression because there was so much riding on it, like an important job interview or a presentation but, having sought advice on how best to succeed you were told “just be yourself”? How did you feel? Did you think “Wow! That’s a great idea. I’ll do that” or did you think “Seriously? Is that the best you’ve got? Do you actually know me? Help!”?
Being told to “be yourself” as a strategy for success can certainly ring hollow when you’re looking for that one golden nugget of advice to help you triumph in an important situation, sounding anything from a bit useless to a bit dismissive. Surprisingly, it’s actually a really good piece of advice!
Why does that sound so scary? What is it that makes us a bit nervous when someone suggests we should “be ourselves”? The fact is, in situations where you want to make a really good impression, the idea of being yourself can be quite daunting because it means you have to make yourself vulnerable and let go. You have to present yourself as you are and trust that that is enough. That can feel a little bit scary because it makes you feel a bit exposed, with nothing to hide behind, and that’s usually when you hear it…. that inner critic! Your inner critic is that little voice you hear, telling you that you better not let them see who you really are because they won’t like you or rate you. You better show them someone you think would be a better fit.
A much more difficult challenge
When you’re trying to persuade someone to adopt an idea, implement a solution or take a particular action, there’s enough to manage without the added pressure of trying to create an impression that doesn’t really sit with you or doesn’t feel natural. If you’ve ever tried to act in a particular way under pressure, you’ll know that it’s difficult to speak naturally, respond naturally and act naturally all at the same time and come across as genuine and sincere. Something has to give.
When what you’re saying, how you’re saying it and how you appear when you’re saying it aren’t aligned, it creates a barrier which causes doubt and doubt reduces credibility and trust. On the other hand, when you’re being yourself you are open, you speak from the heart, people connect with you and you make a real impact. So, what can you do to make you feel safe enough to be yourself in situations where you feel that may not be enough?
Be aware of the triggers that cause you to doubt yourself
Everyone is confident in some situations but only some people are confident in every situation. When are you most and least confident?
Being yourself requires confidence and the first step in gaining that confidence is to identify situations where you are confident and where you’re not. For example, you may be really confident presenting on a one-to-one but not in a group. You may be confident having conversations with people you don’t know well when it concerns your own area of expertise but less confident talking with these people about something entirely different. You may be confident with your peers and direct reports but not with more senior managers or with people you perceive to have a lot of potential influence in your career. Once you recognise the situations where you tend to feel less confident you can work to strengthen them.
Prepare to strengthen the weaker areas
When you’re going into situations where you have to present or influence people you feel less confident around, identify your specific concerns. Will there be questions that you might not be able to answer? Are they likely to have questions you haven’t thought of? Are you worried that your nerves might take over?
Whatever it is, take the time to identify it and then figure out a way to address it. That’s the key! So many people I come across know what they’re worried about but just keep worrying and hope it won’t be as bad as they think. Make sure you’re as prepared as you can be. Read my article “Clarity Creates Confidence” and go through the seven suggested steps to really improve your confidence.
If you think there may be questions you won’t be able to answer, gather some people around you in advance. Get them to ask you those questions, respond and get feedback on your response. Get together with the people who do know the answer and develop your response together. For questions you know you definitely won’t be able to answer, develop a response explaining that you don’t currently have the answer to that question and what you’re going to do to address it.
If you’re worried nerves might take over, do some exercises to calm your mind. Practice closing your eyes, focusing on your breathing and emptying the thoughts from your mind. Do this repeatedly for a few minutes until you train your mind to do it at will and, on the day, do it for a couple of minutes before the event. Focusing on your breathing when you’re stressed, breathing slowly and evenly, sends signals to the brain that all is ok. This slows the adrenalin and restores calm. Finally, repeat an affirmation that means something to you like “I’m calm and relaxed under pressure”, “I am enough”. Really feel it when you say it so that the unconscious mind will believe it’s true and work to make it happen.
You may have heard the saying “people buy from people they know, like and trust”. Whether you’re selling an idea, a service, a product or selling yourself, trust is fundamental to success and to get others to trust you, you must first trust yourself.
There will always be situations where you feel a bit nervous. That’s natural. When that escalates into stress, the unconscious mind jumps in to protect you from what it perceives as danger, advising you to get away from the situation, disappear, run for the hills! Your inner voice may say things like “this isn’t going to go well. Maybe you should make an excuse to avoid it or just say nothing”, or “you don’t know all the answers. You’re going to look stupid”.
That’s normal. Acknowledge it. Ask yourself is there any element of truth in it. If you’ve done all the preparation you can it’s just the usual noise. If you haven’t, then you might need to go back and do more preparation. Once you’re prepared, switch it off by replacing it with positive talk like “I’m well prepared”. I’ve got this and I’m looking forward to it”. Trust yourself!
Be Present, Listen and Connect
When you feel uncomfortable in a situation where you want to do well, it’s tempting to focus on yourself, how you’re coming across and how other people perceive you. You may not even be conscious that you’re doing it. However, when you start observing yourself, you judge your performance, unconsciously making adjustments in line with what you perceive to be more ‘pleasing’ to the other person. When this happens, you stop fully engaging with the other person which breaks the connection.
Once you become aware that you’re observing yourself rather than focusing on the other person, shift that focus back. You do this by making a conscious decision to focus on the person or people you’re interacting with, giving them your full attention and actively listening to what is going on.
The essence of presence is simply about being present in the moment. When you are completely present to the person you’re speaking with, not thinking about anything else, it calms your mind, stops the negative chatter and makes it easier for you to engage, to connect, build trust and be yourself. Simple but very effective. Regardless of where you are or what’s going on around you, give the other person your fullest attention.
Listen at a deep level
Once you are fully there, in the moment, listen intently to what is being said, what is not being said and what is behind both of those. Listen to the other person’s whole communication, what their words are saying, what their voice is saying and what their body language is saying.
Be aware of anything that distracts you. For example, you might not agree with what the other person is saying, you might not like the person speaking or you might be dying to say something yourself. Acknowledge these thoughts and make a decision to ignore them. Suspend any judgments you have about the person or where you think they might be going in the conversation.
Keep an open mind, focus on understanding the message from their point of view and avoid thinking ahead to you want to say until you’re ready to speak. Then, when you’re ready to speak, you’ll have a more thought-through response and you’ll be able to speak from a position of full understanding, remaining calm and clear thinking while you do.
Listening takes you out of your head and into the conversation. You feel more confident because you as the focus shifts away from you, your feel more relaxed and, therefore, more in control. You come across as yourself and you connect.
Be True to Yourself
Being true to yourself means being clear about what you believe to be right and important, i.e. your values, and acting on that. Based on your beliefs, your values are the principles that drive your behaviour, providing you with clear guidelines on how you should treat yourself and others.
Like an internal compass, your values guide you in the right direction when you’re unsure which way to go. They serve to keep you centred and grounded by being true to yourself in difficult situations. For example, your core values may include treating people with respect regardless of their own beliefs, being open and honest, doing what you believe to be the right thing, when faced with difficult decisions. However, the key lies in being true to yourself in a way that maintains your relationships and avoids conflict.
If someone challenges behaviours or expressions that are driven by one of your values by either questioning them, ignoring them or acting in a way that is contrary to them, that can provoke a strong emotional reaction within you. The deeper your feelings, the more the brain perceives the challenge as a threat, provoking the stress response and sending the body into fight or flight. If you allow these emotions to take over, you may respond in a way that you later regret which, of course, damage relationships.
Alternatively, the emotions can be so strong that you don’t trust yourself to speak so you stuff your feelings down, say nothing, no-one knows how you feel and you don’t get to express your truth. Neither of these responses is satisfactory. So how can you be true to yourself in situations that might cause confrontation?
Know your values
Once you know your values, you can understand your feelings and responses in situations where you believe those values are being challenged. Armed with this information, you can then be prepared to think more clearly and respond more effectively, choosing appropriate strategies to deal with the situation while allowing you to remain true to yourself.
Identify situations where you are likely to be challenged when others don’t share your values. Acknowledge how you are likely to feel so that, if it does happen, those emotions won’t overtake you. If it does happen, breathe slowly and evenly, putting your full focus on your breathing. This sends a signal to the brain that the threat has passed and allows the body to calm down and reverse out of fight or flight.
Prepare your response
When you are going to express a contrary view, be prepared to explain the rationale behind it and explain it in as full a way as possible. Put yourself in the shoes of the other person and ensure you address their concerns as part of your explanation.
Being true to yourself doesn’t mean taking a stand on every issue. It simply means being clear about what you believe and acting, as much as you can, in line with those beliefs. There may be times when it isn’t possible to take the action you would like to take but, as long as you remain consistent in your beliefs and endeavour to act on them whenever it is possible, you’re being true to yourself.
Being yourself may seem daunting in some situations, especially those where the stakes are high. The irony is that when you consciously or unconsciously project a persona that isn’t you, the stakes can become higher as you have to work harder to connect and build trust which isn’t always guaranteed.
Be aware of the triggers that cause you to doubt yourself, work on strengthening those weaker areas, so the preparation you need to do and then trust yourself. In conversations, meetings and presentations, be present, listen and connect. Finally, be true to yourself by knowing your core values, recognising situations when your values may be undermined, being prepared to deal with those situations and staying on track by being consistent at all times.
Be strong, be yourself and, in the words of Steve Jobs, “our time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life”.