[This is the third article in this confidence series. Go to this page if you’d like to start from the first one]
You may find it controversial but thinking and understanding is not enough to create lasting change.
We can read books, listen to motivational TED talks, even get to know our inner critic well, but it's unlikely to move the dial in a significant way.
Surprised hearing it from a coach like myself?
A frequent misconception about coaching is that it's just a conversation. But my clients know that we we don't stop at insights for best results - we craft experiments and take action outside of coaching sessions.
Let’s use tennis as an example - watching Djokovic's brilliant forehand, even analysing it in detail, doesn't do much when it comes to improving mine.
Don't get me wrong - it helps to understand the concept. But for me to actually hit the ball well takes repeated, deliberate practice, testing what works and what doesn’t, taking learnings and making small tweaks. The more we practise, the more established the neural pathways in our brains become and that new behaviour can become automatic.
Just like James Clear is saying in "Atomic Habits" - a lot of seemingly small incremental changes can get us to astounding results.
Taking it back to the area of confidence, our reactions, avoidance behaviours or negative thoughts are often automatic. We have practised them so much, often for years, that they have become well trodden paths we take, usually without giving it much thought.
So how do we start changing them?
You may remember Cathy. I’ve introduced her in the previous article in this series. Cathy was the superstar director who had her eye on a bigger leadership role but stretched herself too thin. She was the owner of a to-do list that was long enough to warrant a Guinness World Record check. Unsurprisingly, being strategic about her promotion was never high enough on that list.
I asked Cathy what she was already great at. She acknowledged herself for being able to build trusted relationships, deliver excellent work and solve complex problems.
When challenged to identify a skill that would make a significant difference to her readiness, she said she would like to be able to say “no”. She was fed up of saying "yes" to endless requests from her colleagues.
Don't we all wish to get a bit better at that?
Saying "no" has a few layers to it - let’s unpick them:
First, we unearthed the belief that saying "no" meant being unhelpful, even selfish.
Saying "no" felt uneasy, uncomfortable and against social and cultural norms that she was brought up with. Cathy was very giving and automatically prioritised helping others above her own needs.
She made a link with narratives from her family home. Her parents were doctors and being available to help others was always a priority. This was admirable of course, but Cathy realised that it became an emotional impulse for her, regardless of context. Saying "yes" to what was important to others meant a "no" to herself.
This new awareness helped her to start practising a small shift. Instead of automatically going into helping mode, she took a small pause to decide the best course of action. She practised saying "Let me get back to you.”
Second, it was also about saying "no" decisively, but with empathy.
This is where we worked on a handy communication framework that can be used to decline a request. What came up here also was Cathy's fear of conflict. After all, she was proud of the relationships she's built, she didn't want to undermine them. Being more tolerant of the discomfort that comes from disagreements was an important leadership lesson for Cathy to learn. A crucial one in preparation for a more senior role.
Lastly, it was about being assertive.
This was especially important with her seniors - not everyone liked hearing a no or was willing to take it at face value.
Moving from big concepts to small shifts
I hope you can see how we are moving from that elusive generic concept of confidence to the actual, manageable skills. Skills that we can practise to help us show up differently.
Cathy identified a few situations where could she practice saying “no” in relatively safe environments. She kept a journal to catch the reflections from her experiments.
This is where working with a coach can be beneficial. It allows us to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, tweak things and craft new experiments. There is no magic solution formula that works for everyone.
The experience of my clients shows me that lasting confidence comes from action.
It's about deliberate practice rather than waiting for confidence to strike before taking action.
And just like with a forehand, the more we practise, the more effortless it becomes.
A thought to take away
Let me ask you the question I asked Cathy. What one skill, if mastered, would allow you to take a significant step towards how you want to show up?
And if you’d like some inspiration, here is a selection of skills that my clients are working on:
delegating effectively and carrying it through,
spontaneous contribution in meetings,
distancing from critical thoughts,
having difficult conversations,
Change rarely happens in one big shift. It takes a cycle of reflection, practice, taking stock, iterating, giving it another go.
There is nothing more satisfying than looking back and seeing how far we've come.
Curious to learn more?
I support my clients through 1-to-1 coaching sessions and / or workshops on understanding the inner critic and the imposter experience.
If you like the idea of working with a coach or inviting me to talk to your team, please email me at email@example.com