Can't sleep? Dreading that meeting? It doesn't have to be this way.
Developing your performance at work often means stepping out of the shallows of your comfort zone and into choppier waters that are more stretching and challenging. What happens though if you stray too far and start to feel out of your depth? You start to panic, you doubt your ability to get out safely, you forget the basics, so that even breathing becomes difficult, and you flounder wildly hoping someone can come and save you. You usually scramble back to dry land but the consequence is often lost confidence.
So when are the major events that trigger these responses? In a work context it is when you are expected to participate in the sharing of information with an expectation of positive outcomes. Workshops, team events, one to ones. We classify all of them as meetings. Here are five tips for controlling your anxiety and ensuring that when you go into meeting you don’t sink, you swim.
Plan your route
There are three key activities to help you prepare for your meeting.
- Consider the agenda Decide the times you are most likely to be expected to contribute. Think about the structure of the meeting and where you feel you will be closest to your comfort zone. Ensure you know when these times are so you can make your contribution memorable (in a good way!).
- Write a script what are the key points you want to get across? Jot them down so you can memorise the best way to articulate your premise, particularly useful if you are uncomfortable speaking ‘off the cuff.’
- Focus on the destination Think about what the positive outcomes of the meeting you want to achieve – ‘Start with the end in mind’ is such a memorable line from Steven Covey because it is so true. If you know where you want to end up, it makes planning the way to get there a lot simpler.
Imagine playing the role of Hamlet by reading the play a couple of hours before you go onstage. You don’t know anything about any of the other characters, you don’t know how they are being played, and most critically, you don’t know your lines. Now think about how successful the performance would be.
Obviously in a work context you don’t have the luxury of a dressed rehearsal, but you can prepare:
- Character research Think about the other participants, their characteristics, their preferences. Are they aggressive, nuanced, passive? Do they like lots of detail or a big picture? Will they welcome a lengthy presentation or something more punchy?
- Dry run if you have jotted down the types of things you want to say you can run through them either on your own or with a colleague. You get familiar with the points you are making and where you need to put emphasis. Remember, amateurs often stumble over words – professionals know their lines.
Build a brain trust
Think about you friends and colleagues who you can fall back on when it gets tough for you.
- Who do you trust to support you? Who are the people who have your best interests at heart? Who can provide honest and positively intended feedback? Who do you know who has the experience to make the right judgements on you?
- Pick different people for different things. When you construct your inner circle, think about how different people can bring different skills and experience to help you. Some might be empathetic, others very objective and logical. Some might be there in case you need emotional support, whereas others might be able to help you with technical skills.
Build a shelter
It may be when you get into the meeting that things don’t go as you hoped. An oft quoted truism is that no battle plan survives the first encounter with the enemy. Whilst the image is a little bit martial for many tastes the important thing is that you have a plan for if things don’t go according to plan.
- Know your warning signs Think about the physiological changes, such as shortness of breath, that denote lack of control. Observe the body language of others as well. If you start to flounder, they may display discomfort too. Then you know it is time to act.
- Have an escape route. Stand-up comedians, no matter how experienced, suffer from nerves. Once they are on stage these start to dissipate, but the riskiest part of their act is if they go off their intended ‘script’ to engage with the audience, as they really don’t know what might come up. In order to ensure they can escape unscathed, they plot a route back into their main routine so that they can retain control. In the same way, you should plot a way back into your main ‘script’ so you can get back to your own comfort zone. Think about the areas you identified when you planned your route in the first place, and ensure you identify something that you can revisit. The most blatant example of this is when a politician refuses to answer an awkward question but instead states something positive about something else. Hopefully you can come up with something more subtle but the same principle applies. The important thing is you buy yourself valuable time to recover your equilibrium.
Retrace your steps
- Evaluate – read your reviews! When you get out of the meeting you should self-evaluate what went well and what you could improve. Seek feedback from others as well. Feedback, whether motivational or developmental should be tremendously empowering provided you view it as helping you to conquer your fears and help you take control.
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