Building my Confidence – Step 1: how confidence works

This is the first post in a series about how we can build our confidence:

Step 1: How confidence works
Step 2: Improving my public speaking
Step 3: Becoming more assertive and speaking up in meetings
Step 4: Knowing our own strengths – self-esteem and self-efficacy
Step 5: Facing our Fears
Step 6: Making Confident Decisions
Step 7: Finding my Vocation

It can be a real eye-opener when we realise just how much success and happiness is based not on people’s talent or knowledge, but on the strange lightness of spirit we call confidence. We often lack confidence because deep down we think that people who obviously have it are somehow born lucky. We think that we will never possess it like they do, and because of this we seem forever held back in life. If Carol Dweck’s fixed mindset is a reality, then it is very true of our feeling confident.

But the reality is that our degree of confidence is neither predestined, nor permanent. It’s a skill rooted in a set of ideas and behaviours about which we can educate ourselves, and begin to apply so that we overcome any lack of self-confidence.          

What do confident people look like? We know what they look like, as they walk into a room – head up, a firm handshake, warm smile and scintillating eye contact. The effortless body language, authoritative manner and relaxed speech are physical behaviours we associate with high confidence.

This is what it can look like, but what lies behind this appearance? Self-confident people seem to be at ease with themselves. They invite trust, inspire confidence and are attractive colleagues to work with. They get things accomplished in a quietly powerful way, are often generous with praise, reaching out to others and creating a positive energy around them like an aura. Why, they even manage to appear confident about what they don’t know. And we trust them even more for admitting this.

With a confident mindset we feel capable of things, like we’ve something to offer. At its best it’s a brilliant, generous feeling, rather than a selfish, look-at-me-feeling. Confidence tells us that we’ll do a good job, without trying too hard. Self-confidence brings a power with it: where people trust in their own ability and value themselves then they hold a sense of internal control.

Then there are the future beliefs which confident people share. A sense they’ll be capable of entering into nerve-wracking moments: begin a conversation with someone new, join a new class, apply for a surprisingly ambitious job, ask someone on a date. They possess the courageous ability to step out into the new.

Children aren’t much different. Parents and teachers are in the business of helping children to become good at something. Becoming skilful in one specific area grows self-efficacy, spills over into their wellbeing, and helps develop internal confidence. Because a child knows she or he is good at lego or playing the guitar, at FIFA or reading, painting or making friends, there feels less need to prove themselves to others, less anxiety, so they’re usually easier people to spend time with. Confident children also seem to be actively on the look out for a skill in others, alert to their giftings. This intential attention makes others feel good, and the liking boomerangs back. And sure enough, soon they become confident young people, with their own internal power.

Why is confidence so fragile? When we have it, it’s like the potion felix felicis, Harry Potter’s liquid luck, making the drinker lucky for a period of time during which everything they attempt is successful. It empowers us to be good at things, we feel clever, more skilful, as though there is literally nothing beyond us. But when it’s gone, we find ourselves lost, wallowing in our own mediocrity, stuck in the mud, awaiting someone to release us from our frozen statues. Just when we think we have it in our grasp, confidence – like a bar of soap in the shower – slips away from us.

Most of us have experienced knock-backs which interrupt the fluent rhythm of our nicely ordered lives. We feel in full flow and then something external happens which knocks our confidence:

  • child-rearing and returning to work
  • children adjusting to exams
  • a child struggling with mental health
  • relationship breakdown
  • redundancy
  • caring for elderly relatives
  • your body adjusting to changing hormones
  • the empty-nest experience

These and many other life experiences can leave you questioning your strengths, and to doubt that you were ever good at the very thing you were known for being good at.

So what am I like when I lack confidence? If I close my eyes and picture myself when I’m not confident, I usually feel withdrawn (I don’t want to be with people); unattractive (I don’t fit in/belong) isolated (everybody else has it – I don’t). Everyone else is getting on with life, but for me it’s hard to get things done. I’m unmotivated and indecisive – I can’t trust myself to make good decisions, or in fact almost any professional or personal decisions at all. This is paralysing. It’s not that I have nothing to offer, I just haven’t the confidence to offer it. Thus confidence, the trickster that controls the mind, leads the way.

Why is it important for leaders? We know that confident leaders build others up, whereas those who are less secure are unlikely to make others feel good. Successful leaders often seem to be giving generously – in their time, ideas, expertise. So when we are more confident, then we know that this will probably improve the wellbeing and even the performance of those around us. Which in turn, of course, helps us too.

How does confidence work? The UK’s most feared activity is still public speaking. In his book How Confidence Works, Dr Ian Robertson explains the two ways we build bridges of confidence each day. For example, when I say, “if I practise my presentation, I know I’ll deliver more confidently than last time,” this is a positive view about our actions, an outcome expectation about how the world works. Robertson calls these CAN-HAPPEN beliefs. The second element of confidence concerns what we believe we will be able to do, for example, I might be thinking, “I just cannot stand up in front of all those people to deliver my talk.” This is an example of an efficacy expectation. If you don’t think you can do it, then you won’t. These are CAN-DO beliefs.  

I still remember the first time my English teacher asked me to stand up and deliver a speech. I was thirteen, and I completely froze. Mouth dry, face bright red, and fifteen terrifying seconds of silence. Finally my teacher felt sorry for me and I sat down. I remember the feeling of shame I felt for weeks afterwards, but equally strongly the sense that nothing was ever going to prepare me successfully for speaking in public again and overcoming that moment. It might work for others, but not for me.

Let’s imagine your boss suggests that you practise a presentation with her because she knows you struggle with audiences, however small. Here’s how Robertson’s model of how confidence works might help you to believe you can present more confidently:

CAN’T DO/ CAN’T HAPPEN Your mind imagines sweaty palms and rapid breathing and you think, ‘What’s the use – nothing will change?’ You become paralysed by inaction. You can’t do it, because you believe it just won’t happen.

CAN’T DO/ CAN HAPPENYou believe your boss has your best interests at heart, and practising makes sense. But you think back to every embarrassing moment in your past. While you want to work with your boss, you just can’t do it, because it can’t cancel out all those shameful experiences that hold you back.

CAN DO/ CAN’T HAPPENYou think you can manage to practise in front of your boss, and yet you know that this cannot possibly reproduce what it will be like in front of an audience so there’s no point going through with this charade. You could do the practice, but you don’t believe it will help your final delivery.

CAN DO/ CAN HAPPENyou know that practising with her, in a safe space where she can give you constructive private feedback, will help you develop the confidence you need when it comes to presenting. You see the sense in doing the practice, and that with this preparation a successful delivery can happen.

Understanding how confidence works is key to how we move forwards and how leaders build up others. Confidence and anxiety are always competing for our attention. Anxiety (and our memories of shameful moments in the past) pulls us back because we expect to fail. Whereas confidence, in other words knowing that we (and those we work with) CAN DO the work, and that the perfect outcome CAN HAPPEN, is a bridge to the future which pushes you forwards.

In the second post in this series, Improving my public speaking, I’ll offer some practical steps to help us become better at public speaking – how we can PLAN our talks to help us DELIVER more confidently.

4 thoughts on “Building my Confidence – Step 1: how confidence works

  1. Pingback: Building My Confidence – Step 4: Knowing your own strengths | ianfrosteducation

  2. Pingback: Building my Confidence – Step 2: improving my public speaking | ianfrosteducation

  3. Pingback: Building my Confidence – Step 3: Becoming more assertive and speaking up in meetings | ianfrosteducation

  4. Pingback: Leading Difficult Conversations | ianfrosteducation

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