Think back to your last high-stakes encounter. A major job interview. A nail-biting presentation. Maybe it was talking to your teen about his risky choices, or a colleague about her unwanted behavior. When forced to confront these moments, we face a jarring mix of dread, uncertainty and self-doubt. We start to wonder: Am I up to this? What if I say the wrong thing? And while research shows the benefits of embracing those pre-performance jitters, most people would rather find ways to take the pressure off. Here are three:
Talk it out – with yourself. Parodies aside, there’s good reason to talk to yourself before your next big performance, especially in second-person. (“You can do this!” is more effective than saying “I can do this!”) Self-talk centers us in the present moment and helps us regain focus on the task at hand. This allows us to talk our way around distraction and screen out the stimuli that weaken our concentration. Self-talk also creates the conditions for better decision-making and helps rescue us from doing things we may later regret. There’s even evidence showing how self-talk enhances leadership and produces better managers. Telling yourself that you’re primed for performance may seem crazy, but it turns out to be crazy helpful.
Name the monster. In Good to Great, Jim Collins pointed out the “scary squiggly things” that hold us back from confronting the realities of the moment. Instead of trying to sidestep the fear of high-stakes encounters, it’s better to actually confront the fear by labeling it. Researchers at UCLA found that people with spider phobias showed fewer signs of reactivity when they verbalized their emotions. “Naming the monster” won’t make the fear disappear, but it helps us gain a much-needed psychological advantage over it.
Make it real with phantom practice. Brain scans show that people use the same neurological networks whether they are actually moving or simply envisioning movement. With “motor imagery,” just thinking about the step-by-step sequence of an action is enough to reactivate it inside our working memory, the part of our brains we turn to for information recall and execution. That means that reviewing the steps of an activity over and over can have the same cognitive effect as physical practice—and even lead to similar improvements in performance. (Physical therapists have used motor imagery to help subacute stroke victims regain their strength and range of motion, and there have even been documented clinical improvements in patients with spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease, and intractable pain.) Before your big moment, run through a mental sequence of the steps you’re about to say or do. It may seem like phantom practice, but the effects are real.
Joe Hirsch is the managing director of Semaca Partners, a boutique communications firm, and the author of “The Feedback Fix” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Connect with him @joemhirsch or www.joehirsch.me.