By Olivia Fox Cabane
Have you ever felt as if only half of your mind were present in a conversation; while the other half was busy beating you up? Not only does this impair your focus; it can also ruin your interactions when it flashes across your face. Indeed, even if you can keep the main expression on our face positive, the other feelings will often show up, albeit very briefly. But no matter how brief a negative expression, it will be seen: people can catch facial expressions even as short as 17 milliseconds.
Of course, these negative emotions were not directed at them. But they don’t know the criticism they were reading was self-criticism; merely that they were (accurately) seeing criticism in your face while interacting with them.
At best, they’ll get a gut feeling that there’s something off, something that’s not quite right. At worst, they’ll think that negative expression was directed towards them- what they said or did, or what you think about them.
Inner self-criticism and negative self-talk don’t just affect your body language-they affect your entire performance. It’s often called the “silent killer” of business: so many people suffer from it, yet so few dare speak out about it. In one of its manifestations, known as the “impostor syndrome,” people feel they don’t really know what they’re doing, and are just waiting for the other shoe to drop, for someone to expose them as a fraud.
As it turns out, this a fairly common feeling; present in over 70% of the general population. But we’ve only just recently gained an insight into its biological basis, and the tools to dismantle it. When the impostor syndrome and the inner critic are both present, they combine into a particularly noxious insecurity, which is known to be one of the greatest obstacles to great performance.
Indeed, these internal attacks directly diminish our problem-solving abilities and innovation abilities. As David Rock, the founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, puts it, the threat response impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving. In fact, Daniel Pinker’s work described one study where even minor negativity cut participants’ problem-solving abilities by 50%; you can imagine what this does to your people’s innovation abilities. It becomes a performance killer both for people individually and for organizations as a whole.
In addition, it diminishes listening skills, since it’s hard to be fully present when half our attention is engaged in self-recrimination. Most of our attention goes instead to battling the internal attacks. In addition, it makes people so desperate to impress that rather than listening, they spend their time preparing their next sentence, trying to sound smart.
The problem with teaching listening skills, or any kind of communication skills for that matter, without first defusing the internal landmines, is that as soon as these detonate, all your newly-acquired skills fly out the window. Most of their attention goes instead to battling the internal attacks.
So in high-stakes, high-anxiety situations, for example in new-pitch situations or in conflict with key stakeholders, it can really kill your people’s performance. Dismantling this impostor syndrome would thus exponentially increase your people’s listening skills; a prerequisite to making your client feel truly heard and understood. Being able to truly put yourself in the client’s shoes, seeing things from their perspective and giving them the feeling that you care as much about the project as they do, requires a specific mindset,
body language, voice tone, and word choice.
It’s only once all this has been implemented that they can move on to advanced techniques such as reading other people’s body language to know what they are truly thinking and feeling (the Micro-Expression Training used by the FBI, enabling you to read a person’s face like an open book) or fine-tuning their own body language, for example with voice fluctuation techniques (In particular the MIT Study; which could predict the success of sales calls with an 80% accuracy).
Once this has been accomplished-they’ve given the client the feeling that they were truly heard and understood; and that their best interests were paramount-then confidence becomes the key point. And of course, the impostor syndrome kills people’s level of self-confidence. So even if they have a great idea they wont’ dare speak it up.
Up until now, we’ve mostly tried a skills-building approach to confidence. In essence, people gain greater confidence when they become skilled on a topic. This works well indeed, but can use up a great deal of time, and is restricted to that one area. These new techniques would allow both a shortcut to results, as well as farther-reaching impact since the confidence would be all across the board. They’d feel confident about who they are and what they’re capable of, not just what they know on that one topic.
The skills we’ve just covered really come in handy when you’re dealing with difficult people; or when you’re dealing with tough situations, such as having deliver bad news. With the wrong body language, you can damage the relationship. With the right body language, you can deliver tough messages, but in a way that not only preserves the relationship, but actually strengthens it; difficult situations become a bonding opportunity. This is where the Harvard Negotiation Project tools are a fantastic resource.
Now, if you really want to be innovative and cutting-edge, you would also bring in best practices from the field of peak performance. In difficult situations, this can give you an instant state-change and mindset-change. Bad days will happen. But you can learn to not a low mood affect your body language, your interaction or your performance.
Here, you can use best practices from both cognitive science and high-performance athletics. Not only are these great techniques to use throughout the day; but knowing you’re getting the same training as Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, or Michael Schumacher is also quite a confidence-builder.
And of course, this wouldn’t just help in tough situations-it would also impact your business development results. Let’s say that the prospect makes a negative remark, and your confidence is shaken. Without an instant state-change, this confidence-loss could damage your body language and ruin the pitch. Here, the peak performance techniques would’ve saved the day.