Q: I hate making mistakes, and I get really self-conscious when people need me to make declarative statements about what I think. I'm just so afraid I will be wrong. My boss tells me I need to have more confidence, but he hasn't been able to tell me how to do that. What can I do?
A: Errors are part of life and can be our greatest sources of learning.
When you're a baby, you try to walk and you fall down. Is that a mistake? Should you judge yourself for that? Not at all — you somehow know that the right thing to do is to keep trying. This is true throughout your life. Unfortunately, many of us run into teachers, bosses, or even family members who bring a damaging sense of judgment on us when we "fail."
People vary in their resilience in response to these messages. Some people easily shrug them off and continue to pursue their course. Others internalize them more and can find their courage sapped and their ability to take risks compromised. You can change this through intentional action, working through your fear.
Let's approach this in a couple of ways. First, think about — really visualize — the worst thing that could happen. If you say something and you're wrong, people will know that you don't know everything. Guess what? They already know that because you're human (and so are they). Will you lose your job? Almost certainly not. Be publicly called out on the accuracy of your statement? Perhaps, and learning to manage that will be a useful professional skill.
Now envision the sense of liberation that will come when you step away from your internal expectation of perfection. Picture yourself learning more freely and being willing to take more risks. Let yourself breathe without fear that your value as a person equals your ability to always be right.
Moving on from the internal shift, there are practical steps you can take to move beyond this paralysis. The best is to practice making clear, direct statements. Select safe settings, for example, low risk meetings with people you trust. It'll help if you're making statements in an area where you have expertise, again, lowering the risk. Also practice in "who cares" areas like offering opinions about movies or books you like, being ready to explain your reasons.
When you're in a higher stakes setting, prepare in advance, thinking about the points you need to make, and how you'll respond if each is challenged. Practice out loud, even getting a debate partner to help you learn how to articulate without fear. Then spend a few moments before each meeting, envisioning your confident self, checking your body language, and preparing to speak with a calm and non-tentative voice.
Ask your boss for help, requesting more specific feedback on his observations so that you can invest your personal development time strategically. In addition, set up ongoing check-ins with him to help monitor your progress.
Also take a proactive approach to training. Some of your anxiety may be related to public speaking, so consider a group like Toastmasters where you can practice in public in a safe setting.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.