“A systematic approach to turning around a slump in self confidence” by Katy Tuncer

Like many coaches, I often have clients report increased self-confidence following a particularly high impact series of 1:1 coaching sessions, or after they attend a valued leadership-development programme.

A quick poll, of a few of my recent clients and fellow coaches, suggested that guiding leaders through steps for turning around a slump in self-confidence could be one of the most valuable tools in our coaching box of tricks.  

We are all aware that high self-confidence can be the platform for conviction, determination, resilience, inspiration, rapid learning and many other helpful leadership traits. My aim in this blog is to provide a framework and ideas for both coaches and leaders themselves dealing with a confidence slump. I also observe that committing to a systematic process and being in action can be a major step forward in itself on the road to building self-confidence.

So, here is a simple five-step process that I have seen work wonders, when applied patiently and diligently.

1.     Label the slump in self-confidence and choose to do something about it

I very rarely hear “I want to invest in building my self-confidence” BEFORE a client engages me as a coach or participates in one of my leadership training programmes. (And that’s despite the raft of testimonials after working with me emphasising the boost they’ve achieved in self-confidence as a result). And I have observed that as long as we are fighting to prove we are confident, able, resilient people, it can be hard to consider that we may lack self-confidence.

In my experience, an irony exists: the harder people resist acknowledging a self-confidence slump, the more they convince themselves that they actually do have something to hide. And in turn, the more they believe, deep down, that they are not good enough.

One way to have a break-through with this step 1, is to consider the difference between social confidence and inner self-confidence.  Try asking: Are you articulate, poised, able to converse naturally with a range of people, well-presented and armed with a “track record of achievement”? If so, the bad news is that step 1 will be tough – because high social confidence is in the way!

Sometimes, as a coach, I’ve also found it helps to ask “What would it be like if you had more inner self-confidence?” The answers I’ve received range from “I’d believe I’m the right person for my job” to “I’d stop saying yes to everything” to “my pitches would be so much more compelling”.

By achieving step 1, you have a case for action, more freedom, and more options.

2.     Describe your greatness, what do you stand for?

A simple but very powerful technique for re-programming the brain is simply through positive self-description. The question could be: “What are you great at?” or “What impact do you have in the world?” or even “What are the best things you make happen?” It just needs to be empowering, and allow the individual to start freely describing their own greatness.

When I ask clients to do this exercise, the rule I usually apply is “no talking about weaknesses, what you can’t do, mistakes, or caveats”. After all Einstein said a person who has never made a mistake has never tried something new. I’m ruthless in bringing clients back to the question and only talking about their greatness, by which I mean their personal impact and strengths. As they start slowing down I ask them to consider what others have said they value most? What they are in flow doing? I ask them to be specific about exactly what they have done and I encourage them to think bigger.

This can be done individually with a piece of paper, or it can be done with a coach, a peer, a mentor or a friend. The fundamental requirement is to avoid distractions and modesty. The listener (or the piece of paper!) captures what they hear and starts grouping together consistent themes.  

Creating space for the brain to puzzle out and acknowledge what’s really going on and what really matters in this way can be very powerful. One of my clients described this as “digging down into your intuition, defining your own values, and coming back to your real self”.

This exercise can create content for many very useful personal marketing channels – LinkedIn profile, biographies, job applications, introductions to speeches and presentations – and it will be iterated on many times. The key is to get started.

3.     Mobilise your support network

Loss of self-confidence can have an unfortunate side effect of underestimating the strengths and value of the support networks people have around them. I advise clients to be unreasonable with themselves with how much effort, time and financial investment they put into surrounding themselves with positive influences.

I recommend first explaining to a selection of trusted mentors/advisors that you are committed to getting your mojo back and building confidence. I suggest asking them what they think you are great at and listening carefully to their advice. It’s important to be authentic, to explain what you are working on, and ask for specific help. There are various techniques for identifying the ideal go-to personal team members (such as network mapping) but I find it’s best not to waste time considering who to talk to first, and to just do it.

Simultaneously, I say, get out there! Go on courses, go to events, go to parties, expand your inspiration and connections. Show deep interest in other people’s passions, ask questions and learn. Building perspective is vital. It’s also helpful to use books, blogs, YouTube etc to get ideas and build your repertoire of skills and styles out there in the world.

4.     Stop fighting wrong-doers

Surrounding ourselves with positive influences is vital, but it can take us only so far. We also need to deal with the people who are just there in our lives, and who it would be impractical to avoid.

The first breakthrough is to accept and believe that “I get to choose whether others make me feel bad”. Unless physical force is involved, no one can make us feel bad unless we choose to let them.

The most effective technique I know of for living by this belief is to stay focussed on goals and NEVER EVER get sucked into “teaching them a lesson”. 

Next, if my client can get to the point of letting things go and focussing on goals, I then recommend taking on another challenge. It’s well documented that human beings are influenced, make assumptions, and draw information from others in a far more complex way than simply via listening to the words being said. As a result, we can learn techniques for handling our body language, for using cleverly positioned language, for perfecting eye contact and the right amount of tactility... But what about making it all natural? If we genuinely consider someone as a collaborative partner who we trust and value, all of our subtle behaviours towards that person will naturally align with that. The other person will pick up on it and hey presto; they’re acting like a collaborative partner right back.

I ask client to simply try “seeing the gold” in people who they might otherwise judge to be dominating/incapable/aggressive/manipulative/powerful – or any other adjectives that induce negative emotions. It doesn’t have to mean denying any true dysfunctions; but countless clients (and I myself countless times) have found that by focussing the mind on the good points about the other person typically leads to a more productive and effective interaction with them.

5.     Take care of the only body you have

How many people think “I have a body” vs. “I am my body”?

There is sadly still a common workplace culture that drives us to push our bodies to the limit. We hear the mantras: “I eat rubbish”, “I don’t have time to exercise”, “I don’t need sleep”. (Interestingly McKinsey recently found that many senior executives think others’ performance suffers through lack of sleep, but not their own, and there is evidence that impaired judgement through lack of sleep is comparable with that through alcohol consumption!). And beyond depriving ourselves of the fuel and rest we need physically, there are the psychological stresses we impose on our bodies by not prioritising thinking space, relaxation, and social connections. “I never relax”, whilst often said as a badge of heroism, can be a red flag for me as a coach.

But I often hit a brick wall with clients when I try the “you should look after yourself” line. For many people, caring for mind and body is not seen as an essential life skill to be learned and practised.  So instead, I encourage them to start considering why they need to be on their A-game – for example: to perform better in a key meeting; to be present with other people and so more influential; to stay calm under pressure etc. I find this makes the case for self-care stronger.

Then, once someone is committed to take care of the only body they have, the issue is often not designing the perfect combination of sleep, exercise, meditation etc (although that may be the subject of another article!), but how to stick at it…

Here, my role as a coach here is often helping them put mechanisms in place to keep to their commitment. Declarations work well, in particular when shared with a loved one: “I will go to bed by 11pm every week night”. This increases a feeling of accountability. Scheduling activities (such as gym visits) into work diaries can also be helpful, especially when coupled with effective task management systems.

Summary and Conclusion

  • Self-confidence is vital for human beings to perform optimally in life and work

  • A drop in self-confidence can often go un-recognised by the individual experiencing it

  • Acknowledging the slump, and taking concerted and systematic action can lead to a turnaround over a period of days, weeks or months

  • The five steps outlined here are best done with support, be that from a professional coach or another trusted person

In researching and writing this article I have become even more aware of how widespread self-confidence slumps are. Thank you to all the people who have input and helped shape the piece. There is a certain stigma attached to low self-confidence, which I think is a real shame. But I hope this article will unstick a few more people, who are either experiencing their own slump, or coaching someone out of theirs.

To connect with Katy Tuncer you can email her at katy@tuncer.co.uk 

Katy Tuncer is a senior management consultant with extensive experience and a strong reputation for work in strategy-led, individual and organisational transformations, across a wide range of organisations and industries.

Katy is a McKinsey trained consultant and accredited executive coach (APECS), with a strong and diverse track record of personal leadership – e.g. entrepreneurship, army, police, community programmes. She is currently a Partner at a specialist sports consulting firm, and is a global expert on women’s physical activity.

She was recently listed as one of the BBC 100 Women and also won a Prime Minister's 2016 Point of Light award for her community volunteering.