How To Coach Self-Doubt

We all experience self doubt from time to time – working for a new employer, a promotion, taking on a large project. The question of whether or not we are up to the task is something most people have asked themselves at least once. Indeed self-doubt can spurn us on to be better versions of ourselves – to practice our skills that much more, to do that much more research and to channel nervousness into positive energy. However if self-doubt becomes the modus operandi, it can become debilitating to a career. It is in our role as coach that we listen for the self-doubt that the client may not even realise is so pervasive.

I recently worked with a group of professional women at the networking group “Women in Technology” on speech skills. They were all moving into more senior positions where speaking publicly was increasingly vital. I asked them to do a 60 second impromptu speech on a favourite holiday spot. The exercise went well, and all got through their minute very credibly. Afterwards one of the women shyly raised her hand and asked “how can I be more self-confident and not nervous – the way everyone else was”.  I smiled and looked at the group and asked who also felt nervous delivering their own speech.  Her eyes widened in surprise as every hand was raised.  We often assume we are the only one who is nervous or experiences self-doubt in key moments.  The truth is that everyone goes through self-doubt – sometimes on a daily basis depending on the challenge at hand. They key is to not let self-doubt put you off attempting the task in the first place.

Make it work

Ask the client to speak to mentors or colleagues they trust for their own moments of self-doubt – it can be reassuring to know it is normal and experienced by people you respect.

What will help them feel more ready for the challenge at hand? Do they need to do more research, practice their presentation …what steps can they take to reduce the tension?

Fatal flaws

Brushing it off with an “it will be fine” comment – it can minimise the challenge and make the client feel isolated.

Saying “everyone gets nervous” – people are individuals and while they know logically that other people must experience uncertainty, digging deeper will be a better approach than perceived dismissal.

I was recently with a client who used a great deal of fatalistic language – “I never do well with that type of people” or “I always have a hard time making a good impression”. She was describing how she had recently been interviewed by a group of seven people for a new role. She explained rather dismissively that while the feedback was good from all interviewers and that she was being asked back for another round of interviews, she still hadn’t been able to highlight her relevant experience with a few of them in particular. During the explanation she said “I never do well with those types of people” I asked her who “those types of people” exactly were?  She felt two of the interviewers seemed more concerned with showing off their own knowledge and connections in her industry, rather than hearing about her background. Based on the feedback she had received, I challenged her “How true is that you NEVER do well with that type of people?” We looked at the evidence she had received such positive feedback from all seven potential colleagues – including the two who had done all the talking themselves. When she described that all she did was listen to one particular man” show off”, we used humour to joke about the possibility that listening was all she needed to do to “do well with that type of person”.  Because that interview hadn’t gone exactly the way she had planned, she assumed it was not a success for the other person, when clearly it was.  She was able to look at what “good enough” was, to chip away at her self-doubt.

Make it work

Look to the evidence – ask the client about other times when they felt self-doubt, and were able to overcome it to succeed. In managing it, what did they learn about themselves?

Play around with the idea of someone they respect. Is it possible this person ever experienced self-doubt? How realistic is it that they got where they are without uncertainty?

Biographies as a piece of homework can open the door to the weak moments in the career of someone the client admires.

Fatal flaws

Forgetting to look to the “measurables” – what would it take to become even 10%  more confident?

Set the scene by making sure the client knows that the coaching is an investment in their potential, not evidence that someone else sees them as lacking in certain skills.

Silencing your intuition when you feel a client could achieve more than their current vision. Coaching is self-directed, but often clients who experience self-doubt need to know that we believe in them first.

In my own career, I have worked through self-doubt many times. Before I wrote Beyond the Boys’ Club, my own coach pointed out she thought I had a book in me based on all the inspirational senior women I worked with paired with my own PhD research around women and success. My first thought? “Whatever would I write about?” My coach encouraged me, and sure enough a year and 90,000 words later – I realised I actually had quite a lot to share about the challenges faced by women working in traditionally male fields! I went through the same conundrum when I began to be asked to speak on these topics – “who would be interested in hearing me speak?”  Now I routinely speak to large corporate audiences and hugely enjoy those interactions. In each case of self-doubt, it was my own coach who first planted the seed that I could be more than even I had imagined.  What seed could you help plant?

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