Five Secrets to Appearing Unflappable Under Pressure

You’ve undoubtedly heard the saying, “Never let ’em see you sweat.” Why? When you appear uncomfortable under fire, people generally assume it’s because you lack competence or honesty. If your reaction when someone puts you on the hot seat is to get defensive or combative, it’s not gonna win you any sympathizers.

Here’s an interesting truism. When you’re put under pressure to perform, solve, or answer, the irony is that people remember less what you actually said or did under pressure than how they felt about you. In other words, they sense whether you projected confidence in the situation or whether you were sweating bullets. If you can appear unflappable under pressure, you have a better chance of getting your ideas across, being heard, and being perceived as someone credible and knowledgeable.

Here are five tips that can help you project poise and self-assurance in pressure-filled situations:

1. Make Eye Communication
In our culture, eye communication is correlated to credibility. If you can’t look me in the eye when you’re talking to me, at best I might suspect you of not being very familiar or comfortable with the subject, but at worst I might assume you’re flat out lying. A person who’s confident and knowledgeable has no trouble meeting people’s eyes.

2. Watch Your Body Language
Examples of distracting mannerisms:

  • Clicking a pen
  • Twirling hair
  • Cracking knuckles
  • Chewing nails
  • Jingling change
  • Fiddling with jewelry
  • Doodling
  • Saying “um” or “uh”

Nonverbal communication speaks louder than the spoken word.  Picture someone standing, his hands shoved in his pockets, shoulders slouched, shifting his weight from leg to leg, repeatedly working his neck as if trying to stretch a too-tight collar. Doesn’t conjure up someone confident and composed, does it? Visualize the opposite: someone standing with her weight evenly balanced on both legs, shoulders back, using her hands with some purposeful gestures, maybe even leaning in slightly to the person she’s addressing-can you see more poise and confidence? Also beware of repetitive nervous mannerisms—such as jingling change or cracking knuckles—because they tend to convey discomfort.  Purposeful movement conveys more self-assurance.

3. Smile
Think about it—what are people looking at when they’re talking or listening to you? Your face. Facial expressions can convey whether you’re unhappy, preoccupied, worried, upset. But a smile can cancel out any of those negative perceptions. I’m not suggesting you fake a smile, but many of us fail to appreciate that our “neutral” expressions are actually not very positive. Making a conscious effort to smile can result in a powerful signal of self-confidence.

4. Project Energy and Enthusiasm
People who are shy, reserved, and unassertive generally do not instill others’ confidence in them. Instead we are drawn to those who have an energy about them, an enthusiasm for the task at hand, a passion for what they’re doing. Vocal variety and purposeful nonverbal movement will project that energy and conviction.

5. Pause
One of the most common situations where people find themselves under fire from others is during the Q&A session either after a speech or during a press conference. One of the most powerful tools you can use to appear calm and unflappable is the consistent pause. If you answer questions immediately, you not only risk cutting off the questioner in your haste, but you set yourself up for trouble when a difficult question is asked. Think about it-what do you instinctively do when someone blindsides you with a tough question? You pause, of course, thereby sending the signal that this one caught you unprepared. If you can learn to pause consistently before you answer every question, it sends a powerful signal of calm, reflective strength.

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