At the beginning of every workshop we teach, we ask participants to briefly self-assess their thinking and communication skills. Not surprisingly, more than 60% cite the following as their personal Achilles heel: “communicating clearly and concisely at the speed of conversation.”
Answering questions that others ask us during meetings isn’t always easy. Anxiety can surface:
- We may worry that our comments could hurt a colleague’s feelings or be perceived as insensitive.
- We may worry that our point of view will provoke a challenge.
- We may worry that people will take what we say and immediately run with it, without allowing a chance for deeper dialogue.
What happens in our minds when we are anxious?
“Worry alters the atmosphere of the mind,” says well-known writer David Brooks in his New York Times article The Epidemic of Worry. “It shrinks our awareness of the present….It amplifies mistrust….It forces us to live in dreadful future scenarios.”
With part of our mental bandwidth occupied with worry, there’s less space available to help us think and communicate at our best. We tend to over-explain and under-listen. We miss important details. We provide more information than our colleagues may want or need, and sometimes we even ramble.
It’s a negative cycle: worry impairs our communication…which in turn hurts our credibility…which then causes us to worry more!
How do we break this spell of answering anxiety?
Two primary ways:
- Stay clear about your intention. Elite performers in dance, music, sports, comedy, magic, and other domains are our very best teachers here. They visualize the outcome they want. They quiet their minds. They shift their focus away from any anxiety they might be feeling onto the work of getting the desired result. When we keep worry at bay and instead focus our energies on our communication success, we free our minds to say what we really need to say.
- Trust the 4 Practices of Answering. Listen/Align/Distill/Qualify is time-tested and proven – you can relax into it. Listen carefully to the whole question. When we do this, we give our attention to our colleagues, not to our anxiety. Align directly to the question asked by starting your answer with a core answer. When we do this, it becomes easy to engage others and stay on point. When more than the core is helpful, distill, drawing out the key messages only. And if necessary, qualify, adding enough words to ensure accuracy without sacrificing conciseness.
These techniques ignite a positive feedback loop. Each answer we give improves our effectiveness and credibility, making it easier to relax for the next question. Soon our anxiety is greatly reduced, while our skill rapidly rises.
The next time you are feeling anxious about a meeting or key situation where you are going to answer questions, take a few minutes to visualize your success. See yourself focusing not on your worry, but on the content of the question by listening carefully to it, then starting with the core, distilling any additional information, and qualifying as necessary. When it comes time to deliver, relax into this structure!
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