Grace Under Pressure


A friend and I were talking about public speaking the other day. “I was doing a presentation in York,” he said. “The Holiday Inn. I was miles out of my depth. Thrown into a situation I was hopelessly unprepared for. I stumbled through the speech. Made a complete cock of the questions. Then just when I thought I’d finished someone asked me one final, killer question. That’s when it happened…”

“What happened?” I asked.

“My left arm started floating away. It must have been some sort of muscle spasm. I was trying to answer this guy’s question and my arm just started lifting itself up. I was so stressed that I’d lost control of my body…”

What should he have done? (Apart from the fact that his boss should never have put him in that position in the first place.) Well, the text books are full of suggestions. Rehearse, visualize, rehearse again, anticipate what can go wrong, get the audience on your side…

So there’s plenty of advice for – as this week’s title suggests – showing grace under pressure. Performing at or somewhere close to your best when you’re in a really stressful situation.

But in nearly every case the advice is for a one-off event: a speech, a crucial client meeting, a job interview…

Let me ask what I think is a far more pertinent question. How do you cope – how do you deliver your absolute best – when there’s no escape from the pressure? Especially if the source of the pressure and/or stress is something you can’t control?

At some stage in our lives all of us have woken up at 3am. It might be your job, it might be your kids, it might be your relationship or your health. Or any number of other causes. All you know is that you’re so worried you’re in actual physical pain. Sleep is out of the question. All you can do is go downstairs and try to distract yourself.

Until, of course, it’s time to go to work. Where you’re supposed to perform to the same high standard you’ve always set yourself: where you have to meet targets and deadlines and – worst of all – the expectations of other people.

This is much more serious than your arm floating away. Because when stress and pressure comes from a source like that you’re not dealing with a one-off presentation that will be finished by lunchtime – you’re dealing with something which right at that moment has no end in sight.

So how do you cope? How do you perform? I was discussing this with a psychologist: here are three steps she advocates.

“This too shall pass.” Apparently it’s an old Persian saying, suggesting that all material conditions – positive or negative – are temporary. It’s very hard when you’re under enormous personal pressure but try to take a long term view. Three months, six months, a year from now, this too will have passed.

Take small steps. Achieve small goals. I’ve always been a big advocate of breaking your to-do list into manageable chunks. If you’re facing long term stress then it becomes even more vital. Don’t sit at your desk with a list of 20 jobs in front of you: sit there with a list of three. Work to the end of that. Write another list of three. What you need is success, not a list that you’ll never finish.

Exercise. This isn’t the place to go into the science of endorphins but get out there and take some exercise. It will make you feel better; it will help you put things in perspective. Somehow no problem seems quite as big after a long walk.

You don’t need me to tell you that long term stress is almost certainly going to damage your health. But in the short term – and quite probably in the long term as well – you’re going to have to work.

As another saying goes, “Into each life some rain must fall.” Sooner or later we’re all going to need grace under pressure: if it’s your turn right now, hopefully those three suggestions help. And if readers have found other ways to cope and succeed – and come out the other side – we’d all like to hear them.

In the meantime keep control of your left arm, enjoy your weekend, and – if it lasts – the Indian summer…

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