Updated: Feb 3
5 Simple Strategies for Staying Steady in Challenging Conversations.
Have you ever left a situation feeling frustrated because you just couldn’t speak up? Particularly those times when you knew what you wanted to say, but found yourself frozen, or rambling incoherently when you tried to say it? I use to get so frustrated at myself when I did this. I’d think “Ahhh Amy why didn’t you just speak up!”
The same is often said when we think about other people. Wondering “why” a person didn’t just tell us their problem or issue. It’s a fair question, but it assumes that a) the person knew what to say and b) that they had the capacity to say it.
We’ve all had brilliant conversations in our head, only to realize that when the opportunity to speak arises we can’t get the words out or are emotional and incoherent. I’ve worked with women who have prepared ideas seamlessly only to find that when in front of their colleagues or students their throat tightens & their mind goes blank. This happens in personal relationships too. You finally decide to set boundaries with your brother/sister/mom/dad/friend but when you try to say the words you get anxious & revert back to your old dynamic.
You’re not alone! This is a challenge for a lot for people, if not everyone to some degree. When our nervous system senses a threat we can completely lose the capacity to reason, think clearly, or respond how we really do want to respond. The good news is that with practice & patience we can become more attuned to our system and learn to respond effectively even when our body experiences those familiar anxious sensations.
The following are 5 simple suggestions that can help you calm your nerves & find your words in those tenuous times. These are less about ‘what to say’ & more about steadying yourself so that you can access your voice. All of these strategies can be practiced whether you feel nervous or calm. Familiarizing yourself with them will help you find inner steadiness & will support you in your time of need.
Suggestion #1: Self Care & Awareness
I have a rule. If I’m upset about something or feel there is a strong sense of urgency to ‘fix’ I ask myself “Do I need a nap or a sandwich?” &“Where am I in my cycle?” I’ve learned how food and rest affect my nerves & know that at some points in the month it’s best if I give myself space.
It’s common to think these things don’t effect us. Yet, studies around hunger have shown that it impacts the decision making of supreme court judges & that it changes consumer behaviour to more readily seek immediate gratification. Sleep deprivation causes a host of challenges from increasing anxiety to affecting our ability to connect & relate. When we consider self care we aren’t just taking care of our bodies we are taking care of our ability to show up & engage in the world.
There are simple solutions. Eat a good meal before a big presentation & keep snacks in your bag. Plan social gatherings or important conversations for days that are hormonally optimal. Of course, none of these are perfect & we all have unpredictable lives. However, maintaining our mental, physical, & emotional health is the most holistic way to keep our nerves calm. It’s a life long practice that is built through meaningful choices & gradual habits.
Suggestion #2: Orient Yourself
When an animal enters a new environment or something in the environment changes it naturally orients to the space. It looks around, becomes acutely aware of it’s senses, & either stays alert if it senses danger or returns to whatever it was doing if it’s safe. Orienting allows us to perceive & prepare for our environment. It also brings our attention into the present which is exceedingly helpful in those times when our mind begins to spin or goes blank. When you feel nervous slow down & orient to your environment.
~ Orient with Sight: Look around & notice what you see
~ Orient with Sound: Listen to the layers of sound around you
~ Orient with Feeling: Notice your sensations, Bring awareness to hands, legs, & belly.
~ Orient to Safety: Bring your attention to something that feels safe. It may be knowing where the exit is, or paying attention to a familiar face or item.
Suggestion #3: Allow Your Nerves
Nervousness or going blank in a stressful situation is normal. These responses have been adapted into our physiology over millennia with the purpose of self protection. The prevalence of these reactive responses will depend on a number of factors including our past conditioning, our current state, our current hormonal balance, & whether we’re rested or fed.
When you feel your physiology changing allow it. Remind yourself that this is normal & it will pass. Pushing yourself to ‘get over it’ or ‘be different’ tends to increase your stress level. Instead, meet the sensations with friendliness & patience. You might even tell your anxiety/nerves that they can take as long as they need to move through. This presence & allowance won’t make those nerves go away, but it will give you a greater sense of agency & allow them to move through more swiftly. Remember it will pass.
Suggestion #4: Social Engagement
The most sophisticated of our evolutionary responses is our social engagement system. In this system we feel resources, confident, & are physiologically better equipped to discuss, discern, & communicate with clarity.
When nerves are strained around a particular topic it can be helpful to first engage around topics that are neutral or positive. This social interaction helps create a sense of ease & primes all parties for a more positive engagement. We can support this system by asking the other person neutral questions with genuine curiosity - like how their new job has been going or what their kids have been up to.
If you are unable to engage in a social manner - perhaps there is too much tension or the other person is unwilling - you can draw on the social engagement system within yourself. Imagine a friend or a safe person in your life standing there with you. Anchor into that sense of safety & communicate from there.
Suggestion #5: Anchor Your Words in Your Body
For those who know my work I often talk about ‘embodied voice.’ Which is the ability to map our words though the connection to our body.
When you feel anxious or nervous you might not be able to take belly breaths or feel rooted… & that’s okay. However, you can still bring your awareness to those places in your body. Feeling your legs, pay attention to pelvis & speak from there. This will help you to slow down & become more anchored. Listen to your words as you say them & notice how they land in your body.
Patience & Practice
We build steadiness with practice. There will be some scenarios or people that are more likely to trigger us. This does not in any way mean that you are failing or that you ‘shouldn’t’ feel that way. We don’t always get to decide what will effect us & those moments, even when they are a total mess, are key insights into where we may still need some care & attention.
Begin with those scenarios that feel challenging but possible. Give yourself small achievable goals. Notice & celebrate the little wins (i.e. asking the waiter to fix your meal, or saying no to an invitation when you would usually feel obligated to say yes). When a conversation goes terribly use it as a lesson. Reflect on how you would have liked to have responded & acknowledge any new helpful behaviours or insights. None of this wasted or wrong, it is all part of the process.
At 39 years old I still find it challenging to speak up at times. I’ve talked with women in their sixties & seventies, who still find it challenging. This is a life practice, a journey of remembering, learning, & growing. You are human & even here, wherever here is, you are, you are worthy of the effort. This is practice of love & respect.
About the Author
Amy Thiessen is a coach, writer, & musician who focuses on helping women connect to their confidence, purpose, & self esteem through voice & communication. Offering a holistic approach Amy helps individuals uncover & overcome their unique blocks around voice & communication, connect to their self esteem & purpose, & ultimately express themselves in a way that is empowered & impactful.
Mapping our voice through the body is a powerful method for feeling more at ease inner body & our voice. That said sometimes we might need some support, someone to help us meet those places where we can’t seem to connect or support us as we move through an emotional process. If you would like to deepen your experience & sense of connection to your voice I would be happy to help! You can schedule a free consult (no strings) & hear more about the In Resonance “Embodied Voice’ Program which launches next week. I would love to hear from you.