Six Tips for Overcoming Anxiety at Business Conferences

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Whether they’ve never been or have gone multiple times, people struggle to be in big crowds because they know that something is expected of them. We all fear coming across in a way we don’t intend at these meetings. Newer employees don’t want to stand out for not understanding the flow and culture of the event. Executives, many of whom have spent weeks preparing important presentations, have their own stuff about looking and sounding professional, whether they have something of value to contribute, and other worries that center around living up to people’s expectations.

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If you’ve ever traveled for a business conference, you know well the tightness of breath and sleepless nights that begin days before, followed by the overwhelming experience of needing to feel ‘on’ among overwhelming crowds and with harried schedules. Some people seem to thrive in these environments, and you wonder what their secret is. The truth is that they’re not so very different from you, but have learned (as I have) how to overcome anxiety at business conferences and get the most of the opportunity. Here are the strategies I’ve used to help me prepare.

1. Go with goals. Weeks before the event, begin thinking about what you want to gain from it. Is it going to help you build skills, meet people in key roles, or help communicate an important thing you’ve learned that will support others? Anytime I have a business trip, I always list out three things it has to offer me professionally. As the event draws closer, I think more about the goals and flesh out some of the details of how I’ll realize them. This puts in motion my consideration of the conference as something of direct benefit to me as opposed to something I’m attending because I have to do it.

One of my goals is always to:

2. Connect with people! One of the best things about business travel is that it allows me to         spend time with people I genuinely enjoy. Some of my colleagues have become close friends over the years, and business trips allow us the benefit of reconnecting. Admittedly, the first business trip for an organization is the hardest because we don’t know what to expect, and often don’t know many of the people who will be there.

In first-time situations, I’m big on reaching out beforehand to one of my new colleagues who seems friendly enough and seems to know the business: “Hey, Sandy! Any pointers you can give to help me plan my trip? I’m a little nervous because I don’t know what to expect.” If you and Sandy have a great rapport, you can suggest, “Looks like we have a networking breakfast on Tuesday. Any chance of grabbing that time to connect and talk more about ___?” Chances are, Sandy will oblige if she’s free because she’s anxious, too.

Surprised by that? Don’t be. In fact, it’s helpful if you:

3. Remember that everyone’s anxious to some degree. Whether they’ve never been or have gone multiple times, people struggle to be in big crowds because they know that something is expected of them. We all fear coming across in a way we don’t intend at these meetings. Newer employees don’t want to stand out for not understanding the flow and culture of the event. Executives, many of whom have spent weeks preparing important presentations, have their own stuff about looking and sounding professional, whether they have something of value to contribute, and other worries that center around living up to people’s expectations.

Because I tend to sit up front in sessions to avoid being distracted by back of the room stuff, my own meandering thoughts, and other issues that plague people with divergent foci, I can’t tell you how many powerful people I’ve seen whose hands are visibly shaking ahead of a session. Irrespective of the person’s position, when I notice this I’ve begun attempting eye contact, smiling slightly, and giving a reassuring nod forward to indicate “I believe in you.”

People in general respond well to this because every crowd needs a person who can:

4. Be a reassuring presence. If I know that people are all doing their best just to be there, it helps me frame all of the behaviors I see. Some people are talkative, some get very quiet and sit as far from the action as possible. It’s a climate of self-consciousness. The minute I realized this, meetings became less scary for me.

I enjoy reminding people that they’re appreciated. It’s important to thank presenters for workshops, paying attention to how well they may have handled a technical issue, contentious audience, or other adversity. I also like to introduce myself to first time attendees because I know that as hard as it may be for me to be there, it’s much harder for them. They’ll remember folks (as I do) who helped them feel at ease in the beginning. Use of light humor (office appropriate, of course) is also helpful for putting people at ease and drawing quiet people out. Talkative people, many who know they’re talking a lot to fill silence but don’t know how to stop, can be calmed if I myself breathe deeply and remain centered.

This one is especially important and deserves extra attention:

5. Take three deep breaths before any engagement. In fact, take three deep breaths before leaving your room, entering the elevator, walking into a conference room, and any other time you’re preparing for interactions. This helps center you in the present, slows your pulse, and allows you to focus on the person or task in front of you. It also allows you to refocus on the goals you set forth before the conference.

It’s here that I should offer this up:

6. Don’t trample your own self-care. Business meetings and conferences tend to be over-scheduled. It’s tiring to sit through endless sessions, and even more so to present them. Some of you know when and how to retreat back to your hotel rooms for needed downtime; while for others (like me), it’s sometimes hard to regulate needs. If you know that it will be harder to leave your hotel room after a 2-hour break, consider instead hanging out in a community area with a book or laptop. You’ll have downtime without getting so far out of the mix that you struggle to move back into it.

If your event gives you free evenings and you want to head out with close friends without the rest of the office inviting themselves, use dinner reservations and let your party know the limit. I’ve learned by sitting through large, exhausting post-meeting dinners that I don’t enjoy more than a party of 4 after meeting all day, and I tend to whisper this to friends I’ve invited to join me for dinner or drinks. By doing this, it helps me pace the rest of the conference event and arrive fully fueled whenever I need to be. To do otherwise, I deplete after a couple of days.

A business conference works best when you arrive with goals to which you attend throughout the event, and allow yourself not to be overwhelmed by the large crowds and busy schedules while you’re there. Planning, self-pace, and being conscientious of others are proven tools that I hope will help you overcome business conference anxiety as they have for me.

 

Kick Coercion to the Curb and Learn to Ask for What You Need

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If you’ve ever had a person attempt to guilt you into carrying out a course of action, you understand how coercion feels on the receiving end. How often have you attempted to coerce another person though instead of asking for what you want or stating your needs directly? You’re not alone. It’s a common method of interaction; but at what cost to the health of a relationship? To help you avoid the ill feelings that can ensue from attempted guilt trips, here’s some guidance on getting what you want without using coercion in relationships.

 

Let’s begin by taking a look at how coercion is commonly used to elicit feelings of guilt in another person. Consider:

 

Scenario 1: Sandra’s mother Janet wants Sandra and her children to visit her this weekend. During a phone conversation, Janet tells Sandra, “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine sitting at home all by myself.”

 

Scenario 2: Terry and Kenneth work together on a team. Kenneth’s behavior in a business meeting is off-putting to Terry. She tells other people that Kenneth belittled her and that she’s feeling disrespected, expecting that it will get back to Kenneth.

 

In Scenario 1, we see Janet attempting to hook Sandra into bringing the grandchildren to see her through the coercion of Sandra’s guilt. While it might ultimately lead Sandra to bring the children for a visit, she’s likely to harbor some degree of mild to pretty heavy irritation toward Janet (depending on how frequently her mother uses guilt). This is because guilt never feels good. It’s also completely unnecessary to coerce guilt in this situation.

 

Let’s imagine instead Janet expressing her genuine desire to see the family in such a way as, “It’s been a while since we’ve seen each and I miss you and the kids. I’d love it if you could stop by.” If it hasn’t actually been a while, Janet could express her needs as, “I never can truly have enough time with you all. I’d love it if you could stop by this weekend.” Sandra may still feel guilty (particularly if she and the children hadn’t visited Janet in a while), but the important piece here is that Janet made her wishes known to Sandra without an attempt to elicit guilt. As such, Sandra will have less of the gnawing feelings of resentment that occur from coercion.

 

In Scenario 2, we see Terry’s effort to hook Kenneth’s guilt through the involvement of other people. Intended or not (and I submit that the vast majority of interactions are not intended to harm), Kenneth said something that led Terry to feel belittled, and Terry in turn wants Kenneth to feel guilty for what he did. She tells a bunch of people with the expectation that someone will say something to Kenneth like, “Wow, you apparently made Terry feel pretty bad in that meeting.”

 

There are a few things wrong with Terry’s treating the situation this way: it cultivates office gossip that could be damaging to Kenneth, it creates weird dynamics in which other people who don’t need to be involved play a role in defending either Terry or Kenneth, etc.  It can also lead to Kenneth’s feelings of guilt as well as other emotions that Terry didn’t intend, in that Kenneth will very likely resent Terry’s behavior. Additionally, because of the indirect method for communication she’s chosen, Terry will be left to stew in her own misunderstanding while she’s waiting for Kenneth’s apology.

 

As with Scenario 1, guilt is not a necessary emotion or one that’s particularly helpful to try and manipulate here. Terry might instead say to Kenneth in private, “Hey Kenneth, in our meeting today when you said ____, I kind of felt that you were dissing my idea/cutting me off/belittling my plan. I’m guessing that’s not what you intended.”

 

Presenting the statement to Kenneth as such, Terry does two important things: she very clearly represents an experience she had and she states to Kenneth her assumption that it wasn’t his intent to belittle her. As a result, she is very likely to open a better dialogue with Kenneth, who might reveal that he’s struggling that day because a sick child at home had him up half the night, that a boss is breathing down his neck and it’s creating a lot of pressure, or whatever his reasons were for his meeting behavior.

 

Chances are that whatever reason it was, it wasn’t really about Terry and her ideas; but about some missed communication between them which they were now correcting.

 

Learning better methods of communication comes through practicing them. While it will feel vulnerable and therefore a bit scary to ask for or state what you need directly, it’s a significant enhancement to relationships. Other people will understand you and your needs more clearly, and you’ll come to understand theirs. As a result, you’ll have a better chance of getting your needs met as well as learning how to better respond to those of the people around you.

 

Happy connections to you in your coercion-free relationships!