Nothing Builds Confidence Like Taking a Risk… and Failing | By Delaney Tosh CPCC, PCC

I once believed that to achieve the goals outside my comfort zone I needed to be more confident. Full disclosure - I admit this belief still runs deep for me even though the research says that the opposite is the case:

You must do the things that scare you in order to build confidence.
You will cultivate confidence through risk, failure and changing how you think.

Failure is difficult - and certain!

Failure is a fact of life - missteps, foibles and fall-flat-on-your-face moments are unavoidable. But most of us have developed deeply rooted strategies to avoid the risk of failure.

Learning is also a fact of life. Yet, to find what works, you have to discover what doesn't work… and this involves failing.

But failure has consequences, both tangible and emotional. Failure triggers our survival instinct. Just the fear of failure or imagining engaging in something that feels like a risk will trigger a stress response. Feelings of shame, inadequacy, fear and even blame (offloading the hurt you feel and avoiding difficult emotions) might be your default reactions. And there is nothing like a good failure to wake up your inner critic.

The Importance of Failure

Fear of failure can keep a client stuck, as will how they react when they have failed.

Yet failing, and learning from it using a growth mind-set, is what moves us into mastery. And this involves taking risks - engaging in that which lies beyond our sense of comfort.

It is one of those wonderful paradoxes of life. We avoid taking risks because we don't feel confident in our ability to avoid failure, yet taking risks and moving through failures is what builds confidence! Delaney Tosh

To support clients in enhancing their sense of confidence, coaches can explore with them how they might be engaging in self-limiting behaviours that keep them stuck and out of action. We can support them in rewiring their brains to enhance their growth mind-set and resilience so they can better move towards their meaningful goals, despite the fear.

Do you have a client who is stalling on moving forward in their career? Perhaps it is because they fail to speak up in meetings, fear taking the high profile project or because they fear requesting a raise or promotion? What is the perceived risk? Is it realistic or stemming from an underlying fear or belief?

What We Tell Ourselves Matters

When a client is carrying the emotional baggage of having failed or faced down something that feels very risky, it can be a challenge to help them see the excellent opportunity failure provides - in particular the opportunity to increase their confidence.

A great starting place is to first help them understand that how they respond to failure either undermines or supports their growth and confidence.

Here's what some of the research says:

  • David Hellerstein M.D., clinical psychiatry professor at Columbia University, advises that if you view a situation as negative or threatening it will trigger a stress response in the body which can promote feelings of anxiety. And these feelings of anxiety will reduce your brain's capacity for higher thinking.
  • Research led by biological psychiatrist Dennis Charney, M.D. of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, looked at what is triggered by the hormones released when someone sees a situation as a threat versus a challenge.
    • When a person feels threatened, their body releases hormones that reduce higher thinking; viewing a situation as threatening causes a person to feel anxious, panicky, scared, combative and reactive.
    • Conversely when you view a situation through the lens of opportunity or as a juicy challenge, and see yourself as capable, your body and brain have an enabling response more conducive to higher-level strategic thinking; so when a person sees a failure or risk as a challenge, they are more calm, thoughtful, enthusiastic and invigorated.
  • Research by psychologist, Zach Estes, has demonstrated that what we tell ourselves at the outset plays a role in our performance.
    • People who tell themselves they're not going to be able to perform well, don't.
    • But when the same group of underperformers were told they could likely solve the study's test, they performed just as well as the other groups in the study; so even if we initially lack confidence we can usually perform at least as well as anyone else, especially when we tell ourselves we are capable.

Furthermore, the act of doing boosts our confidence. If we want to rewire our brains towards confidence we have to be in action, both when we fear failure and when we have failed.

"Nothing builds confidence like taking action, especially when the action involves risk and failure." Katty Kay & Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code

7 Ways We Can Support our Clients to Rewire their Brains for Confidence

  1. Help clients notice their language so they can better derail any negative spiral thinking which has them stay stuck in story… and in the stress response:
    • Is it a "desperate situation" or could it be a "challenge" for them to solve?
    • Is it a "threat" or an "opportunity"?
  2. Encourage clients to build their self-awareness around the emotional reactions they are having, and how this influences their behaviour:
    • Are they stuck in shame? Are they offloading the shame through blaming?
    • Are they ruminating on the negative side of the situation?
    • Explore how this derails their ability to learn and grow from a failure.
  3. Support clients in developing a more realistic and compassionate reaction to a failure or possible failure:
    • How can they shift their thoughts from "I am bad, I failed" to, "The situation didn't work out, yet I am capable of learning and problem-solving"?
  4. Support clients in connecting with their values, strengths and inner sage voice:
    • What capabilities can they draw on?
    • How will they engage the voice of their inner sage?
  5. Explore what it is to have a growth mindset:
    • What if they let go of perfectionism and self-judgment and embrace the fact that failures are to be expected?
    • What becomes possible if they shift their perspective?
    • What can they learn from this situation?
    • How can they cultivate optimism and a sense of capacity?
  6. Help them shift into action thinking:
    • How can I contain this problem and limit its scope?
    • What are ways to reduce the negative outfall?
    • What are ways to increase the up-side?
    • What do I have control over?
    • What part did I play in contributing to this problem?
    • What am I learning from this?
    • What outside perspective can I seek to gain a more objective meta-view?
    • How can I best respond?
    • What resources do I have? What are my capabilities that I could draw on?
    • What resources do I need?
  7. Encourage clients to take time to really celebrate not only their wins, but also the learning that comes from failure. Research is indicating this also helps rewire the brain for resilience. Ask questions like:
    • What did you learn from this situation?
    • What are you proud of in how you handled it?
    • What would I do differently next time?

Plus 5 Other Tools You Can Draw on to Support Clients in Enhancing their Growth Mindset and Attitude Towards Failure:

  • Inner critic and inner sage work [Read: How to Calm Your Inner Critic and Engage Your Inner Sage!]
  • Exploring limiting beliefs
  • Exploration of perspectives and how to be at choice from a more fulfilling mind-set
  • Visualization - when something feels particularly risky, visualize the steps to success
  • Mindfulness practice - calms the amygdala (brain's centre for our stress responses) and stimulates neural pathways that enhance the ability to plan, organize and ideate towards an end goal

Wrap up

Adopting the mindset that failure is good for us takes a bit of convincing, but can have a huge return on investment.

A close friend of mine who is an educator and just took on a new challenge of Vice Principal, recently asked if I knew that fail really means First Attempt In Learning. I love this. She is known for her outstanding teaching in part because she encourages her students to embrace this attitude… and I'm learning to embrace it, too.

So, when you look at a failure as an integral step towards mastery and confidence, you open yourself up to learning which will support you to better plan for future situations. You now have a stronger advantage and are able to answer the question, "What would I do next time?".

Further Reading:

  • The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman - discusses current research, across several disciplines, that explains how we can choose to become more confident, and how specific actions can actually change our neurological wiring.
  • Co-Active Coaching 4th edition by Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl, Laura Whitworth - presents coaching tools and approaches that foster transformative coaching conversations around beliefs, perspectives, values and being at choice towards more fulfilling goals and actions.
  • Rising Strong by Brené Brown - discusses how to rumble with our face down moments and use our vulnerability as a strength.

If you liked this article on failure and confidence, you may also like:

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Contributing Author:

Delaney Tosh, CPCC, PCC, coaches women who want to radiate with confidence and thrive as leaders. She helps her clients navigate the hurdles unique to women in leadership and also delivers the Resilience at Work® Toolkit and Resilience at Work® Leader Scale, helping leaders and teams create optimal performance through resilience. She is co-creator of the Phoenix-Hearted Woman retreats and webinars, designed to help women build resilience and strengthen their foundation for being heard and making a difference in the world. Connect with Delaney at SquarePeg Leadership or on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Delaney & see all their articles here >>

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