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How to overcome anxiety in business meetings

Updated on May 10, 2012

Anxiety is a natural part of life and managing anxiety is a skill that we develop throughout our lives. However, if we experience too much anxiety in any given situation it can affect our performance, how we feel about ourselves and inevitably our experience of life.

As a life and business coach I get to work with people experiencing challenges both professionally and personally and one of my latest clients (Jason) asked me to help him overcome the extreme anxiety he was experiencing in his regular work meetings.

Jason’s case was made slightly more complicated by the fact he had been diagnosed as having ‘Social Anxiety (Social phobia)’. Having social anxiety for him meant that just being in a room with more than two people was extremely difficult let alone having to speak and contribute.

When a person comes to me with an urgent and distressing problem I always like to attack it with activity and from multiple angles. Thankfully Jason was an extremely willing client and I’m an extremely enthusiastic coach so I knew our chances of success were excellent.

So here is the approach I took with Jason to reduce his anxiety in meetings.

Step 1 – Visualisation

For many people, the first feelings of anxiety will occur when they think about the upcoming event. In Jason’s case when I asked him to give me a quick run down of everything he thought before he had to go to the meeting he supplied the following:

“Oh god, I’m going to have to go in there, I hate that room”
“I’m going to say something stupid and everyone is going think I’m incompetent. I guess if they are looking for people to fire I’m going to make it easy for them today”
“What if I can’t think of anything to say, I could go the whole meeting without saying anything”
“What if someone asks me a question I haven’t got the answer for”
“Everyone is going to laugh at me”
“My hands are going to shake”
“Everyone will know I’m petrified”
“I’m such a loser why can’t I just do these things like everyone else”
“This is the worst day ever”

In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) these are known as Thinking Errors and as our thinking governs our behaviour this was a good place to start.

When I asked Jason to describe the images he was seeing for the meeting he described himself as walking in depressed, head down, scared, not being able to find a seat, sitting hunched over (shoulders forward) in his chair, feeling nauseous, stammering and praying for the meeting to end.

To get Jason started I asked him to do the following :

Visualisation exercise

Level 1 – Picture yourself sat in your chair as you would normally. Someone tells you it’s time for the meeting and you say ‘OK’ and slowly make your way to the meeting room. You sit down in one of the empty chairs and you say ‘Hi’ to each person that comes into the room. Picture making a couple of contributions in a relaxed way (as you would at home) and then picture the meeting ending and you return to your desk at a slow relaxed pace.

Visualisation can be difficult for some people so Jason had to take some time before being comfortable with the next levels.

Level 2 – Picture yourself sat straight in your chair. Someone tells you its time for the meeting and you say ‘Great’ and tell them your going to get a drink before you head in. You walk in with a big smile and go for the chair next to someone who is already sat down and say ‘Hi’. As the meeting progresses picture making good powerful contributions that people like. As the meeting ends you engage in witty banter with a colleague, laugh and leave the room and walk energetically back to your chair.

Level 3 is the best

Level 3 – Picture yourself dancing in your chair. Someone says it’s time for the meeting and you say ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!’. You jump out of your chair strut up the corridor, winking at the occasional lady as you pass’ (Like the Fonz in Happy Days). You burst into the room and everyone stands and gives you a round of applause. Through a beaming smile you modestly tell them it’s not necessary as you head to your chair specially reserved for you with your name on it. You sit down and for the rest of the meeting everyone is hanging on your every word and making notes so they can hurriedly carry out your orders when they leave the room. You draw the meeting to a close before making a witty remark that results in high fives from some of your colleagues. As you leave the room with your paper cup in hand you shout across the office ‘Jason for the win’ and you hurl the cup over your shoulder without looking into the awaiting waste paper bin. Bringing yet another round of applause and more high fives.

The purpose of Level 3 wasn’t to turn Jason into an ego maniac that would eventually lead to him being fired it was to make the scenario playful and expand his comfort zone in a safe way. The reality is that he would retract from level 3 and find greater comfort in level 2 which is where he needed to be.

Step 2 - Time to get physical

Having noted that Jason had formed an association between the meeting room and anxiety, it was time to get physical. Luckily he had the keys to his office and could access it at weekends so I asked him to do the following :

  1. Practice walking down the corridor upright, shoulders back, head up with even and relaxed strides.
  2. Practice entering the meeting room nice and relaxed with a big smile and say in a firm voice ‘Hi guys’.
  3. Try each chair around the table and sit in each one for a couple of minutes.
  4. Sit in the chair and talk slowly and relaxed and look at each chair as if a person was in it.
  5. Practice getting up from the table and walking out of the conference room with confidence.

Step 3 – Accept anxiety don’t fight it.

Steps 1 & 2 were about being proactive, showing the possibility of different outcomes and taking control. Step 3 is about letting ago. Human’s perform at their peak when they are focused on the task and relaxed as they execute. However, Anxiety lures the sufferer into a cycle whereby they feel the anxiety, they try to control it which increases the tension and then they try to control it even more.

When Jason was in the meeting, I asked him to NOTICE he was anxious and accept that this is normal and not try to control it. Once he has noticed, I asked him to mentally say ‘Hmm isn’t that interesting’ and give himself a pat on the back for noticing. He could then focus on the rest of the meeting. By choosing these new behaviours he was able to see anxiety as something he was recovering from not something he was suffering. This new found compassion allowed him to view these feelings as bumps in the road rather than an insurmountable hurdle. In short, the meaning/significance of these feelings had been reduced.

Step 4 – The cure is in the numbers

In order for Jason to feel comfortable he needed to disconfirm the beliefs he held about the meetings and his subsequent performance. Once he completed many ‘visualisation meetings’ and sat in the environment without feeling anxiety he was ready to let the numbers work for him and instil a range of new beliefs starting with “This isn’t so bad” and moving onto “I like these meetings”. What worked for Jason was imagining his anxiety was a fire and every meeting was a big bucket of water that he desperately needed.

I am happy to report that Jason’s hard work did pay off and he no longer feels anxious in his weekly meetings.

When I mentioned to Jason I would be writing articles (Hubs) he asked that I write this one in particular because “it was so powerful and it changed his whole experience of work”.

If you have experienced anxiety, have some tips or just like this hub, please leave a comment so that others may benefit.

Thank you for reading.


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    • profile image

      Najere Chitekwe 2 years ago

      Thanks so much for a powerful article. Helpful tips

    • profile image

      Adi 2 years ago

      Thank you very much for this article, Anxiety is one of the worst things a human can experience.

    • dhimanreena profile image

      Reena Dhiman 2 years ago

      Truly speaking, I read each word and line of this hub. I think it's a superb article, which is clearly teaching you how to fight anxiety during meetings.