The Art of Strengths Coaching

P is for Performing Superbly In Pressure Situations

There are many ways to do fine work. Here is one model that some people follow to do their best in challenging situations. Such people often take the following steps.

They aim to be positive, follow their principles and perform superbly in the pressure situation.

They reframe the experience as a pressure situation rather than themselves being under pressure. 

They choose to put themselves into these situations and aim to perform superbly because others may not be as suited to such pressure situations

The second point is vital. Great workers sometimes psychologically reframe the experience. They reframe it as a pressure situation rather than as themselves being under pressure. This frees them to perform at their best.

Bomb disposal experts, for example, often need to drain themselves of emotion. They need to be calm, concentrate fully and focus on the job in hand.

Imagine that you have chosen to take this role. What will go through your head as you approach the device on what is known as the longest walk?

Ed Chipperfield and James Day describe some of the qualities needed in their article called What does it take to survive as a bomb disposal expert?

Below are excerpts from the piece. You can discover more via the following link.

Bomb Disposal Experts

In a situation where the only outcomes are success or failure, psychologists say these soldiers require a certain mindset.

“We want people who minimise the unknowns,” says Eugene Burke, a military psychologist.  

“They’re not impulsive but are able to make fast decisions, thanks to training. It’s almost as though they’re flicking through reference cards in their head to find a match to the problem in front of them.  

“They’re organised, focused on detail and think ahead to possible outcomes. Allowing stress to build up is not an option as the operative can become withdrawn and lose their temper.”

Looking back, can you think of when you may have performed well in a pressure situation? You may have been helping others, managing a crisis, performing on stage, turning around a business or doing another activity.

What was your mental approach? Were you positive or negative? Were you able to make good decisions? What did you then do to follow your principles and perform superb work?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the past when you aimed to be positive, follow your principles and perform superbly in a pressure situation. 

Describe the specific things you did to take these steps.

Describe the specific things that happened as a result of taking these steps.

The Psychological Reframing

Great workers often care passionately about their work. Because they care so much, however, on some occasions they need to distance themselves and drain themselves of emotion. They are then more able to see things clearly and do their best to perform good work.

How to make this happen? One approach is to do some psychological reframing. Great workers sometimes take the following steps when tackling a challenge.

They see it as a professional task to be done and therefore aim to do superb work in the pressure situation.

They do not see it as a personal test of their own worth and therefore feel under personal pressure.

Great workers are then more able to channel their passion in a professional way. They manage their emotions rather than let their emotions manage them.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of specific situation in the future that you would like to reframe in a psychological way? This could be in your personal or professional life.

You may want to take this step when embarking on treatment for an illness, managing a crisis or making a transition. You may want to do so when dealing with an emotional issue, tackling a problem or leading a team.

How can you reframe this situation? How can you see it as a specific task to do in a pressure situation rather than you being under personal pressure? How can you then begin focusing on the task?

Imagine that you have taken this step. You may then wish to move on to the next stage.

Choosing to be positive 

Great workers are often positive realists. They have a positive attitude but they are also good at reading reality. They also build on what they can control and manage what they can’t.

Going into the challenging situation, they quickly see what is actually happening. Staying calm, they then take the following steps.

They clarify the real results to achieve – the picture of success.

They clarify the key principles they want to follow to achieve the picture of success.  

They clarify how to perform superb work and do their best to achieve the picture of success.

Let’s return to the potential challenge you may face in the future. How can you be a positive realist in the situation? Bearing in mind what you can control, what may be your picture of success?

Alanna Shaikh is somebody who has taken some of these steps. She describes these in her TED talk How I’m preparing to get Alzheimer’s. She begins her moving talk by saying:

I’d like to talk about my Dad. My Dad has Alzheimer’s Disease.

After describing how loving her father is, she describes the steps she is taking in case the she suffers the illness. Here is the description of the talk from the TED site.

Global development expert Alanna Shaikh takes on the toughest of health issues – from the ones affecting the globe at large to the ones hurting her own family.  

On her blog, Blood and Milk, she aims to make global development issues both accessible and understandable.

In her TED Book, What’s Killing Us, she explains the biggest challenges in global wellness – from HIV/AIDS to the diminishing effectiveness of antibiotics – in a way that anyone can understand.

Alanna is especially interested in Alzheimer’s, as she has watched her father deteriorate from the disease over the past 12 years.  

But she says the experience has not sent her into denial – she plans to be prepared for the genetically transmitted disease, should it ever arrive. 

Alanna intends to develop a ‘hobby’ to keep her hands and mind active. She also intends to keep her body healthy and describes this in the following way. 

The more things my hands know how to do, the more things that I can be happy and busy doing when my brain’s not running the show anymore.

She moves on to another stage which she says for her may be more difficult. This is to continue to become ‘a better person’. On this final point, she refers to her Dad, who emits love. Alanna says that, to fight the disease:

I need a heart so pure that if it’s stripped bare by dementia, it will survive.

Here is the video of her talk. You can discover more about Alanna’s work on Global Health at the following site.

Choosing to follow
your principles

Imagine that you want to perform superbly in a specific situation in the future. What are the principles you want to follow to achieve your aims? Bearing in mind what you can control, it can be useful to do the following exercise.

The Picture Of Success 

The real results I want to achieve are: 

To … 

To … 

To … 

The Principles

The principles I want to follow to do my
best to achieve the picture of success are:

To …

To … 

To … 

Great workers often follow their principles to perform at their best. Some companies take a similar approach and encourage their people to follow certain principles. They may say to their people, for example, that it is important:

To perform superbly and make your best contribution to our company.  

To provide great service to both external and internal customers. 

To help both the customers and our company to achieve success.

Such companies encourage people to do great work. There are many ways to take this step. One approach is to produce success stories that show how people are following the principles. These stories show what good looks like and encourages people to keep doing superb work.

How can a person find the principles they want to follow? One approach is to invite them to explore their positive history. This is an approach that I sometimes use when doing mentoring work.

Everybody has a positive history. Everybody has overcome challenges, done satisfying work or achieved a picture of success. Everybody has followed successful principles – even if only for a few minutes.

People need to believe in their guts that following a certain strategy will achieve success. The positive history approach nurtures this belief by building on the strengths and successful principles that people already have within them.

People can obviously learn things from outside, such as knowledge, models and tools. But the belief must come from within. People are more likely to sustain their motivation when following the successful principles they know will work in a situation.

Let’s look at how this works in practice. Several years ago I worked with a singer who wanted to feel at ease when performing live in front of audiences. She explained this in the following way.

My career took off but then it stalled. I became preoccupied with being loved by everybody. It got to the point where I froze if I spotted a person in the audience who was not being appreciative.  

There is now an opportunity coming up, however, where I have the chance to sing live. I would love to take it, providing I can deal with my version of stage fright. I want to enjoy singing and also give people great experiences. 

I invited the singer to recall her most satisfying performance. What was the situation? What did she do right then? What were the principles she followed? How could she follow some of these in the future?

Looking back, she recalled that her best performances came when she served the song. She described one particular experience when she sang one of her favourite songs.

I rehearsed in my room and in my mind for many weeks. Then came the day of the performance.

Getting to the theatre, I went through my usual rituals for centering, which included deep breathing.  

Moving from the dressing room, I snapped into action and strode onto the stage. Forgetting myself, I sank deeply into the music and aimed to serve the song.  

Before I knew it, the song was over and the audience gave rapturous applause. I am not exactly sure what happened, but people said it was the best performance I had ever given.

Looking deeper, we began to explore what she had done right on that occasion. We then looked at other times when she had given fine performances.

Could we see any recurring patterns? Eventually we began to clarify the key principles and how she could follow these in the future. Looking ahead, she felt it would be useful to pursue the following themes.

To play to my strengths when choosing a song. 

To forget myself and serve the song.

To perform superbly and, when appropriate, to add something special. 

Looking ahead, we explored how she could translate these principles into specific actions. Taking these steps could help her to give fine performances in the future.

Choosing to do your
best to perform superbly

Imagine that you are ready to click into action. How can you do your personal best?

When is doubt, keep going back to your principles. These will provide a compass that you can use to deal with many situations. One approach is to buy time and ask yourself the following questions.

What are my guiding principles? How can I follow them in this situation? How can I do my best to perform superb work? 

If possible, take time to reflect and refocus. Looking ahead, you can rehearse how you can be follow your principles. It will then be time to translate these into action.

Going into your equivalent of the arena, you can click into action and be fully present. Keep doing the basics and, when appropriate, add the brilliance.

You can also keep doing reality checks. It can be useful to focus on: a) What is working and how to do more of these things; b) What you can do better and how. You can then implement these ideas and keep improving.

Great workers maintain high professional standards. They keep following their principles and perform superb work. You can do this in your own way and, when appropriate, add that touch of class to achieve the picture of success.

Let’s look at one person who spent much of his life pursuing this approach.

Roger Fisher – A person
who followed his principles

Some people believe in following their principles, even though there may be setbacks along the way. They continue to hold their nerve, even when there are great things at stake. For some people, these outcomes can also include war or peace.

Roger Fisher was somebody who took this route. He believed that human beings could flourish by focusing on healing rather than hate. He believed it was important to say to people: 

We have a shared concern here. Let’s work together. How do you see it?

Roger helped people to build on what they had in common and taught law students to focus on alignment. This was uncommon in law, where people often took adversarial positions. Here is a video in which he explains this approach.


Roger served in the Second World War as a weather reconnaissance officer. But he was strongly affected by the loss of many friends.

During his service he also flew morning flights over Japan. This was before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to people who knew him, the memory of these flights – and the unnecessary deaths of many people in war – weighed on him.

Although building a great reputation in the academic world, he threw himself into applying the ideas in practice. This involved him working in Europe on the Marshall Plan.

Later he contributed to seeking peace in the Middle East. This involved working on President Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem and the subsequent summit at Camp David. He played a significant part in helping to release the United States citizens taken hostage in Iran in 1981.

Roger helped to resolve the war between Ecuador and Peru. He also spent considerable time in South Africa, helping to bring together people to end Apartheid. He believed the keys were for people:

To sit down together side-by-side.

To focus on the job to do, which was to find a solution.

To work together to solve the problem.

Roger found himself in many challenging situations. Frequently this involved meeting with people who had deep antagonisms and fears.

The aim was to follow the principles that worked. It was important, however, to separate himself and his ego from the situation. The aim was to help the parties to find a possible solution. Sometimes the negotiations were successful, sometimes they fell apart.

Roger also believed it was vital for the parties involved to show respect to each other as human beings. Wherever possible, it was important to separate the ‘problem’ from the people.

The key was to look for what each of the parties wanted. It was then often possible to solve the problem. The difficulty was that the solvable problem had often become complicated by the personal feelings – such as anger and disappointment – becoming wrapped in the problem.

Roger emphasised the need to understand people as human beings. Sometimes this could be difficult, but it was important to understand what people really wanted. Here is a video in which he describes this approach.

The Economist published the following piece about Roger after his death. You can discover more via the following link. 

Roger Fisher was really a fixer. He would relax by mending the plumbing, or laying brick terraces at the summer house he loved in Martha’s Vineyard. But that was tiddler stuff.

At breakfast he would scan the New York Times, looking for bigger problems he could fix: arms control, hostage-taking, the Middle East.

Over dinner the conversation would be sorting out Vietnam, or ending the war in El Salvador.

At his 80th birthday party, most other guests gone, he was found deep in a discussion of peace between Arabs and Israelis.

As long as there were disputes in the world and energy in his body, he was going to help resolve them.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking to the future, imagine you want to perform superbly in a specific pressure situation. How can you do your best in the situation?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future where you may aim to be positive, follow your principles and perform superbly in a pressure situation.

Describe the specific things you can do to take these steps. 

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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