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Ask Cathy
Emotions holding her back

Q. Though I am very competent in my job I have some characteristics that are holding me back. Since I was young, I have always turned bright red when I am the center of attention.

Even worse, I burst into tears far too easily when challenged. I don't want to be like this and I know it is holding me back considerably.

How can an emotional person keep those emotions hidden at work?

Dear Emotional One,

I have a business colleague who says that the cause of her bright red face comes from being caught off-guard in a work situation where she was not expecting to become the center of attention. She also turns a deep shade of crimson when she has to speak publicly.

She asked me two years ago to help her tackle this problem because it was holding her back from public speaking and from entering into workplace discussions.

To tackle the problem, we looked forward into our work schedule and planned speaking points for any meeting where she might be asked a question or would otherwise need to contribute. We prepared the speaking points in bullets that she could glance down at and quickly absorb in case her nervousness left her tongue-tied under pressure.

Before each meeting where she needed to be ready, we would role play her speaking points and battle through the red face and stuttering or searching for words. Gradually, because we were working together on several projects, I would casually ask her to present her feedback/input during discussions for which she had not prepared.

She would work through her red face attack and sometimes stumble. I would often finish her sentence and give her time to regroup and come back into the conversation.

Today, she still turns red occasionally, but she keeps pressing on and ignores her appearance. Interestingly, so does everyone else. The redness attacks are less frequent and she has gained confidence to tackle it head-on and participate.

I recommend strongly that you follow a similar strategy in asking a senior woman business colleague to support you. If you do not have one, perhaps practice with a woman professional friend outside the office.

You are right that your fear of going red will hold you back. Tackle it head-on and do not hide what you cannot; a red face will not go away.

It can only fade by robustly talking through, with confidence, prepared thoughts and contributions to workplace projects/discussions. Practice will make perfect, I promise.

I understand completely the tears dilemma. It is particularly hard to tackle when you are tired, overstretched or emotionally vulnerable.

There have been instances over the years when I have broken down in the workplace. Each time, I was exhausted and had given past my limit when confronted with undue, misplaced or arrogantly stated criticism.

What I did was this: I looked straight into the eyes of the person who was speaking to me and said I would need to postpone the discussion for a few minutes and excused myself. I went to the lavatory and cried (sometimes very hard or not really much at all). I waited until I had physically passed beyond the tearful moment and then went to find my critical colleague.

Interestingly, after the time passed and having seen my initial response, each time the person's demeanor had changed. They were less rough hewn and more sensitive to the delivery of the criticism/comments.

The net result was that I did not have an unprofessional meltdown in front of my colleague and the manner of the delivery of criticism changed permanently in most cases.

I learned other tools from news commentators at Princess Diana's funeral in London. There was a great deal of discussion about how the Princes were able to cope with the public funeral procession without breaking down.

It was reported that the royal secret was that they dug their fingernails into their palms and bit the inside of their top lips to stop the tears. I have used these tools myself and they work. Try them out.

I hope my comments are helpful. Tackle your red face and tears head-on.

You will find ways of succeeding in the face of such emotions which cannot be hidden, but must instead, be managed skillfully. Good luck to you.



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