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Vulnerability happens: Turning a moment of stress into success

Being Vulnerable

An unusual thing happened during a recent panel discussion I attended. About a quarter of the way through an informative presentation, in front of a room full of about fifty attorneys and with no indication that anything was amiss, one of the speakers stopped dead. She looked at the audience and said, “I’m sorry, guys, I’m so nervous. I can’t do this.”

The moderator joined her at the podium and began an impromptu Q&A session. Soon, the speaker got her bearings, picked up where she left off, and completed the presentation, to a hearty round of applause.

Law schools don’t teach this, but they should

Unless something has changed dramatically since I was in law school, the course offerings don’t include Vulnerability, Failure, or What to Do When You’re Not on Your A-Game along with the usual Torts and Contracts. Law students and new lawyers are expected to succeed, but chances are, you will encounter a situation in your career that just doesn’t go according to plan.

Mary Crane is a consultant with more than two decades of experience helping new lawyers and other young professionals develop skills in areas like networking and professionalism. She has earned degrees from both the George Washington University Law School and the Culinary Institute of America, and worked as a lobbyist and a White House assistant chef. With this experience, Crane combines the perspective of the business world and the world of high-stakes etiquette.

Crane says society today recognizes that people have emotions, and there’s appropriate times and places for expressing those and showing vulnerability, but emphasizes the importance of professionalism and preparation.

Five techniques for success in stressful situations

If you’re facing a situation that isn’t in your wheelhouse or that’s been a challenge for you in the past, Crane recommends five tips for a successful outcome:

1. Reframe

There are two approaches to climbing a mountain, according to Crane. Either you can look at the bottom of the mountain and think of how difficult it will be to get to the top, or you can look at the top and imagine getting there. In the same way, she recommends viewing your situation as “a challenge, not a threat.”

2. Desensitize

Before a Broadway production, Crane notes that the actors rehearse time and time again, including dress rehearsal. The more you are exposed to the topic and the venue, the less overwhelming it will be. She recognizes that the workload for attorneys and the stress of 24/7 connectedness can make it difficult to find time to prepare, but warns against self-imposed stress and unrealistic expectations. For example, the panelist at the beginning of this article could remind herself that she is just one part of the entire presentation and need not run the show.

Arrive early for your presentation, exam, interview, court appearance, or whatever your challenge may be. Even if you can’t visit the site beforehand, as in an interview at the potential employer’s office, make sure you map it out and leave plenty of time to arrive. If you’re appearing before a judge for the first time, check his or her calendar and sit in if there’s something scheduled before your appearance.

3. Anticipate

This tip goes hand-in-hand with desensitizing. In their dress rehearsals, Crane says, the actors don’t just run through the show. The dress rehearsal also includes a parade of possible distractions, like hecklers and audience members taking phone calls. “What could possibly go wrong?” Crane asks. Think about that and prepare for it.

Ask your school’s career planning office to set up a mock interview, and don’t let them take it easy on you. Be prepared for bad cop interviewers and difficult questions. If your firm offers trial advocacy or negotiation training for young associates, take advantage of it. All these exercises will help you to be ready for the worst-case scenario.

4. Anchor Cues

Look at world-class athletes, Crane says. Before their competitions, you will see many of them wearing headphones, focusing on their music. Crane particularly recommends listening to music with words and choosing “your own little fight song.”

She says the “fight song” technique is a type of anchor cue. That is, a short phrase you can repeat to help you re-focus. For example, Crane cites the 1993 courtroom drama Philadelphia, about an HIV-positive attorney (played by Tom Hanks) suing his former employer for discrimination. In one scene, an important document is misplaced, and the character begins repeating, “Every problem has an answer,” over and over to calm himself down. She recommends choosing an anchor cue like this and coming back to it when you find yourself getting overwhelmed.

5. Mindfulness

Finally, Crane recommends practicing mindfulness techniques. She defines mindfulness as “stopping your thoughts,” using techniques such as breathing, the anchor cues discussed above, or a prayer, word, or mantra.

What to do when you’re thrown for a loop

Even with the best preparation, though, the unexpected happens, and you might enter a challenge feeling less than 100% because of a personal or work emergency. If that’s your case, Crane says there is nothing wrong with letting your audience, in a scenario like a presentation, know. The key, she says, it keeping it short and sweet. According to Crane, “no one needs to know the details.” You can simply say, “I want you to know this happened, but I’m prepared and ready to do this.” And then go on with the show.

Putting miscues in the past

Sometimes, though, you will still have an outcome that isn’t what you want. Crane recommends that you accept that it happened, learn from the experience, and put it in the past as quickly as possible. Crane’s tip is to “look for the next opportunity to perform, and perform really well.”

“History is filled with people who’ve taken really big stumbles,” Crane says, “who came out better in the end.”