Monthly Archives: January 2014

Women and Harrassment

The Lord Rennard issue grinds on. The man is now telling us of his ‘distress’ at the accusations of harassment but refusing to do more than a generalised and meaningless apology, and the women are still talking determinedly of their own upset, anger and sense of betrayal, so how are we to respond?

My guess is that most women will have some kind of comparable story and are watching with interest to see how this one unfolds.

As a very young woman, I had occasion to be visited in my office by my new boss whose purported mission was to give a token OK to the proofs of a book I had written. It was lunchtime and in those far-off days, people did actually have a lunch hour. My secretary (sic) had gone out to eat, but in any case I had a cellular office of my own – another vanished privilege. As I realised later, the whole of my floor was temporarily devoid of people.

He came in, and marched purposefully to where I was standing behind my desk. Instantly his right arm was around me and he was pulling me towards him as with the other hand he poked feebly at the galley proofs. Soon, the right hand was going where, as women in the LibDem case have alleged the Rennard arm went, to places where it had no business.

To say that I was paralysed with shock would be an understatement. I froze – and simultaneously burned with embarrassment. This man was more than thirty years my senior, older than my father and he was my direct boss. He was – well, how to put it as I saw him then? -an overweight, pompous man in his late fifties. Somehow I prized myself away, wobbled to the door, politely thanked him for coming and said in what was most probably a squeaky, tremulous voice that perhaps it might be helpful if he took the proofs away with him to have a good look in his own time.

How well I remember my fury and helplessness. Who could I complain to? No one senior, that was for sure. The phrase ‘sexual harassment‘ had yet to be invented. It never even crossed my mind to talk to the quaintly named ‘Personnel Officer’. I knew without even thinking about it that I would not be believed. I knew that I would be told that either I had exaggerated a ‘bit of fun’ or ‘a friendly gesture’ and had no sense of humour, or that I should feel ‘flattered’, or that somehow I was responsible for this man’s behaviour. He also had a degree of power over my career: a critical word might easily have scuppered my chances of a move to a different role in another department and a complaint would have been a black mark on my file not on his.

Still extremely upset, I waited for colleagues to reappear after lunch. My next door neighbour, Y, was a colleague doing a similar job. I went into her office. ‘You’ll never guess what that creep X has done…!’ And told her the story. I don’t remember how she responded. But three weeks later, to general astonishment, X and Y announced their engagement. They were both new to the organization and had been conducting a secret affair in their previous jobs for some time. His divorce had been finalised, so now they could come clean.

I hope she gave him a really hard time. Even if she did not, at the very least she had some inkling of his behaviour and knew what she was taking on.

As for me, I had already made plans to move on, successfully avoided him until I did – and made it my business to pass on to other women the NSIT message: Not Safe In Taxis, code for ‘never be alone with this guy’.

In the Rennard case, the focus now should be on why this political party could not have behaved in a less pusillanimous way and to have acted far more quickly and firmly. The impression, unfortunately, is that they still don’t get it. They do not seem to understand that power can give even the most unappealing man the fantasy that they are irresistible to young women and that however senior such a man is, complaints against him must be investigated thoroughly and promptly, even if they turn out to be baseless. They still don’t see that to lack the courage to act on your fine principles destroys trust, eats at the heart of the organization and in the case of a political party, makes you an extremely unattractive election prospect.


Stage Fright Can Happen To Anyone

Michael Bay, the movie director, has just proved that even the most apparently sophisticated of us can fall prey to stage fright. When the autocue broke down at the Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas, he panicked and walked off the stage. YouTube instantly made his scrambled exit as public as it was possible for it to be.

But actually this incident should be a comfort to the many people whose deepest anxiety is of public speaking. A number of famous politicians have spoken candidly about such fear, including those who seem supremely confident. For instance both Tony Blair and Winston Churchill have described the gut-churning terror of Prime Minister’s Question Time. Many of my coaching clients have told me that they would rather do almost anything than have to address a large, live audience. Other tortures such as having root canal treatment without an anaesthetic, or being locked by mistake into an abattoir, or being forced to handle tarantulas, have been mentioned as preferable.

Running away is an extreme response to the fear, but there’s a biological as well as a psychological explanation. The amygdala in the human brain responds as readily to perceived psychological threat and in just the same way as to a physical threat. It sends a flood of the hormone cortisol to the prefrontal cortex, effectively shutting down our higher thinking processes and sending glucose and adrenaline to our muscles to prepare us for running away.  Mostly, Michael Bay aside, running away is the very thing we can’t do, hence the terrible feeling of paralysis or the dread of it happening.

What can you do if this is one of your own worries?

  • The underlying fear is of looking incompetent or stupid. The unasked, secret question is ‘Do I look an absolute idiot when I do one of these things?’ This fear usually trumps concerns about the content of the presentation. Ask a loyal friend to capture an actual or a practice presentation on video and then show it to a few trusted persons for feedback. Normally this will reveal that while the performance is not worthy of the Royal Shakespeare Company nor is it dreadful. This experiment will usually also suggest some simple ideas for improvement such as standing in a more consciously relaxed way and making more effective eye contact with the audience.
  • However, the best remedy by far is to work on your mental processes.
  • First ask yourself what it is that you are burning to convey to the audience. What’s your message? What would you like then to know that you know? Or have them do that you do? What is the passion that you want to share with them?
  • How would you or do you explain this passion and commitment to a friend? What anecdotes would you tell this friend? What’s your personal story here? What struggles and conflicts were there for you in relation to it?
  • The answers to these questions will give you the theme and style for your presentation
  • Trust your own style – it does not need to be a copy of someone else’s. When I work with clients on this kind of problem, we look at together and I recommend that they get the TED app for further browsing where it becomes immediately obvious that personal stuff works better than anything pompous and ‘official’, that you do not need to be a bouncy extravert in order to speak well, that there is a multitude of ways of giving a presentation successfully, that a short length is better than long and that nothing beats storytelling for holding an audience
  • People have low expectations from presentations – we have all sat through far too many which go on too long, where the presenter drones through too many PowerPoint slides and has not stopped to consider what we, the audience, might need. But people also, mostly, wish you well. The people in the front row, possibly the only ones you will be able to see well, will have sat there in order to connect with you and cheer you on. Give them the satisfaction of doing that – look out for the ones who smile and nod – and smile back
  • Assume that the technology will break down – probably it won’t, but it is far better to plan to speak with minimal if any notes – maybe just a series of key words in big letters on one card. That way you can keep in visual contact with the audience rather than having the distraction of staring at a screen
  • If you still feel brutally anxious in relation to any presentation you have been invited to do in the future, then consider declining. So what if you annoy the organizer who has asked you, or if you appear to be dodging your duty when the request comes from a boss. Frankly there are likely to be few or no consequences from just saying no.

My guess is that the problem for Michael Bay is that he was hired to endorse a product in which he had little interest. When the autocue broke down, he found he had nothing to say. So he bolted.