The client is sitting in front of me looking hunched and miserable. She and I are at Smart Works (www.smartworks.org.uk) the wonderful charity where I do occasional volunteer shifts. Women who have been unemployed for some time and who now at last have a job interview come for two things that are normally only affordable by the prosperous and well informed. First they get a new outfit for the interview, skilfully chosen with and for them by professional stylists, who, like me, are volunteers. The high quality clothing is generously donated by the brands concerned or from the lightly-used wardrobes of other working women. Then they get an hour’s interview coaching with someone like me.
Let’s call my client Fatima, not her real name. Having greeted me with a warm if slightly shy smile, her eyes are now downcast, her arms folded tightly across her chest, shoulders hunched. For admin. reasons she has not yet had her ‘dressing’ session so she’s still in her normal clothing: tidy, clean and to be honest, a little dull. We don’t know and we don’t ask about the backstory, but these women are often single mothers who have come out of difficult relationships and all have little money. Often their confidence has been severely damaged by the struggle to keep their kids happy and to find enough money to keep going. It is really important to them to get back into paid work.
Fatima and I have spent a few moments exchanging pleasantries and I have established that what she wants from our session, like so many of the clients I see in my normal coaching practice, is hints on how to manage ‘nerves’. Just talking about it has been enough to send her into a spin.
‘Got a smartphone?’ I ask
Fatima looks a little surprised. ‘Yes’.
‘OK, now give me the phone and freeze!’
I quickly snap a few pictures of the hunched and miserable Fatima.
‘Now show me what you’re like when you’re relaxed and confident’.
She gives me a giggle. Of course she knows what the relaxed and confident Fatima is like. She sits up, her shoulders open, her chest expands, her legs uncross, she is suddenly occupying a lot more space. She looks powerful. I quickly take some more pics.
I show her the results. ‘Which Fatima would you give the job to?
Now we are both laughing.
Fatima already knows how to answer most of the obvious interview questions. Like many of the women I see at Smart Works she is grossly overqualified for the job she is going for, but these jobs are first steps back on to the employment ladder and these women are not too proud to see why this is a good move. But Fatima, again just like so many of the senior women clients I see weekly, is unaware of how she has got into the habit of making herself look small, unobtrusive and apologetic. So most of our session is about how to maintain the confident Fatima’s look and sound.
Recently I heard Amy Cuddy speak about her new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self To Your Biggest Challenges. Amy’s TED talk is the second most often viewed on the TED site (https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?language=en ) Amy is an advocate of the Power Pose – standing like Wonderwoman, arms on your hips, legs astride, gazing boldly ahead. She is so right. The chances are that your body language affects your state of mind, releasing helpful hormones that increase confidence.
Later that morning, after working with another client, I drop in on Fatima’s dressing session. Who would know it was the same woman? She is clad in a flattering super-smart dark suit and vivid lemon yellow silk shirt, bright lipstick and a new, gauzy hijab.
‘Mmm, ‘I say, standing with her to look into the mirror. ‘Would you give this woman a job?’
She grins. ‘Yes!’
Of course she got the job. Who wouldn’t want someone like her on their staff: charming, courteous, clever, confident, pretty.
Sometimes I think we over-complicate coaching. Often the simplest ‘techniques’ are the best.