By Liz Carmack
When faced with a professional challenge, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged; however, there are ways to quell your fears and step up to the plate. Check out our tips for conquering professional challenges.
“To be tested is good. The challenged life may be the best therapist.”
Gail Sheehy, author, journalist and lecturer.
Dread might fill your mind and butterflies your stomach when faced with a professional challenge. I’ve been there many times. Work challenges have taxed my ability to problem solve, required I learn new subjects and skills, forced me to mend broken relationships and insisted I improve my communication style.
Sometimes a challenge can come in the form of a new project or role assigned by your boss. Other times a conflict with a co-worker is the culprit. The challenge can also be of your own making when you aspire to a new position outside your skill set and comfort zone.
Whether you work in a large or small organization or are a soloprenuer serving a slate of clients, professional challenges come with the territory. Consider these tips to quell your fears and step up to the test.
Embrace the challenge as an opportunity
Frame the difficulty as an opportunity to learn and expand your capabilities. Maybe you didn’t get the promotion you wanted and feel stuck in your position, then you’re given a less-than-thrilling new project assignment. Instead of scheming a way out of it, consider this a chance to showcase your flexibility and willingness to broaden your skills. By stepping up to the challenge, you have a chance to show off new qualities to your superiors and help them see you in a different light. This opportunity to shine in new ways could lead to the advancement you had been looking for after all.
The challenge might be a strained relationship with a boss, employee or co-worker. If so, take a step back and try to get a better idea of the root cause of the conflict. Don’t rely upon your assumptions; instead, seek mutual understanding and work toward common goals.
I once had to edit all public communications produced by an important department within the organization I worked for. My main contact in the department challenged every edit I made to their copy and demanded a detailed explanation for each.
She both infuriated and intimidated me, but after a couple of weeks spent trading testy emails, I took a deep breath, swallowed my pride and walked over to her office. I brought the latest editing project and we reviewed each of my changes. I listened to her concerns and explained the grammar and company style rules behind my red marks. The meeting diffused much of our animosity for one another. Over time, we built a mutual respect and eventually considered ourselves a team, working together to improve her department’s communications.
Don’t give in to your inner critic
Inner “chatter” is innately human and part of your working memory system. But when faced with a challenge, your inner voice can turn into a negative feedback loop.
“We know that uncertainty can fuel chatter. Our mind is incredibly adept at simulating all sorts of possibilities,” says psychologist Ethan Kross on the podcast Hidden Brain, episode You 2.0: Befriending Your Inner Voice. “When that negative inner voice takes hold, that is all we can hear because it is consuming our attention.”
If you’ve gone down a rabbit hole of negative chatter, climb out of it by talking to yourself as if you’re giving advice to someone else, Kross said. “This is a useful tool for helping people gain distance from what they’re going through.” Try using your own name or the pronoun “you” as you talk to yourself. This distanced self-talk can snap you out of your narrow view of the situation.
Our inner voice can also help us prepare for a challenge. It helps us keep information active in our minds for short periods, so we can use it to simulate and plan. For instance, Kross said, we can prepare for a big presentation by going over it in our minds word for word. We can also use our inner voice as a coach to help us go the extra mile during a challenging situation.
Break the challenge into manageable chunks.
When faced with a challenge, organization is key, writes psychologist and author Kevin Dutton and British rower and Olympic athlete John Collins, in their article, How to Complete an Impossible Challenge.
This is not a new concept. We’ve all heard the old sayings, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” and “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.”
But, they write, “A little more recently, there’s the psychological research on chunking – a tried-and-tested cognitive strategy aimed at conserving focus and preserving willpower by dividing up larger tasks into smaller, rewarding, bite-size phases.”
Identifying and organizing your tasks can turn an overwhelming challenge into a manageable to-do list. The two suggest you divide the challenge into sub-tasks, arrange them in the order to be completed, identify what can be delegated, and color code the remaining tasks according to easy, medium and hard. Perhaps you have your own time-tested method for eating the elephant.
Chances are, you’ve already faced professional challenges and landed on your feet. Pause to remember that when another one comes at you. Reflect and give yourself credit to quell those butterflies and boost your confidence. Then use the tips outlined here and apply what you have learned from past experiences to your current situation. You’ve got this!
Liz Carmack is an award-winning writer, editor and author of two nonfiction books published by Texas A&M University Press. She has worked as a communications professional for almost four decades.
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