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Dealing with challenge, building the muscle – ask Roger Federer

The most popular topic in my training room is Dealing With Challenge (DWC) – how to maintain control and confidence at the moment when we’re thrown onto the back foot by an unexpected question or comment. I am constantly surprised by the number of people who struggle with this, and the extent to which it holds them back professionally and personally.

My pet theory is that it’s all to do with technology.

When I started work back in 1850 (arriving at the office in a horse-drawn carriage), I had (like everyone else) a desk and a ‘phone (landline). The ‘phone rang dozens of times each day. It might be a boss chasing a document; a client querying an invoice; a journalist picking up on a press release. Whatever, we had to deal with it in the moment, with no time to prepare. By so doing, we grew our DWC muscle. We developed strategies for buying thinking time, building credibility even when we didn’t know the answer; being measured, calm and helpful.

In essence, we were desensitised to the fear of the unexpected.

Nowadays, most interactions take place via a digital device. In fact many people select these channels rather than speaking face to face or on the ‘phone (this also means they’re missing opportunities to build relationships with clients and colleagues).

And you can see why they prefer the keypad. It enables us to communicate with total control. We respond at a time of our choosing, having carefully finessed our thoughts and language. We are rarely caught on the hop. But this is preventing us from growing the DWC muscle.

So what can we do about it?

Simple but scary. Choose face to face or telephone communication over the comfort of the keyboard. Start to build your own DWC muscle whilst maintaining as much control as possible.

Prepare for the ‘phone call you’re going to initiate; have clarity of objective and language; consider the likely outcomes; anticipate their responses; rehearse your opening words/request/query/greeting, and record what your voicemail will sound like if they don’t pick up. It’s crucial that you experience saying the words out loud in advance.

If you put this into practice often enough, you’ll start to build your DWC muscle and you’ll be able to deal with unexpected challenges in meetings, pitches and presentations with more skill and confidence.

Think about Roger Federer. He can’t anticipate the exact speed and position of the immensely challenging Nadal return of serve but he can practice reacting to 10,000 different returns from his hitting partners, to build resilience and adaptability. Then when the ball lands or the ‘phone rings, he and you will be better equipped to deal with it.