Using the C-word with care

by Kate Sturdy
Published: Tuesday, 20 April, 2021

Do you ever use the C-word? Do you have people using it on you? I’m talking about Confidence of course.

If we show humility or hesitation, doubt or deference then someone usually pops up to say “you should be more confident.” I imagine they think they’re being helpful.

I’ve had time to think about this question during my career break – was my decision a mark of confidence? (Some people have called me “brave” which terrified me as it’s a well known civil servant code-word…) I don’t know… but I have come to a view that confidence is mis-understood, mis-diagnosed and mis-used.  It’s something we’re all supposed to ‘just’ be, without dwelling on what it really is and why it’s useful. A rattle through various definitions generates a series of descriptors around feelings and attitudes, choices and actions, ability and freedom, acceptance and trust. My favourite definition is that it’s about having the measure of oneself, a state of being clear-headed.

Confidence shouldn’t be conflated with self-esteem, which is all about one’s own measure of self-worth, yet this is what often happens. Is this a familiar conversation to you?

Person A (says): “You should be more confident in yourself.”

Person B (hears): “I’m not doing myself justice, I feel bad.”

Confidence is not the same as self-efficacy either – this is one’s belief in one’s capacity to achieve specific goals – but it’s closer to being helpful. As a coach and mentor, I wouldn’t usually ask someone if they felt confident – it’s too loaded and general a term. Instead, I might ask: “what tasks do you know you do well?” and “what did you find difficult about doing xx?” This minimises any sense of judgement and opens up the sphere of control for my client, as it enables her to identify what specific behaviours, thoughts, feelings and actions create that sense of trust in herself, that clear-headedness.

At this point in my career break, I would say that I have a stronger belief in my skills as a coach, mentor and facilitator; a clearer understanding of the challenges I am facing towards my desired work goals; and overall – yes, a better measure of myself.

So if you’re drawn into using the C-word, why not take a moment to ask yourself if that’s really what you want to say?

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