Resilience-building tips to help you perform under pressure

In a high-pressure situation, many of us have experienced a loss of composure or focus, or as performance coach Mark Sheasby describes it, “your brain turns to scrambled eggs.”

In a recent interview and presentation, Sheasby outlined some practical ways professionals can build resilience and improve their performance under pressure, whether it’s in an interview, board presentation, or delicate negotiation.

Sheasby developed the techniques based on his experience in extremely high-pressure situations as a police firearms commander in siege interventions. He has subsequently used them to help police negotiators, elite athletes, and businesspeople achieve goals and learn to thrive under pressure. Although the stakes for hostage negotiators, athletes, and executives might be very different, the processes that the mind and body go through when under pressure are very similar.

Practice building rapport

Rapport is the key to everything, Sheasby said. “When you’ve got rapport, you can influence people,” he said. “Listen to people and try to understand the world through their eyes. Find something they are interested in, such as a hobby, and get them talking about it. Once they are talking, you are building rapport. You can use rapport to work with people who completely disagree with your position, and influence them.”

In a conflict, listening to the structure of what someone is saying can also reveal that person’s subconscious beliefs, which can help you overcome their objection or resistance to a situation.

Exercise: Have a conversation with someone with whom you don’t share any of your own experience. Instead, ask the other person questions to help you understand exactly what they are talking about and how they relate to that experience. Notice how they suddenly change, how they start talking more vibrantly and lose their self-consciousness, and notice the bond that you build.

Be clear about your ideal outcome

In a high-pressure situation, it is vital to have and retain a clear idea of exactly what you are looking to achieve. However, in the heat of the moment, people tend to skip this basic step, Sheasby said. “We often think about all of the problems that will happen if we don’t get something done, rather than the desired outcome,” he said. “The goal you have in mind should be framed in positive terms, focusing on what you want to happen, rather than what you are trying to avoid.”

Manage your state

One of the biggest hurdles in high-pressure situations is when we get discombobulated. For communication to be effective, the nonverbal signals we send out have to be congruent with our message. But when we allow ourselves to get flustered or panicked, those signals start to tell a different story. Managing your state of mind helps you remain calm, resourceful, and able to think clearly.

Exercise: When you have been through a challenging situation, take time to review it, either by yourself or with a trusted friend or colleague. Think about the core strengths and abilities you employed to get through it. Even if the situation didn’t go exactly the way you wanted it to, think about what you did well and what skills you brought to bear. Accepting that everyone faces difficulties and that it is not within your power to change certain things can help you put any setbacks behind you more quickly. 

Conducting this type of review on a regular basis, whether for a minor issue or something with higher stakes, reminds you of your permanent skills and qualities and helps build your resilience and composure so you can draw on them when under pressure.

Remember that adversity is temporary

Ultimately, how you react to events conditions your resilience. It is important to bear in mind that the challenge we face is temporary, specific to a particular incident, and is not a judgement on our self-worth. To illustrate the importance of how we frame things, Sheasby gave the example of a business fighting for survival.

If the CEO says to staff, “You could all be out of work in six months’ time unless we turn this situation around,” he or she has focused everyone’s minds on the prospect of losing their job. This engenders reactions which are not conducive to the organisation’s survival, such as staff deserting what they perceive to be a sinking ship.

Alternatively, the leader might say, “Let’s be honest, we have got some real problems here, but just think how proud we are going to be in six months’ time when we have turned this around. And looking around me now, I know that this team has the skills to do that.”

By changing the structure of the language, this statement makes the problem temporary and implies that the employees have the strengths to succeed, creating a totally different response to the same adversity.

Samantha White ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.