Mirror Neurons

For me, some of the most interesting things I have discovered in my work with performers are around the neurobiology and what, physically, can go on for us and our audience during performance. How our state of mind can directly impact our audience. So I thought we could start there, with something called Mirror Neurons.
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Patterns & Payoffs – Keys to Making Progress

Why do we keep doing things that don’t work for us? Why do we return to old habits that don’t serve us? All of us do things that we wish we didn’t; whether it’s picking bad partners, not preparing for a job early or thoroughly enough, or repeatedly buying that chocolate bar on the way home from work.
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3 simple ways you can change the way you talk
and improve your life

We spend a lot of time thinking about what we say to others and, definitely, about what they say to us. How much time do we spend thinking about how we talk to ourselves and does it matter? I have discovered three simple ways that you can change the way you talk to yourself and improve the way you live your life.
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How to love what you do

A lot of performers are lucky enough to have been able to spend their lives doing something they love, something they feel passionate about. But in the push and pull of daily life, the struggle for success, staying connected to the joy can be difficult.
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Why are we always trying to be perfect?

Why are we always trying to be ‘perfect’, what impact does this have on our lives and our performances, and is perfection really a goal that helps us?
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“Would it help?” – Why we worry.

Does this image excite you? Does it strike fear to your very soul, or is it a combination of the two that you feel? Performers often have mixed emotions and can worry a surprising amount about performing, but does the worry help?

This is a question that has come up in in my coaching quite a lot recently. So let’s start at the beginning. What is worry and why do we do it?

People who don’t stand up in public often say to those that do things like ‘I don’t know how you do it, how you get up in public and do what you do.’ When they say this they are generally talking about the decision to stand up in front of people in the first place, to put themselves in the spotlight to be judged and risk making a fool of themselves, when instead you could hide away. They just don’t see why anyone would do it.

I work with people whose jobs necessarily involve standing up in public, whether to sing, argue in court, or present at a meeting. These people often have a drive to do what they do; a passion even. For them standing up in front of people itself is not the issue.

Their nerves are not about not wanting to put themselves out there, but about loving putting themselves out there, knowing how amazing it feels, yet terrified that this time it won’t work. It’s about wanting to shine, and believing you can, but fearing you won’t and that people will judge you harshly, and think you a fool. They face a conflict. The battle between knowing, loving and wanting the highs of adrenalin they get when they do what they do well, versus the fear of being tripped up by their own fears and insecurities about failing in public.

I know that I have felt that so often in court and on stage. The exhilaration of an effective piece of cross examination, or the joy of a well executed closing speech only being matched by the sting of a cutting remark by a judge, or the realisation that I forgot an incisive, case winning question just as I had sat down.

For most of us who have chosen a career which necessarily involves the spotlight, not only do we want to stand out, and stand out for the right reasons, presenting ourselves in public is actually a driving force in our lives. Not to show off, but to serve, we want to serve people, serve the music, serve a purpose; and we feel that the best way we can do this by putting ourselves out there; connecting, persuading, entertaining, helping.

Even for the most accomplished, talented, adept performer, barrister, or public speaker, the possibility of bad performances or presentations is always there, and we have all felt the pain and embarrassment of a public mistake. In fact the better you are, the harder failure can hit you.

I always remember the most stressful cases to argue in court were the ones you believed you had a real chance of winning. With plenty of arguments and facts in your favour, if you don’t win then you feel that it is you that have failed. A bit like penalties in football, no one expects the goalie to save a penalty or the striker to miss, so if the goalie succeeds he is a hero; the onus is on the striker to score, and if he doesn’t, he will often feel he’s failed. The closer success is, the more achievable it is, the bigger we feel our role is in any failure.

So how do we manage that friction? How do we deal with the stress of the competing emotions? The desire for, and pleasure in, achieving success, versus the fear of, and risk involved in, messing up.

This is where worry comes in.

In the past I have looked at the relationship between the conscious mind and our desire to control the risk of public failure. Ekhart Tolle in ‘The Power of Now’ or Tim Gallwey in ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ would say it was a process in which the conscious mind, or ego, is trying to get involved and control a situation where it has no role. Worrying about whether you will remember a certain section of your presentation won’t help you remember it. Practice might, notes might, prompting slides might. Worrying won’t. What it will do is cause tension and self-awareness that can only harm the way we process and perform.

Worry is the conscious mind trying to think and rethink how to protect ourselves.

Worry necessarily implies anxiety or fear, it also involves the feeling of impotence. We worry about others when something bad might happen to them, and we feel that there is nothing we can do to help; we worry about what others might think of us, that the judge might not like our arguments or the audience will not appreciate us. We can change our performance but we can’t directly change what people think. These are all things beyond our control. Worry is an attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Nevertheless we often see worry as preparation. If we worry about everything then we will be ready, we will be our best. If we worry through the performance we will achieve our best. I had a client once who said to me that she was concerned that if she gave up worrying, she might not be as good as she was.

The interesting thing about worry is that, when we worry, our focus is on us, our role in the proceedings, the mistakes we might make, where we might fail and in what way, and what people (including ourselves) will think of our performance?
I watched Bridge of Spies over the holidays and my favourite line is when Tom Hanks (the American lawyer) comments that the Russian spy (played by Mark Rylance), doesn’t appear to be worrying, to which the spy responds, “Would it help?” It actually comes twice, one of the situations is where they are discussing whether the judge might order the death penalty. Clearly his worrying about this will have absolutely no effect on the sentence. It is totally beyond his control.

Brené Brown would talk about the difference between guilt and shame, the difference between making a mistake and being wrong in yourself. Intelligent people make mistakes, it doesn’t make them stupid or failures. Shame is ‘I am wrong,’ guilt is ‘I did something wrong.’ Shame is about the ego, about us and how people view us. Guilt is about the action, it is easier to change what we do than to change who we are.

If we take the anxiety, impotence and ego out of worry, what we are left with is a simple consideration of the situation, an assessment of what you are capable of changing and what is beyond your control.

So how do we use this to improve?

Tim Gallwey would talk about the use of non-judgmental observation. How we can look at what is going on without deeming it or us as good or bad, merely interesting. Something you might wonder as to why it is happening. This takes the focus of the ego and our role in things and directs it at the process as a process.

But how do we keep the conscious mind from butting in and worrying? Tim would talk about finding a distraction for the conscious mind, so that it has something to do instead of worry.

So what would happen if instead of worrying about failing or making a fool of ourselves, we refocus onto the goal of whatever presentation we are making.

When we present ourselves to an audience, whether peers or public, in a concert hall, court or meeting room, our primary intention is not generally to show off our talents. If it is, I would argue we are doing the audience and our clients a disservice, and we are unlikely to get the best response from them or result for us.

So, what is your primary intention? It may be to argue your case successfully and persuade a judge to rule in your client’s favour, or to convince colleagues to join you in an enterprise, or to truly and wholeheartedly communicate a song or piece to an audience. For any one of these, consider what happens to your thoughts when your focus moves to the audience.
Instead of thinking, “Have I argued this well enough?” you might think, “What else does the judge need to hear to understand?” Similarly in a business scenario, instead of wondering what they think of you and how you are presenting things, you can think about what else they need to know to understand what a brilliant opportunity this is. This way it becomes about the message, not the messenger, and there is a much better chance of the message being heard and understood.

The ego and the worry about our role in things gets between us and the audience seeing and appreciating our message, whether that is a character and story, or a persuasive argument. If we are worrying what people think of us, that is what they will see: our worry. This necessarily stops them wholeheartedly believing in the character we are trying to be, the story we are trying to tell, or the argument we are trying to present. It means we are focusing on ourselves and our ego, rather than on the true purpose of our performance.

So the next time you are putting yourself out there and you think you are going to worry about it, ask yourself “Would it help?” and more importantly, does it help your audience if you worry?


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On Being the Yellow Umbrella

Not everyone who puts themselves out there in public is an extrovert. In fact some of us are full blown introverts. However, we all have one thing in common, when we stand out from the crowd we want it to be for the right reasons. We want to shine with our brilliance, not draw attention because of our inadequacies! Yet we have all felt the sting of the obvious error. Anyone who has put themselves out there in public has risked failure on some level, and will have slipped up, in public. So each time we do it we are all to well aware of the risks.

Just after I posted my blog last week, a friend posted a brilliant article on Stage Fright that also talked about how, when we make a mistake, we can recoil into ourselves when we should be focusing on the performance and continuing to connect. Our instinct is to protect ourselves from critical glare, when what is best for success is to forget the mistake and move on. The article talked about the protective armour of stage fright, and the need to take it off and get naked and vulnerable so that we can continue to communicate with the audience.

I have felt the emotion of fear and shame about mistakes both in court and on stage. In court the desire to protect our self esteem after an obvious error or embarrassing mistake can cause us to pull away from our arguments, lose focus and stumble, or rush through and forget to prioritise our clients. It can take huge effort to stand up to a sneering judge, or ignore jeering opposing counsel, and to continue to put our case in the way that we think best. In the same way, on stage, to have the confidence to make a mistake and let it go. To remain focused on being a conduit for the music and the story, and remain connected to the audience.

Another friend commented about my blog that the word shame felt heavy as she read it, and I realised how I had repeatedly used the word. She talked of how she felt shame was like a gremlin sitting on her shoulder that she could choose to ignore if she wanted. This made me think. During the AIMS International Music School week this summer I had the chance to work with a director, Robert Marsden, who talked of how actors can often view adopting a character like putting on a cloak or coat, covering up their own personalities with someone else’s. His view was that when we act we should expand and reduce elements of our own character to become the part. As a life coach this makes complete sense to me, there is not a client I have had in whom I have not recognised a part of myself in, to a greater or lesser extent. I could probably say that about almost all, if not all, my clients as a barrister. As the late Jo Cox famously stated ‘we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’ So by expanding and reducing our characteristics, we can embody someone else’s character and personality. It takes courage to do this because we have to own who we are, and be prepared to reveal ourselves, in order to achieve this.

But what has this got to do with shame and embarrassment? Whilst we feel all is going well, we can view ourselves as being the yellow umbrella in the picture for all the right reasons. When something goes wrong, we see ourselves as the yellow umbrella for all the wrong reasons. Suddenly we want to hide the yellow umbrella, and melt away. Like wearing a garish Christmas jumper to a business meeting or a top that says ‘Idiot Here’. We feel like all eyes are on our mistake, and that’s all people can see and what they are judging us by. So we wrap a coat around ourselves to hide the embarrassing garment, we try to finish as quickly as possible so that we can run away and no-one can see the shame we are wearing, or we lash out and deflect and point out the embarrassing things others are ‘wearing’ . What we can choose to do is take off the offending piece of clothing and discard it, we can talk about it or even laugh at it, but recognise that it is not who we are and it is preventing people from seeing and connecting with us.

When we feel like being the yellow umbrella is wrong, chances are it is shame getting in the way. Once we recognise that, we can choose to let go of the shame and become the yellow umbrella again in all it’s glory.


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Shame and Culture – What we can learn

My fascination with shame and how it affects our performance continues! Reading an intriguing bit of research on how cultural differences in our responses to shame can affect how we perform, and how successful we are, has made me think about how we so often cut ourselves off from others when we feel ashamed, and how this impacts on what we achieve.

The researchers compared a more individualistic Western country (The Netherlands), with a country with very interdependent culture (The Philippines). In fact the two countries chosen were near the opposite ends of Hofstede’s (2001) Individualism Index.

The research was done on salespeople, and they established that the salespeople in both countries felt shame in essentially the same way, their visceral response was the same; but, how they then dealt with it was markedly different.

Salespeople rely quite heavily on their ‘Adaptive resource utilisation’ when dealing with customers, so they can adapt their selling to their audience. The more adept they are at doing this, the more successful they are at selling.

In the individualistic culture when shamed they turned in on themselves and used their energy to focus on themselves. They attempted to hide from the source of the shame (often the customer) and in increasing their focus on themselves, they reduced their adaptive resource utilisation. They became less effective salespeople.

People in the interdependent culture, however, whilst they felt the same physical and emotional response to shame, their focus to ‘fix’ the problem was to mend the social relationship. Therefore their focus was on their customer. As a result, their performance as salespeople improved.

So how does this affect us? In everyday life, we are most effective when we dynamically respond to the people around us. When we withdraw and stop seeking to enhance those relationships we allow the shame to damage those relationships, and what we can achieve.

For public speakers and performers this is even more important and relevant. Just as with salespeople, the most effective performers are those who keep the lines of communication open between them and their audience, whether it be a judge and/or jury or a concert auditorium. Once we allow shame to shut us down, turn our focus on ourselves and break the connection, we are far less able to communicate effectively or achieve our goals.

How do we stop this happening and keep ourselves open and focused on our audience? The first step is to be aware that it is shame you are feeling. Shame is an emotion that requires self-awareness to recognise. There are even those that claim that it requires self-awareness just to feel it. Not only does it require self-awareness, but also an awareness of ourselves in relation to others. As Darwin said “It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance, but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush.”

Following Brené Brown’s shame resilience steps, you must recognise the triggers of shame and your own shame automatic responses, i.e. realise what is likely to make you feel shame, and how you physically and emotionally react when you feel shame.

Once you recognise that it is shame you are feeling, what we can learn from other cultures is that shutting yourself off to protect yourself will negatively affect how you perform. So show yourself empathy, be kind to yourself, and continue to reach towards and react to your audience; continue to build your dynamic relationship with them to achieve success.


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© Hattie Voelcker Coaching 2016

About me

I am a fully qualified ICF Accredited life coach, with clients around the UK and internationally.


Having seen what coaching has done for me in my life, my drive as a coach is to help people fulfil their potential, to align their public and private personas so they can achieve lives that make them truly happy.
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Singers & Performers

Would you like to achieve a clarity and focus in your performance? I help singers and other performers unlock their true potential by enabling them to rediscover freedom and authenticity in performance….and in life.
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