Oh, confidence, that elusive thing. That thing you’re supposed to fake, because everyone else in the room seems to have been born with it. Right?
Great news: confidence is a just another skill that you can learn and develop. Unlike the “fake it till you make it” kind of confidence, this kind becomes second nature over time. In this way, you can become naturally confident.
Of course, being confident is not the same as being cocky or obnoxious. A confident person knows that she doesn’t have to brag or constantly prove herself and instead focuses appropriately on the task at hand.
Here is our complete guide to being confident—without faking it. You’ll learn a prerequisite and the basic behaviors that you can practice to develop your confidence, as well as some common pitfalls.
Prerequisite: Know Yourself
Step one towards being confident is knowing what you know, what you’re good at, and what you can do.
If you blindly apply the other confidence strategies without knowing yourself, you risk applying the right confidence strategies at the wrong time. For example, in a meeting where you’re not the expert in the room, you might speak up when you should’ve known to keep silent or speak second. Knowing yourself will enable you to appropriately apply the other confidence strategies.
So, take stock of yourself, forgetting for a moment where you want to be. Evaluate where you are, and don’t forget to take a few steps back as needed.
For example, I have been working to clear the next hurdle in my career for a little while, and the fact that I haven’t cleared it yet sometimes makes me feel like a failure. But, I forget that I have been doing well in a very competitive job, which means that in the big picture I am not a failure, and I’m doing fairly well in the grand scheme of things. At the same time, there are a few experts on my team who know a lot more than me.
One thing to watch out for when you’re taking stock of yourself is the Dunning-Kruger effect, in particular two points:
- When you only know a little about a subject, you’re likely to grossly overestimate your ability.
- When you learn some more, you might be underestimating your ability.
In summary: be honest with yourself about who you are, what you know, and what you can do. It’s the first step towards real confidence.
The Basic Behaviors for Being Confident
Being confident is a skill, and 80% of this skill is mastering the basic behaviors. Like any other skill, it might take some practice to master, but after enough practice, the behaviors become habit. When the behaviors become habit, so does confidence.
Basic behavior 1: Body Language
The three elements to naturally confident body language are:
Good posture. Standing up straight and tall is good for you. One way to improve posture is to associate it with a common queue, for example, every time you sit back down at your desk after getting up, check your posture.
Stillness and smoothness. Habitually touching face or hair, fidgeting with a pen, and bouncing your feet, are all ticks that distract people from the real content of what you have to say and give the appearance of a lack of confidence. Practice adjusting these habits by sitting with your hands loosely folded in meetings and while speaking.
A steady gaze. Looking in all different directions is also distracting. I know, because I struggle with a steady gaze, and once my gaze was so distracting that I caused my boss to look out the meeting room window behind him while we were meeting one-on-one. (There was nothing there, of course.) Luckily, this gets better with practice. One way to practice is by looking directly at one person for a whole sentence, then another person for the next sentence, and so on.
Basic behavior 2: Speaking
Speaking can be tough! Some people experience speaking as a gradual escalation of tension: the first sentence is easy, but then the heat rises and their heart starts pounding, and soon all they can think about is getting the speaking over with. Whether that describes your experience speaking or not, hopefully these elements help you increase your comfort with speaking, naturally boosting your confidence in doing so.
The two elements to naturally confident speaking are:
Breathing. If you feel the heat rising in your face or the pounding of your heart, don’t rush. Take a moment to take a deep breath. This helps you reset, and by giving your brain a quick break, it can help you refocus as well.
Practicing. Speaking gets more comfortable over time, but it doesn’t get better without practice. Starting small, by asking simple clarifying questions, or adding an extra detail to something someone else said, is an easy way to start practicing before moving onto bigger things like proposing a new idea in a meeting. And of course, always remember that mistakes are part of practice and how we learn.
In summary, the basic behaviors for being confident are:
|Stillness and smoothness||Practicing|
|A steady gaze|
These things take some time and effort to practice and incorporate into your habits, but once they become habits, they will help you be naturally confident no matter the situation.
Bonus Tip #1: Don’t let anyone intimidate you
Watch out for intimidation on your confidence journey. Just because someone has a fancy title or uses words you don’t know does not mean that you cannot learn and participate. Sometimes they don’t mean to be intimidating, and in rare cases they do. Either way, don’t let it deter you.
If someone with a high title or lots of letters after their name says something you don’t understand, ask them what they mean! If they’re saying it, they should probably understand it well enough to be able to explain it to you.
In addition, don’t be intimidated by jargon. While jargon has its uses in the right contexts, if you don’t know a word, most of the time the problem is that you don’t know what the word means, not that you’re somehow incapable of understanding the concept (the important part). Don’t be afraid to ask what foreign terms mean.
Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll get jargon or complicated answers in response to questions. Don’t feel obligated to fake understanding! Feel free to follow up. You might ask: “I think you’re saying this, is that right?” or “I’m still not clear on this, how is it related to that?” Or, if you prefer, “I still don’t understand, can we talk more after this meeting ends?”
In some cases, the person may not actually have a good answer for you, and is responding with jargon or something more complicated out of habit. (They might be suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect themselves!) Training yourself to ask questions when you don’t understand will be especially helpful in these situations.
Bonus Tip #2: Say “I don’t know”
It is a sign of both confidence and maturity to say “I don’t know” when you don’t know something instead of making up a false response.
Of course, you can save face by saying “that’s a great question, I can have that answer for you in an hour”—you don’t literally need to say the words “I don’t know”—but making something up on the spot instead of telling the simple truth is not confidence, it’s overconfidence or even cockiness.
And if you’re still not convinced, know this: the people that matter have really good bullshit detectors, and you probably don’t want them thinking you make stuff up.
Personally, when I’m at work and I can tell someone is making something up instead of just saying they’re not sure, I lose a lot of trust in what that person tells me and immediately prefer to get information from other people. (I don’t mean to be mean or harsh, it’s just that having accurate information is important to my job, and if they’re making something up and I recognize it, how many times have they made something up and I haven’t recognized it?)
Confidence is knowing when you don’t know something, and being confident enough in yourself that you can admit it. So, say “I don’t know.”
Conclusion and Further Reading
Confidence is a skill, largely composed of basic behaviors that anyone can master. The above tips should help anyone develop the skill of confidence, as well as apply it appropriately. Anyone can be naturally confident!
Mastering the skill of confidence does not replace being actually skilled at something substantial, so the tips on this page will only get you so far. After mastering these basics, if you want even more confidence, you’ve got to work for it, by continuing to learn and improve your skill set.
Best of luck on your journey!