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Why Most Confidence Hacks Won't Work

confidence Jan 20, 2021

Why Most Confidence ‘Hacks’ Won’t Work ‘In the Moment’ - and One That Will

“Experience tells you what to do; confidence allows you to do it.”  

- Stan Smith

The Truth

Ever searched “confidence” “confidence hacks” or “how to be more confident”?  Bought a book, searched YouTube, admired someone from afar, taken a course, lain in bed at night, and wished for limitless confidence?  Ever beaten yourself up mentally, knowing just this or that in your life would be different if you were just more confident?

We’ve all had a moment where we desperately wanted to - and sometimes needed to - sound confident.  I know I’ve had many.  Some were life-changing moments, some were small and insignificant, by most people’s standards, but they were moments where how I sounded could - and did - make all the difference in the world.

There have been the “normal” moments, like at job interviews when I was asked a question and I wasn’t entirely sure of the answer: “D, can you please define ‘paleontology’ for us” (I was interviewing to be a science educator at a world-famous paleontology museum - and I did NOT know the answer. Facepalm.).

There was a time when a student challenged me (it was more like heckling) in a public speaking class (I was a very young prof), so I invited him up to teach the class.  He tried.  He did not succeed.  He sat back down.

One time a man at the National Parks campground I was running didn’t like my answer, so he demanded to “see a man.”  I gave him to my colleague (male), who gave him the SAME answer.  This man then asked for my colleague’s boss.  Guess who he got pointed to?  Yup.  Me.  

I’ve had technology start on fire during presentations; I’ve been told that homeschooling parents ruin their kids (I’ve always homeschooled); I’ve been told (by my mother, no less), that I chose the wrong name for my son (and, incidentally, that homeschooling was an insult to the choices they made for my education as a child); I’ve been told by a guy that he didn’t want to talk to me, he wanted to talk to my good-looking friend; I’ve been told by sales associates that they don’t carry clothing for “people of my size”; I’ve been yelled at by a Costco employee because “How dare I feed my baby formula?!” instead of breastfeeding; I’ve been told by a doctor - while I was answering the question he asked me (to describe my symptoms), to “be quiet” because I “didn’t know what I was talking about”;  and on and on and on.

I have absolutely no doubt you could make a similar list of your own.  

The common thread that runs through all of these moments is that I was faced with situations where I could speak up or shut up.  Stand up or sit down.  Be heard or be quiet.  I lived through all of these (and survived, obviously), but I would not say that ANY of my reactions came from a place of confidence.  Shame, guilt, being stunned, angry, frustrated, belittled, and more, but not confident.

I learned a long time ago to “be prepared” for public communication situations (it’s what I do, teach, coach, speak, mentor, and write about, for heaven’s sake): I know to do the vocal and physical warmups, practice interview questions, role play, have back up plans for technology, arrive super-early and have everything mapped out.  That’s the SHORT list. 

And all of these strategies have served me exceedingly well through the years.

But go back and read my ‘experiences’ list again and take note: NOTHING could have prepared me for these events.  Except the paleontology one - that was just straight-up dumb on my part.

These weren’t moments where I could “power pose” (or, as Amy Cuddy calls it now, take advantage of “postural feedback”), meditate, and visualize my success (Dr. Joe Dispenza and many others), or practice ‘box breathing’.  Can you imagine me stopping and saying - when the tech was on fire -  “Gimme a sec - I just need to do my Wonder Woman”.



Your Primal Brain is Calling the Shots

These were the moments when I was in danger of the fight, flight, freeze, or freak - those natural reactions to stressors your body recognizes (often incorrectly) as ‘survival threats’.  

‘Cause, that’s what my primal brain registers. 

  That Costco lady?  I could have flipped her the finger, told her off, and so on, but what I did do was stand in mortified shock, then scuttle out of the store, tins of formula in my cart, post-pregnancy hormones raging around my bloodstream, tears pouring down my face.

Of course, once I was safely ensconced in my car, I wept and railed against her with every profanity I could muster, alongside articulate and acidic critiques of the post-industrial, mother-shaming, New Age cult of the breast.  It was magnificent...and impotent.  And even HAD I engaged with her like that, it would NOT have been confident.

In the actual moment, my primal brain - alongside all the other stressors currently playing out in my brain and body - felt only an attack in the actual moment, and so it took over my body and guaranteed our collective survival by enacting panicked flight.   In retrospect, it probably ALSO saved the Costco lady AND my continuing member status.

My point is that all of the tips and tricks and business-insider pro hacks don’t really deal with life-in-the-moment.

Yes, all of the prep work of breathing and imagining and practicing are fabulously useful in prepared environments and situations (see ‘prep’ shares ‘preparation’?)(and, honestly, they can make you feel better about yourself overall, longterm), but life is maybe 5% prepared and 95% impromptu/improvisational. 

So it’s fine to prepare for the 5% - and it’s better than feeling like you’re 100% out to sea - but what about that 95%??

And what about those that don't find themselves in “prepared” situations, even 5% of the time?  

Defining ‘Prepared’  These situations are: 

  • presentations
  • interviews (as a situation)
  • meetings

You can see the problem.

So, IS there a solution?






First of all, I am not a magician (though I’m a practicing wiccan and I DO have a wand - albeit from the store at the two main soundstages used to film the movies, in Watford, UK).  I cannot wave my plastic wand over you (even in my courses or as a private coach) and ‘Expecto Patronus!’, summon your Patronus to protect you from the anti-confidence Dementors (sorry to those non-fans who haven’t the foggiest what I just said).

Basically, I can’t make you confident.  

And anyone who promises that they can is lying to you.  Straight up.

However, you can make you confident.

Again, no magic involved (sad face, I know).

No, I’m not going to say “imagine them all naked” (that’s not helpful - it’s nasty).  Nor will I suggest you “think positive thoughts” (can anyone actually do that in that highly stressed moment?  Doubtful).  No mantras, visualizations, affirmations, power objects, poses, or the like, will come to you at that moment, I can almost guarantee.  And even if they did, how would you use them?!!


The single most useful hack in these moments in time - and trust me, it’s going to take some time to get to the place where this is your first instinct (you’re going to be fighting the primal brain for a while, my friends) - is….



Your default mode is to yell, run, panic, freeze, but - and provided your actual physical safety is not in jeopardy! - being able to ask a genuinely curious question, can defuse the situation like magic.

Don’t believe me?

Here’s the reason it works: 

  1. Asking a genuine, open, curious question changes your energy level (what you feel and exude - and science backs this up).
  2. The person you’re asking (within a question or two) will start to mirror YOUR energy level - in other words, your confidence in managing the situation moves them out of their aggressive/adversarial energy.

Honestly, there was a time when I wouldn’t have believed this - I'd rolled my eyes, snorted, made a smartass comment. BUT, I have seen this done - and done it myself - and it’s a total game-changer.

When you don’t do this - when you adopt their energy level - they take control. And you lose it.

When you change your energy level, it manifests in your face, body, voice, aura, everything - you exude a sort of confidence that cannot be faked.

This ‘hack’ requires that you stop yourself long enough to craft an open-ended, curious question. Here are some starters:

  • I’m curious:
  • Tell me more:
  • When would you...
  • I was wondering:
  • You’re making me think:
  • How would you suggest:
  • Other variants of who, what, when, where, and how

Avoid “why”, because - in most instances - it can trigger a defensive reaction that signals a complete loss of control in the situation - and you’re dead meat, confidence-wise.


  1. It HAS to be open-ended (NOT yes/no).
  2. It HAS to be genuinely curious.  You can’t be trying to be witty, sarcastic, one-up them, or trying to make a point: you have to put yourself in the headspace where you want to know what this other human being feels, thinks, and believes.

Then - AND ONLY THEN - can your energy shift.

The other person will be thrown by your reaction.  It will remove much of the “wind” out of their aggressive sails.  Chances are VERY good that you’re not the first person they’ve tried this behaviour with - and it’s very likely that they think this is the ONLY way to engage with people in order to be seen/heard/understood.

By exhibiting a different way of engaging you to have the chance to change the nature of the interaction AND reclaim your own footing and confidence, all at once.

This may be one of the hardest things you ever ask yourself to learn and do, but it will also be one of the absolute best things you ever learn and do, too. already know what happens otherwise.

Solution in Action!

First, let’s start with a few situations where this confidence hack (and by “hack”, I mean ‘shortcut’, not ‘faking’) wouldn’t work:

1. The paleontology example

    Them: “What does ‘paleontology’ mean? 

    Me: “Tell me more about why this question matters to you?

    (LOL - can you IMAGINE?!)

2. The presentation tech fire 

     Me (looking at the fire, then the audience): What would you do in this situation?

Now let’s look at some of my earlier stories, and see how they might hold up (and bear in mind, I DID NOT do this in those situations, because I DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO…. YET) to our “shift energy, be curious, don’t assume” model of confidence.

       1. Challenging student: 

           HIM:  Anybody could teach this stuff.

    ME (past): Oh yeah?  Why don’t you come here and do it yourself?

    ME (now):  Hmm.  That’s an interesting perspective.  I’d like to hear more about it.

2. Nationals Parks dude:

    HIM: I want to talk to a man.

    ME (past): OK. 

           ME (now): I will honour your request.  I’m curious how this will help

           you with your needs?

   (Admittedly, this one was up against a huge cultural block, and would likely have only

   received blowback - so he would have still talked to my colleague, then been referred

   back to me).

   ME (when he was sent back to me): Hi again.  How can I help you, within the

   regulations,  I am required by law to uphold in the National Parks? (notice I put clear

   boundaries in place?)

   (probably would have gone on in a huff, but I would have felt empowered and confident

   - and my colleague would have seen/experienced that element of my leadership). {Fun   

   fact: from me, all the way to the superintendent of the Park, it was female leadership.}

     3. Homeschooling ruins kids guy

         HIM: Parents who homeschool are ruining their kids - they need to learn to put up 

         with shit in the workplace, and school’s where you learn that.

         ME (past): (deadline silence, and a look that could’ve killed): Oh, really.  What do 

         you know about it? (This is NOT a curious question, I assure you.)

         ME (now): Lots of people have really strong opinions about homeschooling, 

         that’s for sure.  How have your experiences with homeschooling and homeschoolers


    4. My mom, on choosing the “wrong” name for my son:

 HER: Why did you name him [name]?  That’s not a baby’s name.

 ME (past): (Silence. Anger.)  Because we liked it.

 ME (now): I’m curious what you think makes a name a ‘baby’s’ name?

    5. Being challenged by the Costco lady:

 HER: Shame on you for feeding your baby formula!!

 ME (past): (Crumbling, walking quickly away, crying.)

 ME (now): Tell me more about why you feel like that?

 (***Honest to god, the “tell me more” question is amazing***)

Maybe you’ve noticed that what this approach does, in every situation, is start a conversation.

Of course, there will be times when the other person has no interest in a conversation - they are too far gone in their own ‘story’ - and it’s incredibly important for you to remember it’s not about you.

A few tips to make this solution easier to implement

Like I said earlier, this (sadly) isn’t a “bada-boom, bada-bing!” solution.  You have a lifetime of ingrained teachings and experiences that have “programmed” you to feel confident or not, and react as you do.

That does not mean that you can’t make different choices than you have in the past.  Like with any new skill, the first step is awareness - in other words, becoming aware of what you don’t know.  Before this blog, it might be that you weren’t even aware of what you weren’t aware of!

Now, as you begin to try implementing this technique to raise your confidence (and situational control), you’re going to have a learning curve - sometimes you’ll nail it, and other times...not so much.  There are still days when I’m off my game, and I’ll cry rather than ask a curious question.  They’re very, very rare, but they still happen, so give yourself grace as a new learner.

Two things to help make the learning easier, quicker, and stick better:

  1. DO PRACTICE breathing exercises, especially those that encourage a deep breath into the “pit of the stomach”.  Even ONE such breath slows your heart, respiration, and thought rate, and that’s a lifesaver if you can use it before you ask your curious question.
  2. REVIEW your interactions with others (journal, discuss with your coach or mastermind community, meditate on) with the specific goal of discovering what worked and what didn’t, rather than berating yourself or not reflecting at all.

There you have it: a little piece of communication coaching “magic” you can take into your days and your conversations, as you work towards your fullest, most confident expression of your authentic self!!

xo d

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