Emotions getting in the way

At an annual conference, the CEO of a large multi-national had to give a speech about the charity he would choose to support this year: an organisation that helps handicapped children to be active in sports. This was a great topic to build a speech around, however the CEO was personally so committed to this good cause that he almost burst into tears every time he came to the slide that talked about the charity. Even though he was comfortable with showing his human side, he did not want to get so emotional on stage. He asked me to help him solve this problem and make it through the presentation without tears.

We delved right to the root of the problem: why he became so emotional. It turned out that the mentor of the project, who’s also the founder of this particular charity, was an excellent sportsman, a triathlete, who had had a terrible accident that left him paralysed from the chest down. Yet, despite this dreadful setback, he never gave up on his dream.

As soon as the CEO mentioned the founder’s name, he lost his grip on his emotions because he was so moved by this inspiring story. I did not feel the need to dig any deeper, as it was clear that the mindset that came with this man’s name created a huge wave of empathy from the CEO. In order to change the reaction to the name, the CEO had to change his mindset.

Firstly, I had to convince him to stop saying ‘I must not get emotional’. The more he repeated that he must not show his emotions, the more difficult it was to stop himself.

How to solve the problem? Well, the cause lies in the mindset, so the answer lies there too. We tried to find a good mindset by moving him ‘mentally’ to another place, so I asked him to close his eyes and imagine that he was sitting at home, talking to his son or a friend. Whilst trying this, he still found it difficult to detach himself emotionally. We looked for a couple of other situations that could make him feel differently whilst talking about the charity founder.

Eventually we found a way, by moving him mentally to last year’s charitable project, which was less emotive for him. I asked him to think about the gala dinner, when he was sitting next to another sportsman, to whom he was less emotionally attached. I asked him to focus on how he felt that evening, which was a positive feeling of pride and joy at having been able to help young people. He found a way in his head to reproduce the feeling he had that evening whilst making his speech and he made it through the rehearsals, without one emotional outburst.

During the actual event, the founder of the charity and mentor was in the room, which did not make it easier. We talked about how the CEO did a great job during the rehearsals, and therefore we knew he was able to do it. Just adding some people in the room should not affect his ability to speak.

The CEO began his speech and, at the moment where it got tricky for him, he calmly paused for a moment. The audience could see that this was not easy for their boss. He then had to say the founder’s name: he was silent. He looked up to the screen, where the image from the previous year’s event remained and, despite some emotion in his voice and on his face, he managed to finish his last sentence with composure, then called the founder on to the stage.

After the presentation, the CEO came up to me and told me, with immense gratitude, that he would not have been able to complete the speech without this vital change of mindset.

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