Are Your Unconscious Nervous Habits during Meetings and Interviews Holding You Back?

Part 1 by Ellen A. Kaye

Business people take note: if you’re not getting that promotion you want or that raise you feel you deserve, it may not be your job skills that are holding you back. It may be you are unconsciously making a poor impression on senior leadership during the meetings you both attend. After all, many of us have unconscious bad habits that hibernate or go unnoticed during the frenzy of the workday. But in a meeting room where there’s nothing to do but listen, those habits come out in force – playing with pens, twirling eye glasses, jiggling legs – you name it. In the confined quarters of a meeting room where senior executives have the opportunity to observe you for an extended period of time, these habits can be more than just annoying – they can cap your career.

Busy, creative peope aren’t naturally inclined to sit still for long periods of time, so they develop nervous habits as a way to release energy. The problem is that these unconscious behaviors make them look fidgety and unprofessional. And that’s often enough to lose a promotion to someone else who either doesn’t have any annoying nervous habits, or has learned to master them.

The good news is that you can learn to master them. With practice and coaching, you can learn to calm your body and exude controlled professionalism throughout every meeting. And best of all is that simply by gaining control of your nervous habits, people will think you are performing better at your job, even though it’s only your posture and comportment that have improved.

Here are two of the most common nervous habits people exhibit when they’re sitting in a meeting and my recommendations to overcome them:

Dancing fingers. This habit also encompasses tapping or drumming your fingers, drumming your hands on your legs, chewing your fingernails, playing with the arm of the chair or doing anything else with your hands other than writing or resting them quietly. I use my “Mummy” exercise to help clients overcome fidgety fingers. Here’s how it works. If your meeting chair has arms on it, sit in the chair, rest your forearms and hands on the arms of the chair and visualize them being wrapped lightly in gauze, gently binding them together. Get in the habit of doing this before each meeting and you’ll find your hands rest more easily during the meeting. If you notice your hands playing again during the meeting, stop and go through the exercise again. Very quickly, the habit will disappear.

Playing with your pen. This can include clicking a ballpoint pen on and off, tapping the pen on the table, or doodling. All are no-no’s. The solution is to use the top edge of your notepad to establish what I call a line of demarcation. Place your notepad on the table in front of you, and place everything else you’ll need periodically throughout the meeting – pen, glasses, cup of coffee – just beyond it. All those items beyond the line of demarcation are only to be picked up when you need them. Pick it up, use it, and then put it back beyond the line of demarcation. Don’t touch it again until you need it next. By consciously establishing this zone, you won’t unconsciously pick up your pen and play with it; instead, you’ll think about it every time you pick it up, which is usually enough to break the habit.

Think you don’t do any of these things? You might be surprised. I’m often called in by companies to observe group meetings, and then work one-on-one with the executives in private to transform their negative behaviors. During these coaching sessions, most executives are shocked to learn they exhibit one or more of the behaviors discussed above. But their awareness, coupled with my coaching, typically results in a quick fix – and a quicker ticket to a raise or promotion.