The Confidence Game

mentoring-executive-Hendrie WeisingerWilliam Thompson’s expertise was in making people feel overly self-confident, especially in their judgment. Operating in the late 1840s, the genteelly-dressed Thompson would approach a stranger pretending they knew each other, and begin a brief conversation. A few minutes later, Thompson would ask, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” Upon taking the watch (or, occasionally, money), Thompson would depart, never returning the watch. 

Mr. Thompson was arrested and brought to trial in 1849, in a case that made newspaper headlines across the country. The New York Herald recalling his explicit appeals to the victim’s “confidence,” coined a phrase dubbed him the “confidence man.”  

When it came to building up confidence, Thompson was no con. He was successful because he focused on getting his “marks” to experience the nucleus of self-confidence that is summed up with a simple prescriptive: “Trust your-self.”  Whether it’s your judgment or the skills you have diligently practiced and mastered, feeling that you can trust your knowledge, skills, or judgment is the end game of self-confidence. 

Are you a “confidence man/woman?” It’s one thing to believe in yourself, but do you know how to get others to believe in themselves? Can you give others confidence? That’s a skill that translates into making others more effective, especially when they are under pressure. Here are three ways  you can “con” them: 

Use Mood Infection. You can instill confidence by giving them a  one minute emotional pep talk. The words you use are best to be encouraging – “you can do it,”  “you can handle this,” – but much more important is the tonality of your voice. Apply emotional contagion – the process that tells us you can “infect others” with emotions by using emotional transmitters such as sound. In other words,  sound carries emotion, so the strategy here is to use your voice to help you transfer your emotional state to another. 

To do, you will have to sound confident when you speak – few are inspired by those who speak with anxiety and fear. What does a motivational voice sound like? Try reading a newspaper out loud in a motivational voice – you’ll know when you feel it. For contrast, do your best to read the same article in a non-inspirational manner. Feel the difference. 

Now that you know what a confident voice feels like, use it to infect others by giving your pep talk – be it a few minutes before your “target” goes into action, or in your every day call to actions. Before you voice your words, it will help if you think of yourself as an actor who consciously has to manipulate his or her inflection and speech rhythms so it booms with motivation; a speech pattern that builds to a crescendo and ends on a vocal high note is recommended. Speak as if your voice is “Rocky” music. 

If you don’t get what I’m saying, watch Al Pacino’s locker room speech in Any Given Sunday. If you still don’t get it, watch his leadership speech in Scent of Woman. At the very least, you will feel “Up”  after you watch them.  

Use Their Champion Walk. If you want to get your son or daughter to feel confident, get them to “walk like a champ” a few minutes before they perform. It has always been true that those who stand up straight, expand their chest and arch their back project more presence and feel more confident. Mother Nature made these factors an evolutionary edge – studies today tell us that people use body language to judge confidence and in social decision making situations, individuals defer to the confident individual. An early man who stood up straight compared to others was perceived as more powerful and thus, more likely to rule, so it is not a coincidence that champs,” be it on a political debate, or walking the 18th at Pebble Beach, stand up straight and expand their chest (and this helps them regulate their breathing).  

Drill Sargents have been telling Marines to “stand at attention” for over a hundred years and you probably have fond memories of your mother telling you to “stand up straight.” Neither needed their recommendations validated by current neuroscience research attesting to the fact that when you stand up straight, your brain increases testosterone, a hormone that makes you feel bold and often increases your ability to perform under pressure. 

Frequently remind your staff – and your kids – to walk like a champ, especially before they have to perform under pressure. Studies show that just a few minutes of “confident posturing” will stimulate feelings of confidence and lead to better performance. 

Positive Reminiscing. According to emotional intelligence, past experiences can be used to create current emotional states. Think about a time when you were really angry or hurt and you will quickly feel the point.  

Similarly,  you can infect others with confidence for the moment by getting them to think/visualize details of their past successes. The more you get them to engage in positive reminiscing, the more confident they will become. 

You will also find it useful to frequently remind your staff, especially when they are stumbling,  to remember their past successes. They will stay confident and more often than not, turn a setback into a comeback. Under pressure, people often forget their past successes, so it is good policy for you to be mindful of the past successes your staff – and kids have had – so you can tweak their memory as needed. 

To find out more on how to empower yourself and others to perform your best under pressure,  try

Hendrie Weisinger

Hendrie Weisinger

Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D. is a celebrated and influential psychologist, pioneer in the field of pressure management, the originator of criticism training and the author of two New York Times bestselling books. He has consulted with and developed programs for dozens of Fortune 500 Companies and government agencies and has taught in Executive Education and Executive MBA programs at Wharton, UCLA, NYU, Cornell, Penn State, and MIT. His work has been featured several times in The New York Times Sunday Business Section, and numerous popular magazines. His article for The Wall Street Journal, So You’re Afraid To Criticize Your Boss, was selected as one of their 60 best management articles and reprinted in Dow Jones on Management. He has appeared on more than 500 radio and television shows including Oprah, Good Morning America, Charlie Rose, and was the featured expert for 5 consecutive days on The Today Show for their anger management special. His newest book and NY Times Bestseller is Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most You can learn more about Dr. Weisinger and his new empowering E Workshop Experience, Performing Under Pressure at

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