Anti-Anxiety Jiu Jitsu: Turning the Terror of Public Speaking to Power
By Mark Perlmutter
I was a baby lawyer, first-chairing in only my second jury trial. I was awestruck by the opposing counsel, a true jury-whisperer. He seemed super-human. Had a resonant voice, looks that made women quiver, immaculate dresser, folksy relatability, lightning-quick mind. I took no comfort in my senior partner’s claim that he “put his pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us”—after all, this was not a speed-dressing contest.! Nor was the case itself a source of confidence, being one of those loser “dog” cases young associates get to cut their teeth on. This one was even nicknamed around the office “the falling doghouse case” because my injured client had somehow found herself under a doghouse she’d been helping to lift over a fence.
The evidence had closed—earlier than I’d expected. Surprisingly to me, the judge had already prepared the jury instructions and said he’d give us a few minutes to prepare for final argument. Having expected to have overnight, I was in shock. Within a couple of minutes, I felt an excruciating pain in my chest, shortness of breath, cold sweat. I told the judge I thought I was having a heart attack whereupon, thankfully, he had the bailiff call 911—and off to the hospital I went. Turned out what I’d thought was a heart attack was merely a panic attack brought on by uncontrollable anxiety. And so began my decades-long study of public speaking anxiety.
In addition to being able to overcome my own anxiety, I’ve worked with lawyers, law students and others, studied psychotherapy and other modalities. What follows are practices tried and true.
Cognitive Reframes: Change Our Thinking
Most of us misperceive the nature of anxiety, seeing it as “bad,” something to be avoided. In fact, it’s an arousal that occurs when our brain decides something coming our way merits our attention. If we then decide it’s a threat, our brain gets ready to flee, fight, or freeze. If our brain evaluates it as good, we gear up to approach it. It turns out that the arousal is the same either way; that is, our mid-brain structures move us to take action, but whether we see this process as “anxiety” or “excitement” simply depends on whether our cortex appraises the stimulus as “good” or “bad,” as “threat” or “opportunity.”
Thus, the stimulus (making a speech) and arousal that we initially associate with a threat can work for us if we instead view the stimulus as an opportunity—just like the force from a Jiu Jitsu opponent can be converted to our advantage. The power of this reframe has been demonstrated in experiments related to test-taking anxiety. One group of GRE test-takers, told any anxiety they experienced would actually help them do well, outperformed the control group by an average of 50 points in the lab—and by 65 points on the GRE itself. The lesson: view anxiety itself as an opportunity to help us focus our attention on the task.
In addition to the thoughts we have about the nature of anxiety, a second set of thoughts requiring a reframe are our audience mindreads and negative predictions. Here are some of the more common ones: the audience hates me; I’m going to be embarrassed; I’m going to fail; I’m going to lose.
The mindread that “the audience hates me” is belied simply by our own experience as audience members. Most of us don’t put ourselves in an audience in order to hate the speaker. On the contrary, we want to be enlightened, or entertained, or in some way gratified. So whether the audience ultimately hates us does not depend on its mindset; in fact, we, as audience members, generally start out feeling positively. Rather, it depends on how well we attune to our listeners wants and needs. For that reason, whether our fear of failure, losing, or embarrassment is ultimately realized will not be known until after we’ve spoken. Because we can’t know until then, it’s not only irrational to make these negative predictions, but it serves only to torture us by raising our anxiety. Therefore the only reasonable approach is to engage our curiosity, that is “let’s just see how this turns out,” and devote our energy to attuning our presentation to the audience’s wants and needs.
A corollary reframe is to view our presentation not as a potential realization of our worst fears, but rather as an opportunity to bring a gift to our listeners—the gift of entertainment, empowerment, edification, or other enrichment of their lives. Viewed in this way, we’re actually performing an act of love that most anyone would find hard to reject.
Gerry Spence counsels us to stand emotionally “naked” when we rise to argue, to display emotional vulnerability at the outset. To me, this meant communicating my anxiety, using it to bring the jury into my camp, rooting for me. It generally went something like this:
Ladies and gentlemen, as I rise in support of my client’s cause, I find myself feeling nervous, even a little shaky. And that’s because I know my client has placed in my hands a matter of critical importance to her. If I fail to accurately and clearly summarize the evidence for you, responsibility for her profound disappointment will rest squarely upon my shoulders and I can’t bear that thought. With that in mind, I’ll now endeavor to help you determine what actually happened in this case and how that impacts your duty under the court’s instructions.
As I confessed my nervousness and saw the looks of understanding on the jurors’ faces, I felt a connection and my butterflies invariably settled down. My own terror had truly become a source of persuasive power.
Attunement: Preventing the Rotten Tomato Barrage.
One of my greatest fears was that I would say something so unacceptable, that I’d lose the audience
from the gitgo. But I learned from jury selection a foolproof technique that solved the problem: simply to ask the audience about their relevant attitudes and beliefs and tailor the presentation accordingly. For example, in an oral contract case to be tried in a venue where most people think it has to be in writing to be enforceable, I’d ask, “How many of you believe oral contracts in industries where they are customary and necessary to conduct commerce should be just as enforceable as written contracts?” All I had to do then was to prove this was an oral contract agreed to in an industry where such contracts were customary and necessary to conduct business.
A variation of this technique is to elicit evidence from the audience for the point we’re trying to make. For example, if I was trying to get a group of lawyers to accept the proposition the all of us need to be aware of our own vulnerability to behaving unethically, I’d ask the following questions and invariably get the following results;
“How many of you think you should never lie in the course of representing your clients?” Almost all hands go up.
“How many of you, in fact, have never lied in the course of representing your clients?” A smattering of hands. Nervous laughter.
“How many of you actually believe those who just raised their hands?” Virtually no hands. More laughter.
The very process of a responsive interaction with the audience may well make them accept us at the outset and give us cues that we’ve disarmed them.
TIPI: Teaching The Body There’s Nothing to Fear
Some people suffer from really stubborn cases of speaking anxiety, particularly those in which the speaker has had one or more or habitual traumatic experiences in front of audiences. These folks require more than mere cognitive restructuring. For their bodies literally experience a range of uncomfortable sensations at the very thought of speaking before an audience. In law school, these students are terrified to speak in class, freeze up when called upon, and cope by hiding in class as much as they can. They may experience sensations such as dry mouth, rapid heart rate, chest tightness or pain, butterflies in their stomachs, sweating, clenching, and many others. Similar reactions follow them throughout their careers. Those of us who suffer in this way can benefit from a powerful process called TIPI, a French acronym for “Technique for The Sensory Identification of Unconscious Fears.” Through a highly structured reliving of difficult emotional experiences in the safety of a practitioner’s office, our bodies get the message at the deepest level that there’s truly nothing to fear. Following a TIPI experience, generally in three sessions or fewer, my clients typically report being subjected to formerly anxiety-provoking situations and realize only after the fact that the anxiety was nowhere to be found.
I hope these thoughts will enable you to approach every opportunity to address an audience with energy and excitement.
A former Texas Trial Lawyer, Mark Perlmutter, MA, JD now helps individuals and couples build satisfying business and intimate relationships, and become more powerful communicators. He also mediates and practices co-parenting counseling. He has taught for two years at UC Hastings and continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Law in the summer program at the University of Texas School of Law. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org,
In my last newsletter, I hope I left you wondering what happened to the opposing litigant after my client threatened to kill him if I lost the case. I had already told you that I managed to “center” myself, enabling me to prepare my final argument with curiosity rather than anxiety, and that I had warned the judge of my client’s violent intentions.
I wondered if the judge would have the poor, crazed soul locked up before he could hurt anybody. Would I lose and the client make good on his threat? Would bystanders (including me) be in harm’s way? Could the client be persuaded to stand down?
Apparently, the wise, old judge had more confidence in my case than I did. When I told him of my client’s threat, he gave me a knowing look and said, sagely, “Well, let’s just see what happens.” And, sure ’nough, the judge was prescient: my client and I left the courthouse elated in victory—and without loss of life.
Centering allowed me to actually function in the face of two powerful anxiety triggers—threat of public speaking, and death. As promised in my previous newsletter, I am now going to tell you how I recommend centering:
Sit comfortably with your feet flat on the floor and eyes closed (or looking down as you follow this protocol). Don’t stiffen up but relax. Relax your spine, drop your shoulders, let your head float gently on the tip top of your spine. Now slowly scan your body from head to foot and notice whether there’s any tightness, tension, density or high energy at any point, and see if you can let it go by simply calming yourself or imagining warm water flowing over it. If not, it’s okay to just let it be. But as you scan, just relax each part of your body.
And now, begin to focus your attention on the midpoint of your body, deep inside, about 1½ inches below your navel. This is your center and a place of strength because, as martial artists know, it’s the balance point from which we can most effectively initiate action to move in any direction. To help you focus your attention at that point, we are going to take three slow deep breaths, breathing by first expanding your diaphragm and protruding your belly, then expanding your chest and drawing the air in, following it as deeply into your body as possible. Notice where the air seems to go at its deepest point, focus your attention there with a pause at the end of the inhale, and make room there for calmness, openness and strength. Take those three, slow deep breaths.
When you’re ready, bring your attention back behind your eyes and open your eyes to the present context, hopefully centered, and ready to most effectively deal with what comes.
I used a similar process for survival as a lawyer. I still use an abbreviated version in stressful situations to optimally respond on the fly. And now I center (as just described) with my clients at the beginning of therapy sessions to open myself to deep listening and to train my clients in centering.
Hope you find it helpful.
In my last newsletter, we looked at curiosity—that state of wonder, exploration, and possibility—as the antidote to anxiety and the key to happiness. And I left you with this question: Exactly how are we supposed to find our curiosity when our anxiety hits overdrive?
I have no quick fix, but I hope this story about my own struggle with anxiety will prove helpful.
Once upon a time during my trial lawyering days, I tried the case of a salt-of-the-earth, 60ish man who was facing the loss of his life savings and retirement funds as a result of his lawyer’s malpractice. I was preparing my final argument when my client informed me that he had a gun in his car and, if we lost the suit, he was going to kill the lawyer, his wife would “take pills,” and he’d then shoot himself. At once, the usual pre-argument flutters in my gut escalated to an entire flock of startled pigeons getting airborne. Holy sh—! What the hell do I do?
Step one was to realize, “this is anxiety.” To solve the problem, I had to name the problem. Step two was to remember that anxiety is often the product of anxiety- provoking thoughts. In this case, the thought was “OMG [well, back then it was actually “Oh my f—ing God”] what if I lose, what if I blow the argument, this guy’s going to kill people and, who knows, maybe even me!”
Next, I centered myself—that step was not the result of a quick fix, but of enough previous practice to have effectively rewired my brain. The process of centering enabled me to be squarely in the present, calm and open to working with the information at hand. Once centered, I could recognize my energy would best be directed toward warning the judge about what was going down and letting him handle that. Then, remembering that if the jury believed what I thought really happened did happen, we’d win, I was able to get into the moment, “the zone,” and get ready for my argument, truly curious about how this crazy story would end.
The Key to Happiness. Can you guess? (Hint: It’s not sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.)
The more I studied the subject of happiness in preparation to write this piece, the less happy I felt–literally overwhelmed with both scientific and anecdotal prescriptions for this elusive state of being. Exercise more, improve your relationships, be mindful, find a good friend at work, be generous, have gratitude, be flexible, lower your expectations, set and pursue goals, get more leisure time, make some money, pursue a passion, clean up your house, ad nauseum. Gaack! The last thing I want to do is to make happiness more work than it’s already been made.
So let me offer one simple suggestion that’s not a lotta work: find your curiosity.
Why is curiosity the key to happiness? Because it’s the antidote to the decidedly unhappy feeling of anxiety that’s endemic to human life itself. During literally every moment, we’re poised on the precipice of the unknown. Will my mother drop me on my head? Will a car run me over in the next instant? Will disease unexpectedly strike? Will I lose my top client or get laid off from my job? Will I be able to afford health coverage? Will my intimate partner hurt my feelings or criticize me? Will my lover “be there” for me? Will people just be nice to me today? Will I be good enough? Will I be loved? Yes, anxiety is both ubiquitous and universally felt. In fact, anxiety and its associated disorders represent the most common form of mental illness in this country.
So how is curiosity anxiety’s antidote? Curiosity is a state of wonder and exploration, of possibility. It is growth and transformation-seeking even in the face of adversity. Finding our curiosity, also referred to as our “exploratory drive,” is a central tenet of Yvonne Agazarian’s brilliant Systems Centered Therapy (1997)–the essential ingredient of our ability to continually develop and transform despite life’s challenges. Is it any wonder that curiosity has been scientifically shown to correlate with our wellbeing (Kashdan, T.B. & Steger, M.F., 2007)?
This is not to say anxiety is bad per se–after all, it serves us well by motivating us to anticipate and plan to handle threats and, as I will explain in my next newsletter, it can even be of great benefit. However, unless we’ve converted our anxiety of productive effect, it is of little use but for self-torture.
Enter then, curiosity!
Agazarian, Y.M. (1997). Systems centered therapy for groups. New York: The Guilford Press.
Kashdan, T.B. & Steger, M.F. (2007). Curiosity and pathways to well-being and meaning in life: Traits, states, and everyday behaviors. Motivation & Emotion. 31(3), 159-173.
There was once a lawyer in marriage counseling. His therapist asked him how he felt about what his wife had just said. “I think what she said is totally irrelevant to the issue at hand,” he said.
Patiently, the therapist responded “Actually, sentences answering, ‘How do you feel’ questions begin with ‘I feel.'”
“Oh,” triumphantly said the lawyer. “Then I feel like what she just said is totally irrelevant to the issue at hand.”
To which the therapist replied, “What you just said is actually a thought. Feeling words include ‘happy, sad, angry, afraid, etc.'”
I then said I didn’t know what I felt.
Yes, I once was that lawyer—only a few years out of the law school where I’d learned very well how to think like a lawyer. Yet after many years of Texas trial practice, teaching law, training as a couples therapist, and moving to San Francisco (which itself improves mental health), I’ve come to realize how much my lawyer competencies had made me an utterly incompetent husband. Unfortuantely, my practice has taught me I was not too different from many of my brethren. So in the interest of inoculating my adopted legal community to the dangers of bringing out lawyer personas home, here are six ways that being a lawyer can make us wayward lovers.
“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” said Vince Lombardi, Hall of Fame football coach. By its nature, the structure of the legal system is adversarial. It’s win/lose—just like football. But bringing that mindset home does not go well if we’re anything like Vince Lombardi: his wife said marrying him “was the greatest mistake of
her life.” (1)
To succeed in this win/lose system we begin with a meticulous marshaling of proof. From there, we inexorably attack the opposition, blame, and rationalize, all in an attempt to prove we’re right.
So how do these skills and this mindset play out at home? They lead us to argue, to default to what we know how to do best. And before you know it, we care more about being right than we care about being together. This means that upon hearing our partner’s point of view, we may immediately introduce a significantly different viewpoint if not one in total opposition.
My nine years of study and practice in Systems-Centered Therapy tells me that our personal receptivity to new information, our information “boundary,” becomes impermeable if that information is too different from what’s just been communicated. Moreover, it doesn’t take any fancy training to anticipate this argument isn’t going to end well. However, if instead of immediately becoming oppositional, we say something like, “why don’t we explore all the benefits of going with your viewpoint and then explore the benefits of other courses of action?” we can open the door to true collaboration.
A similar strategy is to say something like, “Let me see if I’m understanding what you’re saying,” then paraphrasing your partner’s thoughts, feelings, or wants, and asking if you’ve heard them right. Once your partner confirms you’ve gotten it, you might say, “I have a different idea about this. Are you open to hearing about it?” Either of these formulations will soften your partner’s boundary so that your own input is more likely to be actually heard, which, in turn, will lead to a more satisfying resolution.
By the time I see law students in their third year, much of whatever emotional awareness they had has been eradicated. Just like “there’s no crying in baseball,” there’s no feeling in law school. We’re taught that dispassionate analysis is the goal, made fun of for reacting emotionally when we complain in class that a court’s decision was unfair, and taught to not show our feelings to our opponents for (the legitimate) fear they’ll take advantage. We’ve got to be tough, to squash our longings for connection and support. !e problem with this is twofold. First, many of our partners want us to not just say we understand what they’re going through, but also to show we really get what they’re feeling. This is impossible if we’ve disowned our own similar feelings. Second, if we’ve disowned our own needs for warmth and tenderness, we may see such needs in our partners as weak and “whiny,” and rather than reacting with warmth and tenderness, we may become cold and judgmental. !is pattern can go on for years until the exasperated, left-wanting partner seeks therapy. But by then, the pattern may so entrenched that it can’t be undone short of divorce.
Problem solving is a crucial attribute of the wellrounded lawyer. How many times have we been told that our clients want a lawyer who sees a matter not just as a case to be tried but as a problem to be solved. Yet this attribute, too, can get us in trouble at home. I can’t even name how many times I’ve heard spouses say that when they raise a complaint about the difficulties of life, they’re not looking for a solution but simply for an ear to hear or a shoulder to lean on. In this context, problem solving may come across as criticism, blaming, or, at least, misattunement. What’s needed is simple listening, with empathy.
(This skill may have been prelearned and “finely honed in law school.) Of the lawyer couples I see for whom substance abuse is an issue, the drinking partner is invariably triggered to imbibe in order to anesthetize painful emotions. And there are triggers aplenty—”financial pressure to get business; pressure to win; pressure to please our superiors and clients; the frustration of dealing with difficult opponents; fear of screwing up; fear of not being able to cut it; fear of embarrassment; fear of being bested by a particularly difficult opponent; fear of making mistakes or of their being discovered; feeling like a failure at home. Without alcohol, these feelings can become unbearable to some of us. With alcohol, these and other feelings become altered—so altered that nonusing partners often describe their drinking counterparts as “not there.” And, of course, most of us marry precisely because we want our beloveds to be there for us. So, given the choice of (1) having to bear unbearable emotions without substances or (2) turning to alcohol or other drugs and losing our spouses, what’s the beleaguered lawyer to do? The obvious answer is to “find ways to ameliorate the emotional pain without mind-altering substances. And this is where therapy comes in. Recent advances in neuroscience demonstrate that “talk therapy” actually “rewires” the brain to create new pathways that can help us cope with difficult emotions. And unlike medication, these positive changes persist even after discontinuation of the intervention.
Really? Is even lawyerly compromising a problem in marriage? Sad, but true. The typical way we compromise in settlement negotiations is tit-for-tat bargaining: if you want me to give a little, you need to give a little. There is no generosity of spirit, much less attention to anyone’s feelings, but rather simply a contest of wills—extract concessions and wear the opponent down. The end result is continually rationalized by good mediators as being “a good settlement because both parties are unhappy.” This is not to suggest that compromise in marriage is a bad thing, but it’s not enough. During a recent session, a client of mine, close to giving up on her marriage, had just reached a tit-for-tat compromise with her husband. Whereupon, she turned to me in tears and said, “we’ve just settled this but why does it feel so awful?” The lesson here is to seek compromise from the standpoint of what is best for us as a couple, continually checking in with each other on how we’re feeling not only about the end result, but about our negotiation process as well.
As “learned counsel,” we’re paid handsome sums for our sage advice—and with good reason. We’re highly educated, highly skilled, and highly paid to offer just the right advice. We see ourselves as experts and often find ourselves thinking, if only our partners “would just listen to me, I “figured out what we needed to do an hour ago!” Only problem is our partners may see things differently. Even if they may ultimately agree, they may need to have their perspectives at least heard and respected before arriving at a conclusion. Given the constant practice of habits antithetical to achieving success at home, is there any hope for our intimate partnerships? We can begin with the recognition that intimacy is a wholly different context than lawyering. And within that different context come different goals. In contradistinction to the goals of litigation, the paramount goal of a romantic partnership is to grow the relationship, that is, to resolve our inevitable differences so as to enhance the feeling of connectedness—so that our differences can actually bring us closer.
A former Texas trial lawyer, Mark Perlmutter, M.A., J.D., now helps individuals and couples to have more satisfying business and intimate relationships. He also works with couples and families of people with substance abuse issues, mediates, and is an adjunct professor of law at UC Hastings College of the Law and the University of Texas School of Law.
(1) Maraniss, David. When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999, p. 74.