The toughest thing about proposals

Pitches and proposals are some of the most difficult work that any of us will do.

There’s the stress and pressure we put ourselves under to get them done. The mind-boggling questions we get asked. The lack of information. The ridiculous time frames. The fact that we've all got day jobs while we are trying to work on proposals as well.

But these are all symptoms of a much larger problem.

The toughest thing about proposals is that they involve loss of control over the outcome.

It’s knowing that despite doing our best, working our hardest, and twisting ourselves into a pretzel, we have no control over the ultimate choice.

TED speaker Brene Brown says that ‘vulnerability is basically uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”

Even when we believe that might and right are on our side, and that a decision should be a foregone conclusion, we are reliant on someone else to seal the deal.

Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in a tough situation I am facing, along with everyone else in the LGBTIQ community in Australia, as we await a nationwide postal vote on the question of marriage equality.

From this week, registered voters will be sent a voluntary survey that asks “do you support a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

This editorial in The Age, written after the High Court struck down a challenge to the legality of the survey, explains the ‘yes’ case better than I ever could.

I am simply far too close to it.

This uncomfortable reality has made me empathise even more my clients, who are often faced with a make-or-break pitch that will have a huge impact on them personally, on the structure and future of their business, on their staff, or their ability to make a difference in the world.

This is particularly true of incumbent suppliers who may have been working with a client for years or even decades, only to find that they are forced to tender for the work again. No matter how confident you are about the outcome, the process feels like applying for your own job, with all the anger, fear and anxiety that brings with it.

Even though we can’t control the outcome of an important pitch, we can do something about the uncertainty before the outcome. Giving your intuition some space

Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, says that our brains make things harder for us when we are facing uncertainty because they are wired to react to uncertainty with fear. 

Here are three of his tips for managing uncertainty, which I’ll be doing my best to put into practice over the next few weeks. I hope they are useful for you too.

1.  Quiet your limbic system

The limbic system has a knee-jerk reaction to uncertainty, which creates fear. Once you are aware that you are feeling fear, you can recognise and label any irrational thoughts that don’t represent reality. Bradberry refers to this as ‘telling your caveman limbic system to settle down and be quiet until a hungry tiger shows up’.

2.  Focus on something positive

Positive thoughts can dial down our fear and irrational thinking by simply focusing our brain’s attention on something that is completely stress-free. No matter how hard things get, we call all identify one positive thing that happened in our day, even if it seems small. This is all it takes to activate this positive effect.

3. Trust your gut

When researching my latest book, Value, I learned a lot about the enteric nervous system. There is a primal connection between our brain and our gut, which are joined by an extensive network of neurons and a highway of chemicals and hormones. Dr Deepak Chopra, a famous self-help author who also happens to be a neuroendocrinologist, has said that gut feelings are “every cell in our body making a decision”.

Our ancestors relied on their intuition, or gut instinct, for survival. Since most of us don’t face life-or-death decisions every day, we have to learn how to use this instinct to our benefit. Some practical things you can do to trust your gut when managing uncertainty include:

  • Recognising your own filters, and when you’re being influenced emotions or by another person’s opinion. For this reason, I’ve had to go off social media almost entirely during the Australian marriage equality ‘debate’. For me, the onslaught of opinion (even positive opinion) has been unhelpful and overwhelming.
  • Giving your intuition some space. Don’t pressure yourself to come up with a solution. Albert Einstein said he got his best ideas while sailing, and when Steve Jobs was faced with a tough problem, he’d head out for a walk. (The shower is also excellent for getting into ‘flow’).
  • Building trust in your own track record. Listen to your gut on small things and see how it goes. When it goes well, you’ll know you can trust it when the big stuff comes around.