When public speaking causes distress...
This was a very public demonstration of Emotion Coaching in action that occurred at a primary school graduation ceremony.
'Eleni' had been speaking confidently until she reached the part of her speech where she wanted to thank her teachers for their support and encouragement as she faced the challenges of her learning disability.
Eleni stopped speaking and covered her face as tears welled up.
Her fellow graduates called from their seats - 'Take some deep breaths!' 'You've got this, Eleni!' - but it didn't help.
After a moment, two teachers got up on stage with her. They didn't rush or distract Eleni. One stroked her back. The other helped her to take deep breaths. They both verbally acknowledged that public-speaking is hard, and that hers was a hard speech to give.
Eleni continued, but faltered again.
The teachers waited respectfully and took deep breaths with her...which enabled the audience to wait respectfully as well.
There was a remarkable moment as the audience (about 100 people), the classmates, and the teachers all breathed and waited, offering silent encouragement to Eleni.
When she continued to struggle, one of the teachers asked if it would help if they read a bit to get her going.
Eleni and the two teachers tag-teamed through the speech until Eleni was breathing more easily and reading confidently again. Then the teachers stepped away leaving Eleni to finish completely on her own.
There was a big round of applause.
Eleni returned to her seat with the other graduates. She looked very relieved. Eleni's friend handed her some tissues and said: "I know that was really hard for you...but you did it."
What was notable in this instance was the sense of the process of emotional support being a 'communal' effort. It was evident that in this school environment all emotions were natural and normal and the belief was that we can support others to manage those difficult emotions - co-regulation was an established practice. These communication skills had a ripple effect on the audience who were also part of the co-regulation process.
We all went through the process together. No one rushed, dismissed, or distracted Eleni (or the audience) from the situation. The teachers empathised and validated Eleni's emotions, then helped her to regulate her nervous system, before finding a solution that led to her being able to complete the challenge.