The material in this post is adapted from my new book Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (launching January 24, 2017 with Penguin Random House).
We often feel helpless in situations outside our comfort zone. But what I've found from researching people stepping outside their comfort zones across professions is that we actually have more power than we think. By making minor, but meaningful "tweaks" in how we act, we can often decrease stress and increase confidence.
For example, if you're terrified of speaking up in meetings, you might learn a few catch phrases to get people's attention, such as: "Have we thought about this?" or "Here's another idea we might consider." If you know your tendency is to apologize, even when it's not necessary, you might purposefully remember not to say "I'm sorry" and instead to substitute another expression.
You might also consider tweaking your non-verbal behavior. For example, when mustering up the courage to speak up at a meeting, you might stand up tall, lean forward, with your hands slightly at your side, and plant your hands firmly on the desk. If you're about to deliver an assertive message to a colleague, you might walk the hallway for a moment, like a busy, confident executive, and then continue your stride right into the person's office.
Finally, timing is another variable that you often have more control of than you think. If you have to deliver bad news and know you'll be stressed, choose a time when you feel most capable - after a long run, or sandwiched between activities you enjoy and that give you energy. Or if you dread networking, arrive early before the throng arrives, so you can speak in a less stressful atmosphere to build confidence.
In the end, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to stepping outside your comfort zone. But you often have more leeway than you think to turn a difficult situation into something you can handle.