Talk To Yourself (Out Loud)?

By: Jim Bruce

…  You May Want To Give IT a Try

Kristin Wong, a Los Angeles journalist and writer, who contributes to the New York Times and other publications, found herself approached by a stranger at a grocery store asking if she needed help.  He had heard her talking to herself out loud, in public.  She had grown so comfortable with talking out loud to herself that she didn’t realize what she was doing.
Psychologists call the practice of talking out loud to yourself external self-talk.  While many of us see this as weird or irrational or a sign of some mental distress, researchers have found that it can positively influence our behavior and learning.  University of Michigan professor of psychology Ethan Kross reports “Language provides us with this tool to gain distance from our own experiences when we’re reflecting on our lives.”  When we talk to ourselves we are actually trying to see things more objectively.
We may be most familiar with “instructional self-talk” where we talk ourselves through a specific task and “motivational self-talk” where we are working to convince ourselves that we can do a particular task, often when we really may not want to.
Research has shown that such self-directed speech can also help guide children’s behavior.  For example, kids can often talk themselves through tasks such as tying their shoelaces by reminding themselves of each step as they proceed.  Or, as they play, describing puzzle pieces as they work to put a puzzle together.
Kross’ research has demonstrated that we do a better job motivating ourselves if we speak to ourselves in the second or third person – “You can do this,” or “Jim can do this” – instead of speaking in the first person – “I can do this.”  Using “you” or your name reduces your anxiety while doing the task.  And, peers report that you actually do better.  Kross says that this is because of “self-distancing:”  Focusing on the self from the distanced perspective of a third person, even though that person is you, gives you more confidence. Seeing the situation from a distance keeps your second or third-person persona from being sucked into the problems that are causing the anxiety.
Instructive self-talk can also speed up your cognitive abilities in relation to problem-solving and task performance.  Talking to yourself about what you are doing helps you stay focused and may improve your approach (strategy) and technique.  Gary Lupyan, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison believes that self-talk can be really helpful in keeping out distractions and in reminding you where you are in multi-step processes.
Psychologist Linda Sapadin discovered that talking out loud to yourself helps you validate important and difficult decisions.  She says that “It helps you clarify your thoughts, address what’s important, and firm up any decisions you’re contemplating.”  Talking out loud focuses your attention, reinforces the message, controls your runaway emotions, and screens out distractions.
University of Illinois psychologist Brian Ross advocates a related learning strategy known as “self-explaining.”  This approach involves you frequently (perhaps as often as after every paragraph if you are working your way through a difficult concept) asking yourself explanatory questions such as:  “What does this mean?”  “Why does it matter?”  “What did I just read?”  “How does this fit together?”  “Have I seen this concept before?”  Asking questions out loud really helps.  One study showed that people who explain ideas to themselves learn almost three times more than those who don’t.
So, how might I employee self-explaining in my own learning?  Four steps:

  1. Talk to yourself.  While you may think it’s not cool, talking to yourself is essential to self-explaining and generally helpful to learning.  It does slow you down.  However, as a result you become more deliberate and gain more from the experience.  Self-talk also helps us think about our thinking and through that we develop skills more effectively.
  2. Ask why.  Through self-explaining we become more curious and we ask why more often.  If you don’t know something, the why questions are hard and answering them develops expertise.
  3. Summarize.  When you summarize a subject, you self-explain, you put the information into your own words, and in doing so, you have made the information, the concept, yours and you have become more likely to remember the information.
  4. Make connections.  One of the personal benefits to self-explaining is that it helps you see new links and associations.  And, seeing these relationships helps improve memory.  And, they are an aid to a fuller understanding.

The three types of self-talk we’ve introduced here – instructional self-talk, motivational self-talk, and self-explaining – can each play a major role in developing our knowledge and capabilities.  Maybe you don’t want to talk out loud in your work-space and, if not, that’s O.K.  I’m sure you can find a solitary space where you can practice this set of skills and use these to work on real issues that you need to address.  Like any set of tools, practice is required to become comfortable with them and get to the point where it is natural to approach issues this way.
So, as you have opportunity, you may want to give self-talk a try.  It just might be valuable set of tools to have in your toolkit.
Make it a great week.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Ulrich Boser, Talking to Yourself (Out Loud) Can Help You Learn, Harvard Business Review, May 2017.
Kristin Wong, The Benefits of Talking to Yourself, The New York Times, June 8, 2017.
Gigi Engle, People Who Talk To Themselves Aren’t Crazy, They’re Actually Geniuses, Elite, July 2015.

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