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More on Self-Talk

| April 4, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Over that past two years, the Tuesday Reading has focused twice on difficult conversations, both with others, Managing Difficult Conversations, and in the form of self-talk, Neuroscience – Managing Self-Talk.  Last week we turned again to Difficult Conversations and today, we return to the topic of self-talk.
Last fall when I wrote about self-talk, I quoted Susan Whitbourn who suggests that “you can think of self-talk as an inner voice somewhat like a sports announcer’s commentary of a player’s successes and failures on the field.”  And, as she and others have emphasized, we hear the “failures” much more loudly than the “successes.” In fact, given our brain’s focus on threats, we may not hear the success at all or even turn them into threats. 
Sabrina Nawaz, a global coach for C-suite executives, reminds us that further developing our strengths is at least as important as addressing our weaknesses.  To this end, she makes four suggestions for how we handle what could become negative self-talk:
1.  Look for, seek, the positive.  Too many times when we either receive or ask for feedback, we focus on what went wrong, on what we could have done better.  We should ask for positive feedback as well:  “What did you like about my presentation?”  “What stood out to you as my best work on the project?”
2.  Hear the positive.  We often don’t pay much attention when positive comments are made about our work because we are expecting the negative.  Learn to listen for and take notes on the positive.  It’s a way of remembering what you want to do again.  This will also be a “silent” suggestion to the person giving feedback that giving both positive and negative feedback is important.
3.  Understand the positive.  Whitbourn says “Allow yourself to lean in and explore the praise.”  Think about what you did the last time someone paid you a compliment.  How did you respond?  Too often we dismiss it:  “I was lucky.”  “I had a lot of help.”  Said, “thank you”  and nothing else.  Had it been a negative comment, you, perhaps, would have asked questions and asked for examples.  A compliment gives you the same opportunity to learn more about what you did that was helpful and effective.  “I’m glad my presentation was helpful.  What was it that you found particularly useful to you?”
4.  Believe the positive, and act as if it were true.  When we hear positive comments we often wonder about the feedback-giver’s motives,  And, even when we believe it was positive, we may feel embarrassed to be singled out.  Whitbourn argues that we need to believe that what is being said might really, actually be true.  If you carefully and consistently listen to these voices, you will begin to see themes in what’s being said. 
When we get to the point of hearing the positive voices, we reduce the amount of negative self-talk we do.  Nawaz suggests that we should aim to have more positive self-talk conversations going on in our minds at one time than negative ones, perhaps five-to-one.  (This reflects the neuroscience findings that there are five times as many “circuits” in our brain for detecting “threats” as there are for detecting “rewards.”  The five-to-one ratio basically equalizes the overall “weight” of the positive and negative thoughts.)
Eric Barker, writing in the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog, comes at this issue of self-talk from a totally different point of view.  He argues that when a negative self-talk conversation begins between you and a critical voice, you need to invite three other parties into the conversation.  This will put others into the discussion who are addressing you as “you,” and not as “I.”  This is important given research he cites that demonstrates that talking to yourself using the word “you” is more powerful than using the word “I.” 
So, who should you invite into the conversation?
1.  A cheerleader.  You need someone in your head, according to Barker, who will keep you going when things get hard.  He has in mind a Navy SEAL.  SEALs think like “The Little Engine That Could.”  Failure is not an option.  Positive self-talk like “You can do this” will have a significant effect on your mental toughness and your ability to keep going.  In addition, research has shown that positive self-talk improves performance.
2.  A voice talking out loud.  When you think through issues by talking out loud, it improves memory and concentration.  So, when you are working through something, find a place where you can talk with yourself.  This also builds resilience.
3.  A grandmother.  You need your grandmother’s voice to help you have compassion for yourself.  Having compassion is about forgiving yourself when you are not awesome.  To always feel like you’re awesome you have to either separate yourself from reality or always be on a treadmill to improve your value.  Self-compassion lets you see the facts as they are and accept that you are not perfect.  So, you need a grandmother’s voice saying, yeah, you didn’t do a particularly good job there, but we all have bad times and it’ll be okay.  Just pick yourself up and get on with it.
Barker reminds us that we will always have the critical voices in our head clamoring for our attention.  He argues that we need these three voices on our side of the table to help us out.
There is not a day when we don’t have self-talk competing for our attention.  Do yourself a huge favor and develop practices so that you can handle these conversations well.  It will do wonders to strengthen you capabilities and capacity as a leader.
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.
James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris, Don’t Let Your Brain’s Defense Mechanisms Thwart Effective Feedback, Harvard Business Review, August 18, 2016
Sabina Nawaz, Silence the Critical Voices in Your Head, Harvard Business Review, December 2016.
Eric Barker, I Know These Voices Aren’t Real but they have some great ideas, Barking Up The Wrong Tree blog, March 26, 2017.