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Neuroscience – Managing Self-Talk

| September 6, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Earlier this summer we introduced the idea (in a series of Tuesday Readings, as referenced below) that if we understand how our brain works, we can better understand why we react the way we do.  I wrote, then, that the individual’s brain, in the days of our early ancestors, had one key goal – survival, avoiding threats and seeking food (rewards).  And, avoiding threats had a much higher priority with five times more neural networks devoted to threat detection than to identifying rewards. 

Today, this same neural circuitry that continues to look for physical threats and rewards, also looks for social threats and rewards that occur in the workplace and elsewhere as we go about our lives.  This obviously is very useful when either the physical or social threat is real.  However, we often perceive more danger than there really is and this can have a significant impact on our lives.
Some of the social threats and rewards we experience as we go about our day come from the way we interact with those around us.  John, a peer on my team, ignored my suggestion for a system change.  And, I feel unappreciated.  Susan, who usually smiles when I see her, frowned when we crossed paths in the hallway.  What did I do wrong, now?  Sam really appreciated my support in the meeting.  That really felt good.  Maybe, you did something embarrassing like showing up at an important one-on-one late because you didn’t leave your office in time  Dumb!  Really stupid!  Images, and the feelings associated with them, stream through our brains continually.
Susan Whitbourne points out that we hold internal conversations more or less continuously as we go through our day and, sometimes, our night.  Psychologists call an important part of these conversations “self-talk,” where you provide evaluations and opinions about what you are doing, more or less as you are doing it.  Whitbourne suggests that you can think of self-talk as an inner voice somewhat like a sports announcer’s commentary of a player’s successes or failures on the field.  And, we can replay the “tape” over and over and over again.
Detert and Burris note how easy it is for us to psych ourselves out and hear our responses in a conversation with a peer or manager as negative.  Or, how easy it is to feel attacked when we receive constructive feedback whether or not the feedback is offensive, defensive, or angry.  Since we almost never test our reactions for accuracy, our “self-talk” very often takes us to places that are not useful.  Our threat detectors make us feel safer in the short-run but can undermine our longer-term goals.  Thus, it can become extremely difficult for two parties to have open, honest conversations that allow for learning while leaving everyone psychologically safe.
Here are four common forms of psychological traps, that Detert and Burris provide, along with approaches that an individual can use to reframe their initial, automatic thoughts.  Among other things, this will permit individuals to become much better at giving and receiving feedback productively:
1.  All or nothing thinking.  Seeing things as black or white, bad or good.
Example of distortion:  A manager, usually good at receiving input, frustrated her employees by asking for more and more research and data before taking the ideas forward.  The idea of taking them forward left her paralyzed by self-talk like “If it isn’t perfect, I’ll look like an idiot” or “If we’re wrong, our careers here are over.”
An alternate interpretation:  Given that most ideas are not perfect even with more data and rethinking, it is usually better once the idea is well formed to move forward rather than continue to seek more and more data and analysis.  To break the paralysis, the manager needs to think “If this doesn’t go well, we’ll act rapidly to address the issues” or “If we’re wrong, it will be disappointing, and we will have learned a lot.”  
This represents a change in mindset from a belief that we have to get it perfect the first time or be complete failures, to one more focused on learning and improving.
2.  Overgeneralization.  Taking a single negative event as an overall, enduring pattern.
Example of distortion:  An employee gave his manager feedback he had requested on a proposal.  The boss reacted defensively and the employee became flustered and failed to calmly and convincingly explain the logic behind her comments.  The self-talk afterwards was “I screwed up, just like I always do” and “I’ll certainly not go out on a limb next time.”
An alternate interpretation:  If he had taken the time to think about times when he had been successful in giving feedback, he would likely have concluded “I blew that one, but my overall record is good.”  Using words like “never” and “always” need to be banned from our self-talk.  They most always are over exaggerations.
3.  Catastrophizing.  Negatively exaggerating the size, scope, or importance of an event, thought, or feeling.
Example of distortion:  When asked to speak openly about a matter, the immediate self-talk was “I’m not going to loose my job by telling the truth!”
An alternative interpretation:  On checking, no one knew of people being fired.  So, the initial fear might be reframed “If I speak up and it does go badly, I’ll be uncomfortable but will get over it”  or “Telling the truth might make my manager angry but he’s not likely to seek revenge.”
4.  Emotional reasoning.  Concluding something is true because it’s what you feel in the moment.
Example of distortion:  An individual, new to the organization, who had successfully led many projects elsewhere, now felt unappreciated and unnoticed for the recommendations he was making in meetings.  His self-talk was:  “They want me to shut-up, I threaten them.”  “They don’t appreciate what I bring to the table.”
An alternative interpretation:  Everyone was busy and focused on their own ideas.  They looked forward to working collaboratively with him.  His self-talk might have been reframed to “I’m used to a different reaction but as I get to know everyone better they will come to appreciate me and my work more.”  “I need to ask questions to see how they are evaluating my work.”
So, when you catch yourself in the middle of a stream of negative self-talk, stop, take a couple of deep breaths, and reevaluate your assumptions.  Most likely, you’ll need to push the “reset” button on your thoughts and feelings to gain the perspective necessary to see your colleague’s intentions and actions for what they really are.
I trust that you had a wonderful holiday weekend.  Now, go make this the great week that it can be.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO and Vice President for Information Systems, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

Tuesday Reading, Neuroscience and Change – Part 1, July 19,2016
Tuesday Reading, Neuroscience and Change – Part 2, July 26, 2016
Tuesday Reading, Neuroscience and Change – Part 3, August 2, 2016
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Make Your Self-Talk Work for You, Psychology Today, September 10, 2013
James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris, Don’t Let Your Brain’s Defense Mechanisms Thwart Effective Feedback, Harvard Business Review, August 18, 2016