Self Talk: Common Sense is not Always Common Practice

Written by Dr. Ben Sorensen, Vice President at Optimum Associates
April 19, 2016

self-talkAs we are stretched more and more in our personal and professional lives, any small improvement in our productivity can have significant payoffs. Many recent academic studies provide empirical evidence that improvements in our emotional state are highly correlated with increased performance and productivity. Studies demonstrate that some of the most impressive evidence for brain plasticity is in emotional learning.  In effect, with proper training, an individual can rewire and reshape the emotional circuitry of their brain to maximize emotional performance. Based on leading research, and our own experience in working with thousands of executives around the world for over 30 years, it is clear that there is a direct correlation between job performance and the management of emotions.

One of the most proven strategies to increase awareness and adjust our emotional state is through Self-Talk, which is your inner dialogue. We generally speak at a rate of 130 words per minute while cognitive research indicates our inner dialogue is between 600-800 words per minute. Research shows that our self-talk has a tremendous impact on our emotional state. In fact, the majority of time our emotional state is the direct result of our self-talk. In turn, our emotional state shapes our productivity. The most valuable emotions which lead to higher productivity are happiness, confidence, and enthusiasm -while the least helpful emotions are anxiety, frustration and fear. Exhibiting either grouping of these emotions can have a profound effect on our behavior and our cognitive functioning. These emotions not only affect how we feel internally, but are also how we make decisions. Thus if we could more effectively manage and create an awareness of our self-talk we could shape our emotions and improve our productivity.

Replacing negative with positive self-talk can also help you live longer. A recent University of Wisconsin study shows that what your self-talk is in reaction to stress determines your physiological response to stress. Negative self-talk generally increases feelings of stress which has the psychological effect of narrowing arteries and capillaries which can have a negative impact on your cardiac health. Alternatively, those whose self-talk in stressful situations focuses on how to excel in a difficult situation using self-talk such as "this is a challenge that I can overcome" or "how can I leverage my experience and key teammates to address this situation?" had little to no negative impact on cardiac health.

While the concept of Self-Talk and its importance has been around for years and written about extensively, my colleagues at Optimum Associates and I continue to witness examples where leaders are not aware of their self-talk and completely miss an obvious and impactful way to improve their emotional state and performance.

Case Study

I recently coached a senior executive in the financial services industry, named Jim. As part of our coaching engagement, I interviewed many of Jim's supervisors, peers and direct reports in order to obtain feedback and to better understand his challenges and development opportunities. The feedback from Jim's supervisors and peers was that he was abrasive and defensive, especially when criticized. Additionally, a common theme from Jim's team was that they did not feel he was responsive to their ideas, and felt they were not empowered to find creative solutions. When I asked team members for specific examples around Jim's lack of responsiveness they shared that he regularly did not respond to emails. I brought this up to Jim and he said that he often would not immediately respond because he would say to himself that if he was "beholden to the mailbox what am I going to get done?" Additionally, he regularly said to himself "if it is an emergency someone will come to me directly rather than email." As we dug into his preferences for communication, Jim shared his preference for face-to-face communication as opposed to email and phone conversations. Through our discussion Jim soon realized he was imposing his own communication bias of preferring in person communication and disliking email communication upon his team. This lack of adapting to the team was leading to frustration among team members. With this awareness we worked to adapt Jim's self-talk by changing it to "some people want to get things done via email. I prefer face to face communication but I can adapt to their preference for the majority of issues." This led to an immediate improvement in Jim's responsiveness and to dramatic improvements in the team's trust in him.

Later in our coaching engagement we began to address his abrasiveness and defensiveness which would especially surface when he was criticized. Jim explained that he often said to himself, "If I don't do this right it is going to cost me my job." This led to Jim being increasingly defensive, and feeling high levels of anxiety and fear for his job. We discussed how this self-talk was not in fact rational in the sense that most mistakes would not cost him his job. Thus if he could lower his anxiety levels he would likely not only be more receptive to feedback but also more able to find creative solutions to problems. This led Jim to shift his self-talk from "I could lose my job," to "What is the worst thing that could happen if I try this and it doesn't work?" This shift in self-talk led to dramatic improvements in his creativity, as well his overall perception of effectiveness rose and communication improved dramatically. 

What Should You Do?

In order to truly leverage self-talk, here are three steps.

  1. Be aware of your self-talk. As we constantly respond internally to external stimuli, monitor how your react to different situations and at different times of the day.
  2. Identify patterns. What situations tend to trigger negative self-talk for you? Is it when you are surprised with a short deadline or receiving some undeserved criticism? What is your self-talk when you are doing well?
  3. Adjust your self-talk so that you do not stay stuck in an unhelpful and emotional state. Recently I was working with a very successful real estate developer. In discussing his work he shared that on average one out of every ten sales calls he makes results in a sale (and 9 don't!). Interested in his self-talk, I asked how he responds internally on the seventh straight "no" if that happens. He said "I say to myself I am three 'no's' away from a 'yes'." Not only does this self-talk engender the positive emotion of confidence but research shows that this type of self-talk increases the likelihood of identifying creative solutions to problems and analyzing long-term risk more objectively.
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