Managing Your Self-Talk
Self-talk is not often covered as a leadership topic, but Erika Andersen cites it as one of the most important skills to master.
Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a firm that focuses on leader readiness. She’s the author of three other books: Leading So People Will Follow, Being Strategic, and Growing Great Employees. All of her books are full of actionable advice from her three decades of advising and coaching executives.
I recently spoke with her about her tips to manage our internal conversations.
Let’s talk about managing your self-talk. How important is managing self-talk?
Critically important. If I had to name the two most valuable skills I’ve learned over the past thirty years, I’d pick listening and managing my self-talk. It’s enormously powerful to be able to recognize and shift how you’re talking to yourself about yourself and your circumstances. It allows you to have much more control over how you respond to what happens within you and around you.
You give 4 steps to managing it: Recognize. Record. Rethink. Repeat.
Yes, here’s how it works:
Recognize: In order to manage your self-talk, you have to “hear” it. Unless you’re aware of this internal monologue, it’s impossible to change it. For instance, let’s say you’re feeling incurious about something you need to learn. You notice your mental voice saying, This is so boring – I can’t possibly focus on this enough to learn it. Once you start attending to the voice in your head, and recognizing what it’s saying, you can begin to do something about it.
Record: Writing down your self-talk is a key part of managing it, particularly if it’s something you’ve said to yourself repeatedly over a long period of time (most of us have a few of these unhelpful “mental tape loops”). When you see it written down, your internal monologue feels less like an intrinsic part of you, and you can start to see it for what it is. Let’s say you write down the self-talk statement above: This is so boring – I can’t possibly focus on this enough to learn it. Having written it down, you might immediately see it as limiting and inaccurate – and to believe it less. You’ll also be better able see how it’s affecting you: making you more likely to abandon your goals because you feel cynical or hopeless about the possibility of learning what you need.
Revise: After you’ve recorded inaccurate, unsupportive self-talk, you can decide how to “rethink” it. This step is the core of the process. You want to create alternative self-talk that you’ll believe and that will lead to a more useful response. For instance, if you try to substitute self-talk that’s falsely positive, like, I love this topic – it’s so fascinating, you simply won’t believe it; you’ll just revert back to your original negative self-talk. Decide what you could say to yourself instead that’s believable and that would support your learning. How about something like, I wonder what aspect of this could be interesting? Maybe I can talk to someone who likes it and find out why.
Repeat: Like any habit, managing your self-talk requires repetition. Substituting more hopeful and accurate self-talk for your negative self-talk will be helpful the very first time you do it – AND you’ll need to consciously do it again the next time the voice in your head comes up with a similarly negative statement. And again. This is a process for creating new habits of thought. Whenever you find yourself falling into a pattern of unhelpful self-talk – either overly negative or overly positive – consciously substitute revised, more realistic and accurate self-talk.
As you work with leaders to re-invent their self-talk, what have you noticed?
Once people believe it’s possible, see the benefit, and get the hang of doing it, they’re invariably surprised at how much difference it makes in their lives. I’ve had many people tell me they’ve shifted lifelong mental patterns: being distrustful, making unwarranted negative judgments about people and situations, and holding limiting beliefs about themselves or their capabilities.
And I observe those folks are then much better able to lead: they are mentally and emotionally available to become followable leaders and high-payoff learners who can thrive through change – and support their people to do that, too.