Monday Mornings with Madison

Self-Talk Your Way to Success

The schoolyard saying that “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me” is untrue.  Words can do damage.  Criticism hurts.  Disapproving remarks and belittling comments can injure a person’s sense of self worth.  Ironically, this is often most true of the talk coming from within.  Every person has inner monologues with themselves.  Psychologists commonly refer to this as self-talk, and there are different kinds of self-talk.  Among other things, through self-talk we provide ourselves with instructions, opinions and evaluations on what we are doing as we are doing it.

We all self-talk, but sometimes that internal talk can be very harsh and unforgiving.  Perhaps too often, we make ourselves the bulls-eye of our own condemnation, which is a pretty easy target.  We flog ourselves for our own missteps and bad choices.  We rub our own noses in our mistakes.  That inner voice can be the most brutal heckler of all, and those negative internal words can actually be detrimental.   Indeed, psychologists are finding that a person’s inner voice is actually quite powerful… even more than external voices.  When we allow negative self-talk, we tear down our own self esteem.  This has been found to have a very real impact on our future actions and success.  However, when that inner voice is positive and affirming, then it can be an equally powerful motivator and coach.  In fact, research is showing that deliberately engaging the inner voice in positive affirmations can help one change one’s own behavior, learn new skills and achieve success.  So how does it work?  And why?

Your Inner Voice

If self-talk sounds like a lot of new-age nonsense, think again.  Researchers have found that self talk is very powerful in affecting how we think and act.  This was found to be true even in thoughts and behavior related to work and success.  For example, Steven Rogelberg, a professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and his colleagues did a study investigating the impact of self-talk among effective and ineffective managers. They defined effective managers as those who showed strong leadership skills and creativity.  The experimental task involved having 189 senior executive managers write letters to themselves about their plans and accomplishments. The data from this study thus consisted of written examples of self-talk that could then be rated.  Raters evaluated the extent to which the language used by the senior executive managers exemplified constructive or dysfunctional self-talk.  Raters also evaluated the extent to which the letters reflected creativity, originality, and leadership skills.

Those letters rated high in constructive self-talk included statements that fit the criteria of being insightful, thoughtfully constructed, self-reflective, and motivational in nature.  The constructive self-talkers saw themselves as capable of achieving their desired goals.  For example, one statement of constructive self-talk said: “You are good at what you do, so you are going to start giving yourself credit—publicly. And the next time someone compliments you on something, do not brush them off before they finish with a quick ‘thank-you’—take it all in.”

Raters judged the language used in dysfunctional self-talk as indicating that the manager tended to shy away from challenges instead of facing them, focused on the negative aspects of challenging situations rather than on their positive aspects, and had a pessimistic attitude toward change of any kind.  An example of dysfunctional self talk said: “And how’s the mess at the office? Still cancelling appointments or showing up in wrong meetings? Hope you can handle your schedule a little better now…”

The ways that the managers ended their letters to themselves was also indicative of their self-talk. The constructive self-talkers concluded on a positive and encouraging note, expressing confidence in their ability to succeed. Letters ending with dysfunctional self-talk concluded with doom and gloom predictions that the manager would never be able to achieve his goals.

So what was the outcome?  No surprise.  On average, scores were higher on the constructive self-talk scale, probably a reflection of the fact that these were managers who had achieved a degree of success in their careers.  But the real question was how the scores related to measures of the managers’ actual effectiveness.  In correlating the scores on their self-talk measure with indices for leadership, creativity/originality, and perceptions of job strain, Rogelberg found that the constructive self-talkers ranked higher for the desirable qualities.  The study concluded that when it comes to work-related outcomes, what a leader says to him / herself is relevant.

Shaping Our Self Image

There are also studies that have proven that self-talk influences how we ‘see’ ourselves in our mind’s eye and that one’s self image actually also affects behavior.  For example, one study dating back to the turn of the 20th century – at a time when oversized hats were the fashion for women – showed that women that had a self image of wearing very wide and tall hats would duck and turn sideways when entering a room… even when they weren’t wearing a hat.  For these women, their mental self was wearing a hat and behaved that way even when their physical self wasn’t.  That self image was affecting their behavior.

Currently, psychologists are looking at how self talk can be used to influence one’s self image, behavior and help one solve one’s own problems.  For example, Ethan Kross, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, is looking at which pronouns people use when they use encouraging self talk.  He found that shifting from saying “I” to saying one’s own name during self talk can have a really powerful self-regulatory and empowering effect.  Instead of saying “I am going to do well in this presentation,” it is better to self talk as if speaking to a third person.  For instance, Dr. Kross might say to himself “Ethan is going to give an excellent presentation today” instead of saying “I am going to give an excellent presentation today.”  By speaking to himself in the third person, it is shown to be more effective.   If Dr. Kross were anxious before a meeting, it would be more effective for him to internally ask himself “Why is Ethan anxious about this meeting?” than to ask “Why am I anxious about this meeting?”

Why is that?  Psychologists don’t really understand yet why self-talk in the third person is less threatening and more empowering.  It might be that speaking in the third person seems to create some distance between oneself and one’s self talk.  Or perhaps the empathy used in speaking to others is sparked when self-talking in the third person?  No one knows for sure, but it seems to work.

Learning and Improving Through Self-Talk

Instructional self-talk can also be used help learn a difficult task and later improve when performing that task.  Most athletes know this and use it to their advantage.

Consider the act of learning how to hit a golf ball.  A person might internally talk through the steps of how to hold the club, where to stand, how to stand, how to position the body in order to swing, and how to carry the swing through.  At each hole, the person might internally go over each step while doing it. Over time, of course, self-instruction becomes unnecessary.

During the learning process, self-talk helps in three important ways.

  1. Self-talk enhances attention, focusing us on the important elements of the task and screening out distractions.
  2. Self-talk helps one regulate effort and make decisions about what to do, how to do it, and when.
  3. Self-talk allows one to control cognitive and emotional reactions, serving as steadying force to help stay on task.

In fact, in a study done by Athanasios Kolovelonis and his colleagues at the University of Thessaly in Greece, self-talk was found to be most effective when incorporated into a cycle of thought and action. The first stage was forethought.  That involved setting a self goal and making a plan for how to get there. The second stage was performance.  That involved enacting the plan to the best of one’s ability.  The third stage was self-reflection.  Carefully evaluating one’s performance and adjust one’s plan for the next time.

Utilizing self-talk to help affirm, learn, reinforce and empower positive thinking and behavior is a tool that every executive can use to be more successful.  Unlike life coaches, self-talk costs nothing and is always available.  Just be sure to keep that inner voice from saying negative things that undermine and damage.

Quote of the Week

“The most influential and frequent voice you hear is your inner-voice. It can work in your favor or against you, depending on what you listen to and act upon.” Maddy Malhotra


© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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