A Coaching Power Tool Created by Michael Colson
(Executive Coach, SWITZERLAND)
Virtually everyone has moments of negative self-talk. Those occasions when we say to ourselves such things as, “None of your ideas are original,” “Your past ventures haven’t worked so there’s no reason to think this one will,” or “Not everyone can succeed, so chances are you won’t either.”
Many people manage to push past such self-sabotaging behavior, but some are so keenly attuned to their negative self-talk, finding it both pervasive and persuasive, that they avoid risks and action, block their own progress, and live with a status quo that is dissatisfying. These outcomes further reinforce the message of the negative self-talk, creating a vicious cycle.
Coaching can help clients move past their negative self-talk. First, by helping the client identify the negative self-talk, and then, through using the techniques of this power tool, to help overcome the self-talk.
Some clients will succeed using only one technique from the power tool, others will need to employ several techniques. But all are designed to weaken the hold of negative self-talk, allow the client to replace it with positive self-talk, and then move to action that will enable the client to reach their goal or goals.
As a precursor to using the power tool, clients need to be aware of their negative self-talk. The role of the coach is to listen attentively to the client’s analysis of why they are in a certain situation, why past situations have not succeeded, why they are unwilling to undertake new activities, or why they estimate that new action will not lead to the desired outcome. The coach then mirrors back to the client what they are saying, questioning the client as to what self-talk is underlying the client’s beliefs.
As the client becomes increasingly aware of their self-talk, a sense of gentle humor on the coach’s part can go a long way to changing the client’s perspective, since frequently negative self-talk is divorced from the reality of the client’s experience. By humorously asking the client to express their self-talk out loud, and allowing it to sit in the open, the mismatch between negative self-talk and reality can become more evident.
Once the client is aware of their negative self-talk, the coach can then employ one or several of the following exercises to help the client replace the negative self-talk with more positive and supportive internal dialogue.
Speak to yourself as if you are speaking to your best friend.
Invite your client to imagine that their best friend faces the same situation, challenge, or opportunity that the client is facing. Then ask the client what they would say to their best friend.
Incredibly, the discourse of the client will almost always shift dramatically. For example, from negative self-talk such as, “You really don’t know how to handle your boss,” the client, when speaking to their “friend,” will shift to, “Your boss is a difficult person to work with, and you’re really doing your best, so give yourself a break and take small steps.”
After a few examples, the client will often realize the level of negativity of their self-talk; the gulf between the way they speak to themselves and their friends; and the way that the same situation can be approached from a significantly different perspective depending on the type of self-talk taking place.
Give yourself permission to flip to positive self-talk.
Clients may need encouragement and practice to use positive self-talk. Often, negative self-talk is deeply ingrained, sometimes stretching back to childhood. It may therefore seem unnatural to the client to hear positive self-talk.
In addition to frequently returning to the question, “What would you tell your best friend in this situation?” the coach can ask their client questions such as:
- What would someone who uses positive self-talk tell themselves in this situation?
- How would you view this situation if you spoke to yourself as positively as you know how?
- What would you do differently if your self-talk was totally positive?
Clients may need to form the habit of engaging in positive self-talk, and the coach can assist them by consistently encouraging them to shift their self-talk and reinforce the validity of having a positive perspective.1
Challenge the “facts” that allegedly support the negative self-talk.
In some clients, negative self-talk is so deeply ingrained that their rational mind starts providing “facts” that reinforce the message of the negative self-talk. The coach can help the client by:
- Asking the client to identify facts that can support positive self-talk or a positive outcome. This will help the client validate – and thereby give more credence to – the positive self-talk.
- Asking the client to find counter-arguments that weaken or dismiss the “facts” that support the negative self-talk. This will help the client rob the negative self-talk of some of its power if the “factual” basis for the negative self-talk can be disproven or weakened.
- Invite the client to think aspirationally and create an image in their mind of an ideal outcome to the situation that is so compelling, so positive, that they are ready to proceed despite the negative self-talk. Thus, the client transforms the “facts” underlying the negative self-talk from game-stoppers into challenges to be overcome.
Take one step of action towards the outcome that positive self-talk envisages.
Negative self-talk usually emerges when a client is contemplating some type of action. In giving power to their negative self-talk, the client either avoids action or acts in a way almost certain to undermine a successful result (e.g. by signaling self-doubt, by procrastinating, etc.), To diminish the hold of negative self-talk, invite the client to take just one action that is aligned with positive self-talk, and to do so as if they fully believe the positive self-talk. Action creates its own momentum, and by having the client experience action aligned with positive self-talk, they can conclude that positive self-talk offers a valid and positive alternative to negative self-talk.
The language we use with ourselves has a profound impact on the way we live our lives. Because negative self-talk is so deeply ingrained, many of us may not even be aware of what we are saying to ourselves, its importance to forming our underlying beliefs, and its impact. As coaches, we are skilled at deeply listening to not only what our clients say, but what they don’t say, that is, to what is lying below the surface. Through our questioning, mirroring, and the trust that we create, we can help clients gain awareness of their negative self-talk, and then offer strategies to counter that. By assisting clients as they change their self-talk, we can empower clients to take a dramatically different, and positive, course in their life. And what better result could a coach hope for?
References and Acknowledgments
1 As one of the leading thinkers on positive psychology, Martin Seligman, has written, “One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think” (Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman
I would like to thank my coach, Shruti Sridhar, ACC, who provided invaluable support and intellectual companionship as I developed this power tool.