3 Steps to Silence Your Inner Critic

inner critic

Let’s be honest. Ever since you were a baby, there’s been a little voice inside your head offering advice, encouragement, and justification for your actions. That same voice can also be a tough inner critic, offering judgments, doubt, and discouragement.  The dialogue in your head is called “self-talk”. It’s a normal mental process that occurs  every waking moment for all 7.4 billion people on our intimate planet.

Performance anxiety in musicians and actors , often called stage fright, happens when their inner monologue has convinced them that failure is imminent. Even mega stars like  Adele struggle with stage fright. Negative self-talk isn’t just in their minds: Fredrikson & Gunnersson (1992) documented real physical impacts from stage fright, including changes in heart rate, adrenaline, visual acuity, and dry mouth.

Professional athletes use positive self-talk to stay at the top of their game. When their thoughts go negative, like “I can’t make this putt” or “I always miss these outside shots”, their performance falls.  Van Raalte, Brewer, et al (1994) studied 24 junior tennis players and concluded that negative self-talk was associated with losing. Conversely, players using positive self-talk won more points than players who did not.  Furthermore, athletic success came from “motivational self-talk”, not “instructional self-talk” used to improve technique.

Positive self-talk is very powerful, as it builds our self-esteem, confidence, and convictions. Negative self-talk is also very powerful, building a lack of confidence, low self-esteem, even depression. The good news is that most people can learn how to turn their self-talk into a positive inner coach.

I’ll offer three easy steps to improve your self-talk:

  1. Record: Become more aware of your self-talk
  2. Restate: Fix your persistent negative themes
  3. Reprogram: Change your self-talk to a more healthy voice

How do you record your self-talk?  Just listen to your inner voice, especially in those moments before you take action.  Consider using a “thought record” and write down the situation, what you are feeling, and what you are thinking.  Look for any evidence of  “crooked thinking” (e.g. catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, exaggerating, predicting the future, black and white thinking, personalizing).

Now it’s time to restate the words that are beating you down. Review your thought list to identify persistent negative themes. Look for repeated crooked thinking. Consider whether your self-talk is tied to specific situations.  The goal is to identify just one or two repeating negative themes that you can tackle and be successful.

How do you reprogram your self-talk?  The moment you realize that unhealthy self-talk has crept in from a dark place in your mind, flip the light switch on and play a new healthy restatement back in your head (even out-loud if you can). Let me offer a few examples:

If negative Self-Talk says… Reprogram using Positive Self-Talk…
I’ll never do this right.I always do this right.
I always fail at this.I always succeed at this.
I’m no good at this.I’m better than this.
That’s just like me (when you do something poorly).That’s not like me (when you do something poorly).
That’s not like me (when you do something well).That’s just like me (when you do something well).

Silencing your inner critic by managing positive self-talk is just one technique used in a much broader area of psychology. Cognitive therapy is a treatment approach that helps people to recognize and reexamine their own thoughts so that they can reduce their negative thinking.  As you use the techniques, you can get so good at it that even your family, friends, and co-workers will notice a new, positive, more optimistic you.

Is that inner critic all bad? The answer is no. That inner dialogue might be holding you back when you really aren’t prepared to meet a challenge. Your self talk needs to provide a healthy balance between positive and cautious insight.  Too much positive talk can lead to an inflated ego and no filter on what comes out of one’s mouth.  Becoming more aware of your self-talk, and managing it to find a healthy, positive balance is the key.


The relationship between observable self-talk and competitive junior tennis players’ match performances. Van Raalte, Judy L.; Brewer, Britton W.; Rivera, Patricia M.; Petitpas, Albert J. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, Vol 16(4), Dec 1994, 400-415

How Decluttering Changed My Life

declutteringOver the past 35 years I’ve moved my family from a 1400 sq. ft. home to a 3000 sq. ft. home and then to a 4000 sq. ft. home. During that time we started as a couple, added four kids, and launched them from our nest. Because each house was bigger, decluttering our “stuff” was never an issue. Now we are selling our house in Sugar Land (tour the house here) and moving to the Dallas – Fort Worth area to be closer to our kids and first grandbaby.

How do I let go of 35 years’ worth of accumulated memories, mementos, and stuff?  My first approach was similar what many executives do: talk about the challenges in hopes that someone else would fix it. That cost me a month.

So I used a few methods from my consulting toolkit and came up with a new approach: briefly reflect about the failure of the first approach, and then create a vision, mission, and action steps for a new project called “Operation Declutter”. That cost me another month.

And then something amazing happened.


Goodwill Receipts

One evening I decided to invest 10 minutes and tackle one small section of my closet. I pulled some old dusty polo shirts off their hangers and put them in a plastic trash bag for Goodwill. That was fairly painless so I did another section, and two hours later my closet was transformed. I felt like a genius, and like a fool. I had avoided this simple task for months, dreading the effort, the personal decisions, and letting go.

Freshly energized, I dedicated every spare moment to decluttering the entire house. Raising four kids meant four bedrooms with closets stuffed with parts from a dozen video game systems, hundreds of VHS tapes, music CDs,  DVD and Blu-ray movies, board games, and more. After 3 months of effort, renting a  10 foot square storage space, and many trips to Goodwill, we finally got our house ready to sell.

Let me share 3 quick learnings about decluttering that changed my life for the good, and that may change your business for the good:

1. Decluttering requires active leadership.What is decluttering

No matter how elegantly and passionately I talked about a perfect world where every closet was empty and every garage had space to park cars, my wife simply wouldn’t jump into action. Her inability to read my mind and find the energy to do what I didn’t want to do is completely understandable.  What I learned was that by getting myself involved in the work, my wife was far more willing to face the challenge too. Together we accomplished a lot by decluttering our home, and we had fun doing it together.

What do I mean by ‘active leadership’? Recall that Peter F. Drucker said “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”  While the cute part is flipping those words around, don’t gloss over the word “doing”. Active leadership requires personal involvement to meet the needs of employees and customers (recall Robert K. Greenleaf’s servant as leader model). Actions really do speak louder than words (even when words come from well-meaning management).  Sometimes it’s better to be engaged than to motivate engagement.  “Lead by example” is worth remembering at home and at work.

2. Decluttering is a never-ending process.

While it’s true that decluttering your house every 10 years can be transformational, why not take time once a year (a.k.a. spring cleaning) and gain the benefits of decluttering all year long every year. The benefits of a cabinet in the garage filled with items that might be used sometime over the next decade can hide those go-to items that you really will need within a year or two.  The effort required to put those tools back in their proper place, rather than stacking them on the floor, can also go a long way to keeping things manageable.

In the workplace, why not declare a day of spring cleaning by brainstorming a list of bottlenecks or time-wasters? Focus some energy on how to rebuild the business process around an ideal approach and see just how close you can get. Consider building a work culture that seeks to simplify processes and procedures, and consider the positive impact you can make on customers and partners too. A little self-discipline every day will pay off all year long and allow you to avoid those ‘special projects’ to unravel a pile of complex ‘stuff’.

3. Decluttering promotes innovation.

My closet was crammed with so many shirts, pants, suits, and sweaters patiently hanging around to be worn that I couldn’t figure out which items were long out of style or too tight for me to wear.  After decluttering, every single article of clothing that hangs in my closet today fits me just fine, and I can quickly select the right attire for any occasion.  I can once again park my car in the garage, protected from the sun and rain.

Complexity at work is never a good thing. Once you strip down work processes and procedures to their bare bones, you may well discover new ways to dramatically reduce bottlenecks, accelerate product delivery, and improve the quality of services. If you want ideas on how to simply the workplace, view the 2013 TED video where Yves Morieux shares 6 rules to simply complex work.  When employees can brainstorm ways to declutter their jobs, not only are you creating streamlined processes, you are engaging employee and building a culture where organic change can thrive.

If you need help, I’m just a phone call away.

When Irrational Resistance Happens

Big AssumptionResistance to change is a common challenge in the business world, and you can search the internet for useful advice on how to manage change successfully. But what should you do when you’ve honored all of the classic guidance on managing change and people still passively or even actively resist? Sometimes resistance appears irrational or is unexplained (even to those who struggle to engage and move forward). This article provides guidance on managing “irrational” resistance to change.

When change happens, resistance happens too. If you have been responsible for introducing change in your organization (e.g. new technology, business process, culture change), then you likely can tell many stories about organizational resistance. You’ve learned that resistance is to be expected, and planning for resistance is part of your change management process. You’ve also learned that despite your best effort, resistance still happens, and can be managed with earlier engagement and better communication.  Blog 0001But at other times, resistance persists without explanation. Understanding what that is and why it happens is exactly why you should keep reading this blog article.

How do you respond to resistance? When you see, hear, or sense resistance, what goes through your mind, and what action do you take? Typically, most extraverted leaders move quickly towards defending the change, while introverted leaders defend their decision-making process for the change. However, the exceptional leader moves quickly into authentic, curious questions to understand the resistance, and then determines their response. Even more so, the exceptional leader appreciates some resistance, knowing that in the end, commitment and success are better.

Don’t let that last sentence slip past you too quickly. If you really want to test your authentic reaction to resistance, think for a moment about how you respond to your children when they misbehave. Do you view that poor behavior as defiance against you or your rules? Or do you view that resistance as their little hand raising up to say “I need your help in this area”?  When your child acts out, you’ve got a great idea of where you need to focus your effort in raising great kids. Blog 0002Exceptional parents seek to understand resistance and not just remove it; exceptional leaders also appreciate the value that resistance offers in improving change outcomes.

Can they logically explain their resistance? Let’s assume you have decided to investigate the resistance. If they can explain why they resist, follow these basic steps: Listen, Reflect, Plan, and Act. You may need to make adjustments to your change event because they raise a valid concern. You may need to communicate more, because they don’t have enough information. You may need to address emotions and innuendos stemming from FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) that rumbles through the organization. If the resistance is real, your response should be visible, clear, and measurable.

What about irrational (unexplained) resistance? In our research and consulting work, we’ve explored the phenomenon of resistance that remains ambiguous or undefined. We call this “irrational resistance” because, on the surface, there appears to be no logical explanation for the resistance. Managers are then forced into reacting to symptoms rather than solving the real cause of resistance. Why would someone resist change yet be unable to (or reluctant to) explain their resistance? How do you move them forward, or at prevent them from moving others forward?

Here’s what we’ve learned.  Sandy Piderit (2000) explored ambivalence as a form of resistance. When employees don’t comply with the change, or move very slowly such that delivery and benefits are impacted, the resistance may well be ambivalence. Her research indicates that most employees fall in this large but somewhat silent category. We have witnessed behaviors like anonymous comments in the suggestion box, slow response to training requests, delayed migration to a new technology system, a lack of enthusiasm or commitment to the change event – all are common signs of ambivalence.

Kegan and Lahey (2001) reveal another form of what appears superficially to be irrational performance – competing commitments.  When a project manager who publically states support for a change yet drags their feet, they may unknowingly be struggling with a buried conflict in values. That star performer who excels at teamwork may unpredictably withdraw from team activities required to move a project forward. Competing commitments are often beliefs held since childhood about how the world should work, what values should be honored above all others and what fears that must be avoided at all cost. Simply put, a competing commitment is a subconscious hidden goal that conflicts with a person’s stated commitments.

How should you manage irrational resistance? Blog 0003Kegan and Lahey suggests that the key is to undercover “the big assumption” – the personal worldview that interprets everything we see, leading occasionally to generating a competing commitment. They prefer a two or three hour one-on-one conversation that is probably best done by a psychologist. However, the also offer a four column paper exercise to guide a shorter conversation. In a nutshell, column one captures the statement about the genuinely held commitment. Column two identifies what is done that works against that commitment. Column three identifies the competing commitment that generates column two. And column four captures “the big assumption”.

I’ll offer a shorter version that may be more ‘organic’ as a part of your relationship building effort with others. Simply be authentic with the apparent resistor about what you routinely observe in their commitments (behavior) and then what you have recently observed that is different. Then share your own story of a competing commitment to explain the concept and to validate the importance of surfacing “the big assumption”. If your hunch is right, they will be able to identify their own competing commitment and their big assumption. If your hunch is wrong, chances are that you will still successfully label the resistance and know what you’re dealing with, making you one step closer to being an exceptional leader.

While we’re talking about it, what big assumption is holding you back? Please share your experience and lessons learned.