Ten years ago, when I began working with clients to solve their productivity issues, I didn’t imagine how much attention I would end up paying to the latest research in psychology. I came prepared with insights on running a business, I read organizing books, consulted the best time management gurus, taught classes at the Small Business Administration and International Coach Federation. But as I work with clients I find myself latching onto speakers and thinkers in the field of psychology, because often what ails my clients is connected to faulty habits of thinking and self-talk.
Here’s an example of unexamined expectations: a client says, I know that in order to have my own business, I ought to… (fill in the blank.) And my question is, “supposed to” according to whom? Who made up this rule that guides how you are building and running your business? So a business owner may have heard, the customer is always right! and from that they conclude things such as I must do my client’s work before I do my own, and if a client asks for something, I must provide it, and when I’m just starting out, I’ll take any job because I can’t be choosy.
I counsel clients to be very careful whenever they hear the words should, ought, or must (and all their cousins) coming out of their mouth. Should usually came from someone other than ourselves. The most helpful response is to ask, according to whom should I do this? When you can answer that, ask, did this person ever accomplish what I’m trying to accomplish? The answer is usually no. Even if my grandfather built a successful company, he may have worked 60-hour weeks for 45 years, never seeing his family, and that’s not what I’m trying to do.
Instead of talking about what you should do, try substituting the words I want or I would like. Rather than, I should make 10 sales calls every day, try, I would like to make 10 sales calls every day. Then ask, is that true? Is it true for you, right now? Will it get you where you want to go? If the answer is no, it’s not what you want and it won’t get you where you’re going, then change it until you find the statement that’s true for YOU right now.
Self-talk can be even sneakier. Professor of Social Work Brené Brown has succeeded in raising awareness of the research in this area, and the bottom line is, negative, shaming self-talk is highly correlated with addiction, depression, and a bunch of other rotten outcomes. It works like this: suppose you stay up waaay too late playing video poker, oversleep, and miss an appointment. The destructive self-talk goes something like, I am such a loser, what an idiot! This kind of butt-kicking doesn’t serve the business owner very well, and it doesn’t serve our clients, either. It leaves us feeling ashamed and powerless, as though there is something fundamentally wrong with us. Why bother to work at something that is intrinsic to YOU? The leopard can’t change his spots, right? And you can’t change being a loser.
The good news is, we can change our self-talk. The constructive way to respond is to give yourself messages about what you did — that was a really stupid thing to do (true!) — and consider how to change in the future — how can I make amends, and make sure that never happens again? This allows us to become always better, and to know that while we may sometimes do or say things we’re not proud of, that we have the power to address it. We are still worthy people, even when our actions fall somewhere on the bone-headed or scummy scale.
Words have power. They can help make life sweet, and they can be wounding and painful. Stay conscious about the words you use. Whenever you say I am or I should, give extra scrutiny to whatever follows. Make sure your words are true and helpful, with the power to build you up.