Coaching: That voice in your head

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:39 pm

One of my coaching clients, who is in charge of an organization, is loaded with competencies and intelligence.

However, it didn’t take long to see that one way he was making life harder for himself was his use of tentative language. He sprinkled these phrases through conversation: “I’m going to try to (do something),”  “kind of,”  “maybe,”  “if you want to,”  “I might,”  “we could,”…etc.

He wasn’t even aware of this pattern in his speech. Once I reflected it back to him, he soon discovered that it was attached to a fear of sounding aggressive. Instead of landing in the middle ground of assertive communication, he had edged into language that came across as passive. And it had become habitual.

Quickly he replaced those habits and began speaking his truth undiluted, respectful to himself and others. As an added bonus, more energy came through in his conversation after that change because he was speaking his truth instead of worrying about sounding nice.

We all use phrases such as these, often appropriately and effectively, I’m sure. In his case, it was the frequency with which he talked in this vein, this mode of hedging a little on many of his statements — that was getting in the way of building the client relationships he desired. As a coach, I knew that what was coming out of his mouth frequently was going on in his head many times more. That’s unhealthy because self-talk has so much power to build or erode our self-confidence. Self-talk, that chatter we hear all day is like our own private hypnotist who lurks below awareness — but not beneath influencing our beliefs, our actions and how we speak out loud.

Those messages become grooved. I don’t now how many times you have to “think” the same words before they nestle into a groove in your brain. We’ve all heard many theories, such as, “Do something 26 times and it becomes a habit.” When I’m encouraging clients to ratchet up their self-care (which is often), I tell them to do the new behavior — like exercising daily – 100 times, and it will become habitual. They also begin by then to experience the benefits, and that helps establish the new habit too.

One challenge attached to developing new mental habits is that the old ones sometimes have been playing in our heads, over and over again, since we were kids. That’s why they’re so sneaky and imbedded. That’s why we need to repeat the new and true words, silently and aloud, over and over again, until they outweigh the old ones.

Owners of small business organizations can fall into unhealthy and habitual thinking —which turns into unhealthy speaking and is usually counterproductive. This habit can also be contagious. Business owners meeting around a breakfast table or even in organized CEO forums can deepen their stress by repeating to each other some unhealthy mantras, such as:

• “I can’t find employees who give a rip about doing their jobs right!”

• “Who can turn a profit with health insurance costs skyrocketing?”

• “Do I have to do everything myself?”

• “Another day another dollar.”

• “Wish I could go to the Caymans like my employees did!”

• “No matter what I do for them, it’s never enough!”

• “Everyone’s out to get the small business owner.”

Heads nod, and the grooves where these words lurk become deeper and slicker. Some business owners talk like this at home as well. Then they wonder why their kids choose not to come into the family business.

Of course, we can, as rational adults, decide to take charge of habitual behavior. Habits can make life much more efficient. If we choose to repeat a desired behavior until it is grooved, we can free up a lot of energy and reduce frustration. (When will my golf swing, the one I want that is, become grooved? Sigh.) My Tai Chi instructor said it takes 10 years to move out of beginner status in that marshal art.

Begin by tuning into the self-talk that now occupies your mind — and probably sneaks into your speech as well. Is it in alignment with your true beliefs about yourself, your work, your world views? What habits of thought and language are counterproductive to your goals? Which ones drain your energy?

Then, what is your truth? What would you like your private hypnotist to be spreading through your brain — and your psyche? How are your mental habits diluting or corroding the messages you give others?

If you uncover areas you want to change, you might have to even write down the self-talk that you want to use to replace the garbage talk. You will have to do some deliberate repetitions of those words until they become habitual. The change will not happen all at once. Most learning is zigzag, just like we learn to walk. The new behavior will work better and that will help the habit develop. Walking has a lot going for it over crawling, after all.

Someone said that the chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken. Makes sense to me, and I wish you luck and fun if you decide to expose your own mental habits to the light.

Jo Hawkins Donovan has a coaching and psychotherapy firm in Whitefish Bay.
She can be reached at (414) 332-0300 or at The firm’s Web site is

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