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Dan Phillips

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Personal development: The art of talking to yourself more positively at work

How to turn internal mind-chatter into positive action at work.

When work dilemmas make us uncomfortable, irritated or self-doubting, we often already have the answers buried inside ourselves. They’re often impossible to find, however, if we don’t know how to navigate our minds and keep the mind-chatter more positive than destructive. A good understanding of ‘self’ helps us deal more effectively with personal/professional dilemmas and conflict, as well as helping us to respond better to the demands of our environments. That means we perform better and achieve more for our teams.

Better self-talk relies on you being more honest about who you are, what you believe in and, especially under pressure, what you will and won’t tolerate.  

It’s always easier to advise other people who are under workplace pressure, mainly because we don’t have their self-limiting beliefs and we don’t see the obstacles they might be putting in their own way without realising. Conversely, we’re horribly familiar with our own sticking points when we meet a crisis. Unfortunately, we can’t always recognise our ‘mistakes’ without letting them deflate our ability to overcome them.

Becoming more self-aware

The key to stronger self-awareness and better self-talk is to work out how to (understand and) work WITH, not against, our default attitudes and knee-jerk responses, especially in less comfortable situations. Those attitudes are firmly embedded – our habits have formed over years and we tend to forget that we can challenge or change them. Even accepting them as ‘defaults’ rather than ‘truths’ may allow us some space to detach from them and objectively rate them as helpful or otherwise.

Only once we’ve worked ourselves out can we hope to effectively influence the behaviour, habits and attitudes of other team members. The more self-aware we become, and the more our internal dialogue, or self-talk, is attuned to this, the better able we are to adapt, connect and get the best from others. Being more acutely aware of our preferences and tendencies of behaviour – and how these compare, clash and/or match closely with the people we work alongside – is an incredibly helpful tool.

Hold up the mirror

What role does self-talk play for you and your team members? Better self-talk relies on you being more honest about who you are, what you believe in and, especially under pressure, what you will and won’t tolerate.  

The first step is taking a closer look at your values. Our values are our principles or standards of behaviour, i.e. our judgment of what is important in life. No one else will ever have quite the same combination as you or your respective colleagues. Accepting this, and knowing how to navigate the fact that we’re all different, is key to great collaboration at work. If you examine your total non-negotiables when forming new relationships or new working situations, they could be quite different from people you work closely with. Indeed, they can create behaviours that others may see as ‘difficult’ or ‘blocking’.

Those people see our behaviour ‘in the moment’ rather than the positive intention of values that drive them. We may therefore need to make our values more transparent to help others understand where we are coming from.

Challenge ingrained beliefs

Next, we need to understand that our perceptions form the basis of our beliefs, which form the very individual mental maps and paradigms that we operate within. We therefore have to be very deliberate about the self-talk and interpretation we apply to our personal and professional environments.

No one else will take control of what we tell ourselves about our motivations and behaviour at work.

Before reacting to a negative stimulant at work, it helps to stop and ask, ‘which internal dialogue is serving me well and what which is stopping me make progress?’ In other words, how are my perceptions and ingrained beliefs affecting how I process and deal with this situation at work? Is it the only way?


Let’s take a scenario to bring to life why self-awareness and more attuned self-talk are so important. Imagine you’re a workshop facilitator. You perceive that you’re seen as solely ‘responsible’ for the success of a facilitation session, e.g. ‘if they don’t learn anything, it’s my fault’.

Your values might tell you that you’re ‘at service’ to those clients and so you must ‘be perfect’ and ‘work hard’ to deserve your salary. Perhaps you need to recognise the rewards to your clients of challenging themselves to create their positive outcomes. You might also recognise that your values might be causing the session to revolve around your needs, not theirs. The more you ‘control’ the learning, the less they do. How does this fit, if your delegates have values of ‘self-learning and reflection’?

Solution: imagine you are tasked with guiding a fellow facilitator with the same self-talk as you. Position yourself as someone with a strong preference for self-guided learning and listen to what actions you offer.

From this, seek to create an environment conducive to learning itself, not just for learning the knowledge or content being taught.

Imagine also that your workshops are attended by people who like to interrogate or (as you might choose to see it, ‘test’) the facilitator.

Do you immediately think they perceive you as not knowing your stuff and could that make you defensive?

Reality: you’re probably getting these questions because people see you as someone with full knowledge and an ability to respond well. 

How to change the script

Here are three useful ways to think about bringing your better, truer self to work.

  1. What are my values? Be honest about your non-negotiables for you how you lead your life and expect others to behave. Allow people to see your values-led intentions as the context to your decisions and behaviour.
  2. Could I/should I sometimes come across differently? Seek to understand the impact of your personal style on those around you, especially people you need to collaborate well with to get the job done. Also, as the old saying goes, do unto others as you’d like to have done to yourself.
  3. How do I motivate myself? Learn to spot your regular self-talk habits when you’re faced with stress, difficult people or major decisions.

    Is your mind-chatter truly open to the opportunities created by having very different people around you, or are you limited by a few reliable coping mechanisms? See yourself as someone who is open to advice from your own third person.

No one else will take control of what we tell ourselves about our motivations and behaviour at work.

Not being true to yourself eventually affects your wellbeing. It can scupper great teamwork and cause significant disharmony and conflict within teams.

The best way we can support our careers, teams and organisations is by knowing and showing our authentic selves, not the self that tries to be everything to everyone.

Once we’re honest with ourselves about who we are and what we need to function better at work and alongside our team members, we can tune into and possibly shift our self-talk (mind-chatter!) to serve us more usefully.

Interested in this topic? Read Connected leadership: Holding up the mirror to develop self-awareness.

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Dan Phillips


Read more from Dan Phillips

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