Self-Talk – It’s Not Just for Athletes Anymore

By: Amy Durgin, Ph.D., Associate Consultant; Marcia Dolby, Sr. Principal; Carolina Aguilera, Ph.D., Principal

You’ve heard it a thousand times. How athletes use positive self-talk to eliminate pre-game jitters and improve their performance on the field.

What if we told you that self-talk is a powerful tool in business too? By modifying one simple habit you can flip a switch in your brain and improve the quality of your decision-making and subsequent on-the-job performance.

Skeptical?  Stay with us on this one.  Researchers across disciplines are discovering new insights on what many consider conventional wisdom: how we talk to ourselves can truly make a difference in how we behave.

Don’t worry! This isn’t where we try to convince you of the power of staying positive and showering yourself with warm platitudes.  As Elizabeth Bernstein from The Wall Street Journal put it, “self-talk is a self-help trope that’s been around for decades.”

Why are we talking about it now?

Studies conducted in the past few years confirm that self-talk truly affects how you perform, and, depending on how you talk to yourself, dictates which areas of your brain fire up and influence your behavior.

It’s as simple as this:  Talk to yourself in the same way you would talk to a friend when giving advice or motivation by using the second or third person narrative. In other words, instead of saying, “I’ve got this. I’m just going to walk in there and tell them what I think”, say, “You’ve got this, [insert your name here]. Just walk in and tell them what you think should be done just like you have practiced in your office.”

Why is this important?

The implications for all of us here are huge.  The idea that such a simple switch in how you talk to yourself could have such a dramatic effect on your decision-making and performance in general is downright tantalizing.

Here are some of the effects demonstrated by this growing body of research:

  • Improved confidence when making first-impressions on others
  • Improved long-term focus and objectivity (i.e., self-control) in decision making
  • Improved competence when speaking in public
  • Improve emotional self-regulation (i.e., controlled emotional responses)
  • Reduced blood pressure prior to and following negative or stressful situations
  • Improved adaptive and self-reflection skills which reduces recovery time following particularly negative or stressful events
  • Improved mood and feelings over time

How can you leverage self-talk in your own business environment?

It’s as simple as 1-2-3.  Just like athletes, it all starts with discipline and training. Imagine you’re reviewing game-day films, looking objectively at your own performance, and analyzing what types of situations create stress or cause you to lose confidence and be less effective.  Think about the following three steps as you prepare to leverage self-talk to improve your performance.

  1. Identify the right situations first – It’s easy to try changing your self-talk once or twice and then forget about it entirely.  Therefore, first identify 2-3 specific social situations that typically make you nervous or anxious.  By identifying the specific type of situations first, you’re more likely to remember this easy self-maximizing trick.
  2. Instruct or motivate using “you” instead of “I” as well as your own name – Remember, you’re essentially giving the same advice or motivation that you would give to a friend. Keeping it distanced and objective is the key here.
  3. Reflect on the experience afterward using “You” and your own name – Identify what “you” did well and identify what “you” would like to do differently in the future. This way, you’re essentially “self-coaching” and relaxing your brain as you identify adaptive strategies for further improvement.

Remember that self-talk is serious business. It has the power to motivate and inspire, as you improve performance – and effectiveness.

Want to learn more?

See the following references –

Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., Bremner, R., Moser, J., and Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 304-324.

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2003). Temporal construal. Psychological Review, 110, 403–421.

Fujita, K., Trope, Y., Liberman, N., & Levin-Sagi, M. (2006). Construal levels and self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 351–367.

Fresco, D. M., Segal, Z. V., Buis, T., & Kennedy, S. (2007). Relationship of post-treatment decentering and cognitive reactivity to relapse in major depression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75, 447–455.

Ochsner, K. N. and Gross, J. J. (2005). The cognitive control of emotion. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 9(5), 242-249.

Ingram, R. E., & Hollon, S. D. (1986). Cognitive therapy for depression from an information processing perspective. In R. E. Ingram (Ed.), Information processing approaches to clinical psychology (pp. 259–281). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

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