How to Use Self-talk as a Superpower
You’re moments away from a big presentation to an important client. What are you telling yourself?
The GoTeam Quick Look
- Proactive people lead more joyful lives. So why, despite their wealth of experience, do older adults tend to be more reactive instead of proactive? The answer has to do with how they use self-talk.
- The ability to be proactive can start early, in children as young as 4 years old. How does that happen? What can we learn from them?
Psychologists use a fancy term for it: self-directed speech. We know it as self-talk.
In study after study, proactive self-talk has been shown to have a positive effect on executive functions or goal-directed behavior.
In other words, the more we tell ourselves that we can do something that challenges us, the greater our chances of getting it done.
When succeeding at something matters—whether it’s making a sales call or learning how to use a new tool, or showing up for a final job interview —how we talk to ourselves makes a big difference.
One of the most valuable insights from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is that our language does more than reveal. It also reinforces. It creates self-fulfilling prophecies.
Effective people use proactive language. When we are effective, we refuse to let our moods, feelings, or situations fully dictate our responses.
Being proactive means, we avoid assigning blame, making accusations, or using the language of victimhood.
Say we’re minutes away from making a presentation to an important client. We’ve prepared as best as we can for it. Rehearsed it. Reviewed the key points. Imagined what questions might come to the surface.
Is it dread or excitement?
Still, we can’t help but feel a little nervous.
In a moment of weakness or reactivity, one might think: “I can’t do this. I always freeze in the middle of big presentations. Who am I kidding?”
Or we can pause, remind ourselves of the results we’ve worked so hard to achieve, and say: “I’m just so excited to make this presentation. I’ll do the best I can. This will be fun!”
There is much to learn about how the ability to perform executive functions develops—how we learn as individuals to behave in a way that brings us closer to our goals.
Various studies in child psychology have shown that the ability to be proactive develops in early childhood.
In one study, a team led by Sabine Doebel of the University of Colorado observed 64 children, ages 4 and 5 years old, as they played a game. They were asked to watch a shape as it moved on a screen, then point to where the shape disappeared.
One group of children received a familiar label for the shape (“This is a boot”) while the other group was simply shown the shape but given no label or word for it.
Can you guess which group performed better?
Are we smarter than 5-year-olds?
It was the group that received a familiar label for the shape they were asked to keep their eyes on.
Here’s why: The children who had the label in their working memory were better prepared to work toward the goal, which was to watch where the shape disappeared on the screen. They were taught to use language (“This is a boot”) in a way that helped them pay closer attention to the task at hand.
They were, in effect, using their lateral prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain that’s responsible for working memory, planning, and attention—to play the game. (Even if they were not aware of it at the time.)
“Across development, children shift from engaging executive functions reactively, in the moment they are needed, to increasingly engaging them proactively, in anticipation of needing them,” Doebel and her team wrote.
“On a rainy day, a 5-year-old child may run inside to get a raincoat only after getting wet, whereas a 6-year-old may anticipate the need for a raincoat and prepare by going to the closet to get one before heading outside.” Language is what helps children develop the ability to be proactive. (The study was titled “Using Language to Get Ready.”)
In another study, a team led by Corentin Gonthier of the University of Rennes observed that the ability to shift from reactive to proactive control occurs around 5 to 6 years old.
What makes the difference? It’s the ability “to actively hold contextual information in (one’s) working memory.”
That could be talking about what moves to make next, in a planning session. Or it could be engaging in proactive self-talk.
One reason that older adults tend to be more reactive instead of proactive is that they use self-directed speech (or self-talk) less—when they could use it to support their performance.
Compare these self-talk examples:
“I can’t.” (I can.)
“It’s not my fault.” (I’m sorry.)
“It’s just the way I am.” (I can change. I will change.)
“I have to.” (I choose to.)
“We have no other choice.” (Let’s look at our options.)
“They won’t let me.” (I will get this done.)
“There’s nothing we can do.” (There must be something we can do.)
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey wrote that Habit 1 (Be proactive) arises from the principles of responsibility, choice, accountability, initiative, and resourcefulness.
It’s about “developing our own power to choose our actions and accept responsibility for our choices.”
How we choose to talk to ourselves is one way we can grow to be more proactive.
Join our team!
We explored Habit 1 in our Discover You events for February 2022, thanks to a session that GoTeam Founder Matt Kesby led.
Before that, our CEO Fiona Kesby shared with the team that in February, our 600th team member joined GoTeam.
This meant that nearly 2,000 team members and their dependents were now covered by private medical insurance, which the company provides starting on each team member’s first day on the job.
Fiona also revealed our Book of the Month: Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, by the researcher and author Brene Brown.