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Leadership Development

Why The Way We Talk to Ourselves Matters So Much

A look at how the way we speak to ourselves influences our impact on the world

That’s most certainly a suggestion, not an order. 
If you’re game, go for it again. 

Many mornings, I write that word when I’m journaling. Sometimes I might write it every few lines as I’m getting going. Each time I write it, I take a deep, slow breath (as I did just now). Mindful breathing won’t fix all the world’s problems, but the simple act of breathing can calm my internal energy and get me to a better, more grounded and positive place. And let’s face facts: there are not a lot of calm places in the country right now.

Over the last few months, I’ve pretty much stopped skimming headlines in the news right now. (It’s hard to resist, this “doom scrolling.”) I’m not oblivious—I sneak a glance here and there and I still dive deeper into longer, more thoughtful stories when I see them. When I do click on most news stories, nearly all of what I find is a collection of negative, critical, harsh, fearful, and angry comments. A few facts sprinkled in for sure. But the tension around them is hard to take. It creates an unproductive anxiety that’s the opposite of the impact of mindful breathing. If I carry that anxiety around with me, I pass it (even with a mask on) to pretty much everyone else I work with and live with. I don’t recommend it. I used to carry that kind of cacophony and tension around in my head every day. It’s been a long while now since I started working to calm my mind, but I still remember the feeling all too well. Which reminds me, again, to breathe.

Speaking of breathing . . . I’ve been listening to some online conversations with Valerie Brown. She and I have never met, but I hope that one day we will. Brown is a former lawyer and lobbyist who turned herself into a terrific Buddhist teacher. Her gentle and wise words are the complete opposite of what’s dominating the news these days. From listening to her online and reading her work, Ms. Brown’s energy is exceptionally calming. Her insights are inspiring. And, very much aligned with the positive and supportive sort of self-talk I’m always working toward. Sharing learnings from her own teacher, the monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Brown imagines emotions as seeds lying in wait in the “soil” of our minds. “You get cut off in traffic?” Brown says, “Boom. The seed of anger gets watered or activated. You have a lovely conversation with a dear friend? The seed of gratitude gets nourished.”

Along these lines, last week I had a calming conversation with a deer friend. No, that’s not a typo. I meant to write deer. I don’t know her name. It was the first, and likely, only meeting of our lives. In the scheme of all the long talks I’ve had over the years, this one was super short. It happened last week when I was out running one sunny afternoon. As I often do, I had my eyes mostly on the pavement to make sure I didn’t trip on something. I rounded a curve in the path and I felt something off to my right. I looked up and ten feet away, standing out in the open grass, was a deer. I have no idea how she let me get that close—clearly she saw me coming long before I saw her. I stopped. Just smiled and stood there, and gently said hi. I figured she’d flee, but instead she lowered her head a bit. I waited. About 30 seconds later, she wagged her tail. I’m sure many folks have been closer to deer or have even pet them, but I haven’t. I just kept quietly standing there. I took a couple quiet deep breaths to ground my energy. I gently said hi to the deer again. She looked at me and then, much to my surprise, moved a bit closer and wagged her little tail a bit more. I decided to get my phone out to take a photo. Usually that’s the signal for a deer to run for the woods. But the deer stayed. I stood still and tried to make my energy as calm as I could. Finally, after a few minutes, she turned and loped slowly up the hill towards the trees. I started to move forward again on the path. She stopped, I looked back, and we made eye contact again. And that’s the end. We each went on our ways. But in Ms. Brown’s words, I felt great gratitude. Our meeting was a gift. A moment of calm beauty and connected loveliness that was in complete contrast to so much of what’s going on in the world.

One of the most effective interview questions anyone’s ever taught me was to ask an applicant: “What’s the best compliment you’ve gotten lately?” I’ve received a wealth of wonderful compliments from many of you—thank you. Those comments also brighten my days. But at this moment, the compliment from this lovely little deer is the one I would pick. The deer standing still, and actually coming closer, says a lot to me. Deer—like all animals, and ultimately all people—respond primarily to energy. For the deer to do what she did meant that my energy must have been pretty grounded. Which, I’ve learned over the years, to take as a meaningful compliment.

Thirty years ago, had the same situation occurred, it would have been a different experience. My energy back then would pretty certainly have felt more frenetic. Critical. Maybe even subtly angry. That overly critical energy would have pretty surely been picked up by the deer, who would have understandably turned tail and raced right to the safety of the trees. To be clear, I wouldn’t have understood what was happening or why. Most people who knew me wouldn’t have said I acted anything but calm much of the time—I think I’ve always been a pretty kind and considerate person. On the inside, it was a different story. While no one could hear the words but me, the conversations I was having inside my head back then were anything but calm. In hindsight they were like listening to the critical cacophony of headline news I referenced above.

By the time I realized all this some thirty years ago, I’d already started to study ways to be a better leader. I was learning how important it was to be more positive, to focus on compliments and not lead with criticism. It wasn’t a quick shift—it’s the subject for another article at a later date—but let’s just say that I grew up in a nice Jewish middle class family where folks showed love and affection by sharing regular bouts of “loving” criticism. (As Rebecca Solnit writes, “Yiddish can describe defects of character with the precision that Inuit describe ice or Japanese rain.”) The thing is that even though I altered the words I was using to be more positive, people still seemed to leave our conversations with the belief that I was angry at them. For years, the whole thing mystified me. It was, to say the least, confusing and frustrating. If you were one of the folks I left feeling that way—a long time ago, or lately—I’m sorry.

What people were reacting to, I later learned, was not the actual words I used when I spoke with them, but rather, to what I was saying to myself, silently, in my head. My words to them were fine. But my self-talk was terrible. Eventually, as I wrote in Part 3, I came to understand: The tone we take when we talk to ourselves is directly tied to what others will take away from our interaction, regardless of what we actually say. That the deer stayed put the way she did—actually moved towards me—must, in my mind at least, mean I’ve come closer to making meaningful peace with myself.

What got me working to change the conversation? Here’s what I wrote in the forthcoming pamphlet, “Humility; a Humble, Anarchistic Inquiry,” about something that happened back about thirty years ago.

One day my therapist looked at the floor and calmly observed, “It’s really too bad you can’t just accept yourself as you are.” To show you how out of whack I was, I argued with him about it. A few decades and a lot of work later, I can’t say I’m ever fully at peace with myself for more than a few minutes at a time, but at least I’m a lot closer than I was back then.

In Part 3, in Secret #31, “Managing Ourselves,” in a section with the heading, “Start with Self-respect”

Now that I get the concept, it’s as logical and clear as can be; learning to adjust the way that I speak to myself was one of the most effective things I’ve ever undertaken in an effort to improve my leadership work. If we don’t respect ourselves, we’ll consistently, if unintentionally, convey disrespect for others. No matter how hard we try to hide it, the feeling we carry inside us will be felt far more strongly than whatever words we use. . . . I remember realizing one day that if I were to speak to the people on our staff with the same sort of tone, harshness, and lack of empathy with which I was talking to myself in my mind, they’d pretty likely have quit on the spot.

The work it took to get there was certainly worth it—not that I’m done working at it. I’ve slowly, imperfectly, taught myself to handle my own shortfalls the same way I would with a new staff person. You know how to do it: with dignity. Like, “Hey we all make mistakes. Let’s just learn from it so we don’t make the same mistake again.”

How much does this shift in internal conversation really matter? Immensely. Despite the commonly-used phrase “It’s all in your head,” it turns out it’s anything but. When we’re hard on ourselves in our heads, it can quietly kill relationships with coworkers, family, friends, and ultimately, ourselves. (There’s a wide range of other negative outcomes that psychologists who know much more than I do can detail. See Bruce Lipton’s The Biology of Beliefs and the work of Richard Davidson on the connection between negative self-talk and depression and loneliness.) When we do the work well, when the conversation in our head continues with dignity, we can do what Australian musician and poet Indigo Sparke says—spend as much of our days as we can, “Upstream in the valley of honey and hope.” Sparke’s reference to upstream seems right—it takes work to stay in a calm, kind, sort of self-talk when the currents and craziness of the world are going the other way. Ultimately, I’ve come to believe that our organizational health, our community’s health, and the state of the nation depend on it. As I shared in Part 3,

The Dalai Lama believes we need to actively teach others how to become peaceful individuals. “That eventually will create a peaceful family, a peaceful community, and through that, a peaceful world,” he says. As he rightly points out, “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”

Much of what I’ve written over the last seven months of the long marathon of a slow jog through the minefield of the year 2020 have been about techniques that have helped me to stay grounded; Actively engaging in acts of kindness, making art how I think, committing to solitude, journaling, weeding, dignity, etc. Valerie Brown says she re-grounds by walking mindfully in the woods. In one interview someone asked her how she stays grounded when she’s not in the woods. I love her answer: “I take the woods with me in my pocket everywhere I go.” It’s a great image. If I do the same, maybe my deer friend will show up too.

When I need a dose of leadership wisdom delivered with a good bit of wit, Peter Drucker is a good place to start. “That one can truly manage other people is by no means adequately proven,” he once said. “But,” he added, “one can always manage oneself.” If you bought into the suggestion to greet everyone we come into contact with with a great deal of dignity, then I’ll suggest that a smart place to do that work would be with ourselves. To treat ourselves in our heads each day, all day, with dignity. Making peace with ourselves is a prerequisite for peace in our world and the world at large. Calm accepting energy can help calm the storm of the world that surrounds us. And in the meantime, keep your eyes open for the next deer—or dear—friend or colleague that might appear on your path. See what the deer does. You might learn a lot.

To read more about this work see Part 3 of the Guide to Good Leading Series: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Managing Ourselves.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!