There’s one debilitating behavior that most of us fall victim to with great regularity: listening to critical voices in our heads. Whether they originate from external criticism or our own fears and doubts, these negative voices tell us we’re not good enough, kind enough, or productive enough. Research shows that echoing negative thoughts inside our heads increases our chances of depression, isolates us from others, and inhibits us from pursuing goals.
For example, Rajeev, an executive vice president in charge of a billion-dollar business within a high-tech company, fell victim to this kind of thinking. He had been rapidly promoted and had a track record of successful business results. Rajeev had also created teams that worked well together. But the higher up the chain he went, the less Feedback he received. Rajeev was hungry for information on what he could do to further improve his effectiveness. He hired me as his coach and asked me to interview 15 coworkers so he could better understand how they perceived him. The results were overwhelmingly positive. People loved Rajeev’s smarts and business savvy, and they applauded his ability to look to the future and take decisive actions.
But Rajeev didn’t see this positive feedback. Instead, he magnified the much smaller negative criticisms in the report: that he could become so focused on a goal that he neglected relationships along the way, and his colleagues could end up feeling dismissed and rushed. Rajeev was devastated.
This feedback wasn’t new to Rajeev — and the feedback was valid. But it wasn’t the actual perceptions that triggered Rajeev to spiral into despair; rather, it was the tone of voice and turn of phrase in some of his coworker’s comments that he latched onto. He heard their voices in his head. Those voices made him hide in his office, slowed his pace of work and output, and caused him to avoid making key business decisions.
Rajeev needed a strategy to get himself back on track. Some studies have suggested that we need five positive voices for every one negative voice we carry around in our heads to feel balanced, happy, and productive. Fortunately, for Rajeev, he didn’t need to seek out five more voices — he already had a written report full of them. He just needed to use them.
We put together a plan and he followed four steps. Here’s how to move past negativity and into productivity:
- Look for the positive. We often assume that the biggest potential for improvement lies in fixing our weaknesses, but amplifying our strengths is also important. According to Gallup, people who use their strengths daily are six times more engaged, and strengths-focused teams are 12.5% more productive. Instead of only asking about what you did wrong, request positive feedback too. Ask, “What did you like about my presentation?” or “What worked well for you in this pitch deck?”
- Hear the positive. Take it in. Many of my clients will ask for positive feedback but only start taking notes once the negative feedback starts. Jot down the positive feedback so you know what to replicate. It also cues the feedback giver that positive feedback is just as important to you as areas to improve.
- Dig in to understand the positive. Allow yourself to lean in and explore praise. Think of a compliment someone paid you recently. What did you do in response? Did you make excuses? “I was lucky.” Did you minimize it? “I had a lot of help.” At best, you probably said, “Thank you.” In contrast, what do you do when someone makes negative comments? You ask questions and even request examples. Turn a compliment into an opportunity to gather concrete examples of how you’re effective. For example: “I’m so glad my workshop was helpful to you. What about it was helpful? What did I do that helped you learn?”
- Believe the positive, and act as if it were true. Even if you somehow work yourself up to following the three steps above, you might still have a hard time believing what people say about you. Maybe you wonder about the feedback giver’s ulterior motive. Instead, believe what they’re saying might actually be true. This is easier to do if you cultivate what I call “Jalil” voices. Jalil was the first person in my life whose words of encouragement helped me and even saved my life. Find the people who have your best interests at heart and who you can count on to tell you the truth. When you hear their voices over and over again, you’re more likely to see the positive themes and internalize them.
As Rajeev learned to channel the positive voices in his head, he not only became more productive, but also more aware of his own tone with others. When negative voices in his head subsided, he recognized what he could say to be a positive voice for his colleagues. This helped free some of his coworkers from their own dark thoughts and increased their productivity, too — a virtuous cycle.
Make it a daily practice to shoot for a five-to-one ratio. You may not keep a precise count of how many positive and negative voices you’re allowing inside your head each day, but once you start to stockpile positive comments, you’ll notice a difference in your energy level and output. With a full tank, it’s easier to pass on the goodwill and be a positive voice for others.