Critical thinking skills – examine your self talk

Self-talk and mindset at work and in your studies

Purpose and learning goals of this module

Bring awareness to habitual patterns of thinking which, in the past, may have remained unnoticed. As we become more mindful, we may become more aware of habitual patterns of thoughts which drive behaviours. Deeper awareness and understanding of these patterns may enable us to let go of the more destructive ones and cultivate those which help us, our colleagues and our friends and families thrive.

  • – Learn practical techniques to help observe our habitual patterns of thinking.
  • – Develop greater self-compassion and non-attachment to habitual patterns of thinking.
  • – Learn which heuristics add value and which can undermine our wellbeing and effectiveness at work.
  • – Learn about autopilot thinking and behaving and how developing greater focus and habitual pattern awareness helps us become more self-aware and helps improve decision making.
  • – Learn simple self-care reframing techniques to help develop greater resilience.

Self-reflection space

Over the next few weeks, look at the thought pattern examples noted below. Which do you observe in yourself? Which do you observe in other people? Although some or many of these patterns may apply to many of us, we also have many other thinking ways and behaving that are kind, compassionate and altruistic. These empowering thoughts and behaviours may go as unnoticed as some that undermine our abilities and wellbeing. Understanding our self-talk can help with our effectiveness at work and in your studies

Developing critical thinking skills

Words count. The language we use in our head alters our beliefs and our work habits. They can impose glass ceilings on our development, stifle our collaboration with colleagues and adversely impact our mental wellbeing. Use this information to become mentally agile and understand your self-talk better. When you observe your self-talk, do so with a curious, open, and self-compassionate mind. Rather than be self-critical and judgmental, greet the pattern with the mindset of, “that’s interesting; I wonder why my mind does that.”

The more you share the patterns you observe in yourself, with other colleagues and friends, the more you may realise that many of us have similar internal critics.

1 – Negative filtering bias

  • – Future-focused – scans for problems
  • – Past focused – dwells on problems and Is judgmental & self-critical
  • – Mindlessly leads to worry, rumination
  • – Focusses more on negative feedback than positive
  • – Remembers the mean things people say more than the pleasant ones
  • – Scans for weaknesses and deficits rather than successes

“Ruminating about poor feedback from one piece of work and discounting positive feedback from many other projects.”

“If only I hadn’t made that decision, we wouldn’t be where we are now.”

Spending energy fretting about a decision made, rather than the practical steps which can be taken now and are within our control.

“People who wear black hats to every meeting”.

Having someone in a team who focuses on all the things that can go wrong on a project is helpful. But it’s more effective to share that role among team members. Take turns being the doom monger or the one that scopes out all the upsides and silver linings. The roles we have in life can lead us toward having a one size fits approach to everything. We need to shake this up and remain cognitively agile. Practise playing different roles in your team.

2 – All or nothing thinking – everything is black or white

“Nobody likes me in my new role.”

” I can’t see a way forward. This project is a disaster, and it will end in failure.”

“If I don’t do well in this assessment, there is no way forward.”

Become cognitively agile by adding the word “AND” more often. Get into the habit of being able to hold more than one truth in your head at one time. A simple technique is to spend a few moments considering the exact opposite of what you have concluded. What are three pieces of evidence that would support a completely different viewpoint?

3 – Catastrophising

Focusing on the worst possible outcome

“They are going to fire me for that mistake.”

“We missed that exit. Now the whole holiday is ruined.”

“If that project fails, it’ll cost the company millions and our department will get the blame.”

Check in with other people about your worries and fears. Often when we give our inner thoughts the light of day, they can seem ridiculous. Gather evidence for other potential scenarios. Practise stress management and mindfulness techniques when you observe a catastrophising thought. When we self-soothe, take five and stay mindful of the big picture, we are less prone to the adverse impact of catastrophe thinking. Being mindful of the worst-case scenario is helpful, but don’t let it blind you to possibilities and hope. In fight/flight, we often overly focus on perceived immediate threat and close our ability to BIG, creative thinking.

4 – Over personalising

“That poor outcome could have been foreseen. I should have been better at predicting what would happen. It’s obvious that our competitor would have made that move. I should have done better.”

All the above could be true. However, psychologists use the term “the valley of normal” to describe outcomes. The future is tough to predict. And there is a vast range of possible outcomes which fall into the valley of normal. Economists, political pundits, executives hiring new team members and other experts are often terrible at predicting the future. And the more expert a person is, the more confident they are in their abilities.

For example, 85% of senior executives say that they can trust their gut when making hiring decisions and believe they make better decisions than other execs. The truth is that most of us are poor predictors of the future. But we beat ourselves up because when an event has happened, we try to find meaning backwards. We explore the facts and narratives which could have helped us make a better prediction. When we evaluate performance and try to predict the future, our brains are doing incredibly complex tasks. They synthesise vast amounts of data using our experiences, recent knowledge, emotions, and professional training.

Developing cognitive agility means not to attach to outcomes overly. We strive hard to make the right decision. But if we become emotionally entangled in outcomes, we are setting ourselves up for a fall. Aim to own decisions and outcomes without beating yourself up.

5 – Should statements

Holding rigidly onto your values and imposing them on others

“I can’t rest now. I should be able to handle all of this”

“I should feel happy about this”.

“She should feel sad about this situation. It’s bad that she does not. Any normal person would”.

You SHOULD ban the word SHOULD from your head

“Indicates obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.”

Definition of should – should is rigid. The world is often grey and not black and white. Following disappointing outcomes from predictive or evaluation judgments, it’s right to reflect on what improvements could be made to the decision-making process but do so from a place of self-compassion, openness to change and agility.

When we judge another person’s decision-making, we often overly impose our values on the other person. To be genuinely empathetic (and manage people effectively), we need to be actively imaginative.

Poor managers and leaders lack the imagination and curiosity to step in another person’s shoes and walk in them for a moment. Or they may be time poor or lacking in the tools to develop their abilities. Managers who lack empathy find it hard to clear their own biases and filters and don’t take the time to consider what’s going in the person’s career, at home or what their strengths and weaknesses are. This blinkered worldview means that they find it hard to manage effectively.

Management requires active listening, understanding drivers and passions and anticipating likely behaviours of team members. Empathy training helps people clear their filters and anticipate the needs of others.

6 – Mind reading – filling in the blanks

“John didn’t call. He must be mad at me” “He’s not going to give me that promotion.”

“I know she is upset with me because she seemed so distant.”

It’s normal to do this. We try to weave together snippets of information to form a view about our place in the team. From an evolutionary perspective, we are hard-wired to be vigilant to signals that indicate whether we fit in with the tribe and its social norms. In ancient times, exclusion from the tribe was threatening and dangerous. We remain hypervigilant for social signals, indicating we don’t fit in and aren’t adding value.

The problem with imperfect perceptions of the views of others is that it can lead us to form the wrong impression of our performance in a team, our likeability and how collaborative and trustworthy others see us. Misperceptions can become turbocharged when we rely too much on remote working. Some common antidotes to the trap of mind reading and misperception:

  • – Get into the habit of checking in with colleagues – encourage regular feedback conversations
  • – Embed self-care into your workday – when we are stressed, we are more likely to misunderstand other people and form alternative self-critical or rigid judgmental views
  • – Don’t let things fester. If you are worried about the perceptions of others, document your thoughts and feelings. This helps you make sense of your inner narrative. Then sleep on it.
  • – Reach out to a friend at work and explain what you have observed and your concerns.
  • – Actively place yourself in the other persons’ shoes. Does their home life, workload or other worries drive their behaviours?
  • – Consider whether you are over personalising – do you notice that your colleague treats other people in the same way.

Poor managers and leaders lack the imagination and curiosity to step in another person’s shoes and walk in them for a moment. Or they may be time poor or lacking in the tools to develop their abilities. Managers who lack empathy find it hard to clear their own biases and filters and don’t take the time to consider what’s going in the person’s career, at home or what their strengths and weaknesses are. This blinkered worldview means that they find it hard to manage effectively. Management requires active listening, understanding drivers and passions and anticipating likely behaviours of team members. Empathy training helps people clear their filters and anticipate the needs of others.

7 – Disqualifying the positive

Recognising only the negative and downplaying the positive – Forgetting to focus on achievements – Finding it hard to accept praise and celebrate our own and each other’s achievements – Imposter syndrome

“I find this study so hard. I don’t belong here.”

“I’ll get found out when they realise how under qualified, I am for this role.”

“You did a great job getting that project over the line”. “It was nothing. Just doing my job”.

Remind yourself of your achievements – keep your CV up to date. Use our strengths awareness information from our Breathe training modules to help you remain mindful of your strengths and when you are playing to them.

Be mindful that when people are thanking and praising your achievements, it’s often meaningful for them to do so. You’ve helped them, and by accepting their thanks, you are acknowledging and validating their emotions

8 – Emotional reasoning

Assuming feelings are facts

“I’m disappointed in how I treated her – I’m such a bad colleague.”

“I’m feeling down, and I cannot shake the feeling. I’m no good at this role”.

Emotions are data; they are not directives. Our inner emotional state may inform us about what’s important to us – our values, goals, and meaning. But emotions are complex and don’t always lead us to the correct conclusions.

  • – Get into the habit of labelling your emotional state – either through emotions journalling at the start of the day or by simply naming the emotion you are feeling before starting a new piece of work or meeting a colleague.
  • – Be curious and open to your emotions – “this could be meaningful data, or I might just be feeling down today”
  • – Be self-compassionate – own the emotion and reflect that your emotions fluctuate from moment to moment and are impermanent.
  • – Consider whether you are extrapolating from an emotional state to a form a rigid view about you or another person.

9 – Labelling

Judgmental – Writing people off on first impressions

“He was so abrupt in the way he communicated. He’s clearly aggressive and confrontational”

“She looks disorganised. She’s not going to be useful for me “.

The heuristic of information cascade can distort forming an accurate impression of a colleague or client. The first pieces of information we receive about someone sticks. A harsh word, a misunderstanding, a personality difference, a poorly ironed shirt can lead to a closed mindset about the other person. We could be missing out on genius or kindness in the other person. Or we might be missing out on understanding the signals which may convey that they need our help.

Reframing your relationship with that person can be a challenge. Confirmation bias means that we direct our attention to the behaviour which initially triggered us. Each time our colleague repeats the behaviour, the more engrained our view of the person becomes.

Use our Breathe strengths learning modules to reflect on your colleagues’ top strengths. Use this list of strengths to start noticing when they are at their best. This helps us overcome confirmation bias and helps us reframe relationships. Your first impression may have been an accurate one. However, forming a rigid view of a teammate stifles both your own and their learning and development.

Through being open to their strengths, you can develop positive regard for your colleague and enable you to step up to tough conversations with them. Strengths’ awareness allows people to separate their criticism of individual actions from an appreciation of each other’s humanity.

10 – Personalising too much

Assuming disproportionate blame to oneself OR – Accepting too much praise for group effort

“We aren’t doing well on this project. It’s because I’m not contributing enough”

“My team works so much harder than sales. We are holding this place together.”

The proximity heuristic means that we overinflate the valuation we place on our input to a project. We know how much work we do…because we do it, and it’s more central in our awareness. We only have fleeting glimpses of the hard work and challenges of others.

The consequences of this can include more silo working and over-emphasis on individual tasks and goals at the expense of organisational goals. It can also lead to grievances about effort and reward and a reduction in collaboration between teams. Some of the solutions:

  • – Get over yourself therapy – you are one piece of a great puzzle
  • – Get into the habit of championing other people’s achievements – we all win when we recognise and celebrate each other’s achievements at work
  • – Championing other people also helps us overcome the proximity heuristic, and we become more mindful of other people’s contributions
  • – Spend time getting to know the workings of other departments. Shadow some of your colleagues
  • – Organise catch-ups with other departments to share each other’s successes and challenges
  • – Form wide networks within the organisation and externally – friendship alters the perceptions we have about other work roles

11 – FOMO

Believing that there are always better options to be had and only half investing in the choice you made.

“Everyone else is having fun.”

” I must be on that committee so that I can keep on top of what’s going on.”

Part of FOMO relates to fitting in with the tribe and experiencing joy. The hyperconnected social media world we live in means we can become paralysed by the paradox of choice. There is always a visually exciting thing to watch and a multitude of platforms to engage on.

Over connection can lead to a state of learned boredom. An infinity scroll of social media, emails, and other content serves up fresh helpings of dopamine – we feel good when we see new stuff. The challenge with all this content is that it can make our minds restless, unsatisfied and on the lookout for further stimulation.

This learned distraction can manifest as reduced ability to “mono” task at work, actively listen and thinking deeply about one thing. Some of the solutions:

  • – Practise single-pointed meditation to help train your attention
  • – Dopamine fast – give your attention centres a rest through setting aside offline time
  • – Practise mono-tasking – make a plan, and stick to it
  • – The power of no – where possible, leave some projects and committee at work. Focus your attention on the things that you are passionate about and invest wholeheartedly

12 – The halo around people

Assuming that other people are breezing through life and having an amazing time – Impacted by the sharing of best self on social media.

“Everyone else looks chilled and relaxed. Why do I feel so tense?”

Like swans gracefully moving across a lake, many of us are paddling furiously to move forward and look serene. Be mindful to observe your own emotional state with self-compassion. Emotions are fleeting. They come and go. Choosing the emotion that matches the task ahead of you means being open and acknowledging your current emotional state.

Reflection space as you observe your own mindset

Do you recognise yourself in these labels?

Reflect on the past few weeks. Think back to a challenging moment or difficult conversation. Consider whether any of your automatic thought patterns or beliefs impacted the event. Spend time documenting your observations. Our self-awareness increases with practise. Without observing and documenting these moments, the fluttering of our mind and the impacts on our behaviours and decision making at work can go unnoticed. Habitual thinking and mindset become engrained without self-reflection. Keep this information link handy and reflect on the stories that you tell yourself. How do your stories impact your decision making, collaboration, productivity and wellbeing?

Share these insights with friends and colleagues