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Academic Coaching & Writing

VI. Tame the Negative Self-Talk or Inner Critic

Feb 18, 2016 by Kathryn Kleypas

As a coach, if you can cultivate the skill of identifying your coachee’s self-sabotaging negative self-talk and help him to stop believing it, you will be very successful indeed. Whether you name this critic as the Saboteur, the Gremlin, the Inner Critic, or simply think of it as negative self-talk, it is all the same. It’s a way that causes a person to stop imagining goals and working to achieve them.

Research suggests that academics have a higher-than-average occurrence of this sort of intellectual self-doubt. It’s not surprising when you consider how high the bar is and how much public scrutiny scholars’ work receives! But why and how scholars experience these forms of often-paralyzing self-doubt is less important in coaching than the question of how to identify, disarm, and move beyond it.

The first step to disarming your coachee’s sabotaging narratives is to learn how to identify them. Self-sabotaging stories are often so woven into the fabric of self-perception that individuals may present them as fact in conversations with others. A casual acquaintance or an unskilled listener won’t think to challenge the veracity of such narratives. A coach who is skilled as an active listener will be able to identify negative self-talk for what it is—irrational and often untrue! Once you’ve identified it, the next step is to call it out and name it. Saboteur narratives can’t persist under close scrutiny. Don’t hesitate to engage with your coachee about the irrationality of the narrative. You can even be a little playful with it. The narratives are often so outrageously illogical that once the logic is articulated, it can be funny. Once the saboteur narrative is called out and challenged, it’s harder for your coachee to cling to it.

Here’s what that conversation might look like. Notice that I never try to convince the coachee to believe something. Instead, I rely on powerful questions and articulate what I hear. I also invite the coachee to embody feelings at a certain point. As with guided visualizations, this may not be something you or your coachee is comfortable with. If you’re not, skip this section.

Coach: I received a Call for Papers this week from the _____ conference. Your paper on _____ seems tailor made for it. Would you consider submitting an abstract?

Coachee: Oh no! My work is not ready for that conference.

Coach: What do you mean by “ready”?

Coachee: I was at the conference last year and I heard Scholar X talk. What if they put me on a panel with her?

Coach: What would that be like?

Coachee: My research would seem infantile compared to hers.

Coach: Let me see if I understand your logic. You can only present your research when you are an established scholar of repute?

Coachee: (laughs) No, obviously not.

Coach: What if your paper were put on a panel with Scholar X? What would that be like? Play it out…worst case scenario.

Coachee: Well, I would read my paper, and then she would read hers, and everyone would ask her questions and ignore me.

Coach: What does that mean to you?

Coachee: It means my work is worthless, and I’ve made a fool of myself being there next to her.

Coach: “Worthless”? That’s a case of binary thinking if ever I heard one. According to this thinking you are either a star in the field or your work is worthless. What if we were to create places in between these poles? Realistically, where would you place your work?

Coachee: Mmmm, I’ve made significant contributions to the study of ________ in my dissertation and in the article I published from my first chapter. On a scale of 1 to 10, I guess I’m around a 5.

Coach: Now we’re getting somewhere! A 5 is not a 0, which is where you seemed to be placing yourself a minute ago. What’s the benefit of being a 5?

Coachee: I can learn quite a bit from the 6s, 7s, and 8s who are all around me. I feel like a sponge when I’m at these conferences. I always come away with great ideas about how to move forward with my own research. I also like chatting with the grad students who are 3s and 4s. It feels good to help them learn the ropes, and it makes me realize how far I’ve come in so short a time.

Coach: How does being a 5 feel? Where do you feel it in your body? Get up and walk around. How does a 5 walk?

Coachee: I’ve got a spring in my step because everything is possible. I have enough knowledge in the field to understand what I hear, and yet my potential is still not fully realized. I feel very light and energized and ready to learn.

Coach: Bring that energy with you and, with that spring in your step, imagine walking into the room where you’re going to be presenting alongside Scholar X. What does that feel like?

Coachee: It feels great. It’s OK that I’m a 5 and she’s a 10. She probably likes the idea of helping people coming up in the field. I feel that I can learn greatly from her.

Coach:  Wonderful!! Are you ready for a challenge? I’m going to challenge you to send the abstract of your paper to this conference. Will you do that?

Coachee: Yes, I will.

Coach: How will I know that you’ve done it?

Coachee: I will forward the email to you after I send it off this weekend.

Coach: Excellent! I’m going to up the ante a little on this challenge. Now remember, you can say “Yes” or “No” or make a counter offer. I challenge you to ask Scholar X out for a drink or a coffee after the panel is over.

Coachee: I’m not comfortable with the invitation for a coffee or drink but I will commit to going up to her after the panel and engaging her in conversation about her paper. And if it feels right, I will give her my card.

Self-sabotaging narratives come in every possible form, and an attentive and skillful coach will always be on the alert for the sound of them. Uncovering these narratives will become easier as you get to know your coachee, and you will begin to notice the voice of his Inner Critic speaking. Some Inner Critics are crafty and keep coming back in different forms, which means you need to use your active listening skills at all times.

Discussion Questions:

What are strategies you have used in the past to get past your own negative self-talk?

What have you done in the past to help others do so?

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