The Right Way to Speak to Yourself

"Who can tell me what holiday is coming up next week?" Dorit* looked around the room at the circle of six year olds, almost all of whom raised, or rather waved, their hands eagerly.

I was with my daughter in her first grade classroom at her Jewish day school and I was mesmerized.

Dorit called on a little boy, who said "Purim." He was off by about a month.

"You're right that Purim is coming up soon," She smiled at the boy who smiled back, "But it's not next week. Who else?" She scanned again, this time calling on a girl.

"Tu Bishvat." the girl said.

"Very good," Dorit smiled again, "and who can tell me what Tu Bishvat celebrates?"

Now the children could hardly contain their enthusiasm. One child blurted out that it was the birthday of the trees. But he hadn't raised his hand and Dorit took no notice as she continued to scan the hands until she called on another little boy who repeated that it was the birthday of the trees.

"Yes, that's right," Dorit said and then continued asking questions for several more minutes. While their energy never waned, nobody spoke again without being called on. When she was done, everyone sang together as they cleaned up the room to prepare for the next activity.

It felt so good to be in that classroom, I didn't want to leave. Eventually though, when it was clearly time to go, I left with a smile on my face that remained long after I had gone.

Sitting in that classroom was a lesson in people management; the positive way Dorit interacted with the children is a great model for how managers should interact with employees.

But, for me, the morning was more profound than a lesson in managing other people. It was a lesson in managing myself.

As I left the classroom I found myself thinking about whether I treat myself the way Dorit treated her students. Am I encouraging? Do I catch myself doing things right as often as doing things wrong? And when I do something wrong, do I simply move on or do I dwell on it, haranguing myself?

In other words, what kind of classroom is going on in your head?

We've all heard the notion that we're our own harshest critic. But shouldn't we treat ourselves with at least the same respect shown by a first grade teacher toward her students? Why don't we?

Possibly it's because we grow up in an academic setting that emphasizes critique over admiration. Perhaps it feels arrogant — unseemly even — to speak to ourselves with the effusive praise and positivity that Dorit spoke to her class. It might even feel dangerous to go easy on ourselves. If we did, maybe we wouldn't accomplish anything at all. Maybe we'd devolve into laziness.

But laziness is not what I saw in that classroom. Those children couldn't have been more motivated to get the right answer. They tried hard. When they got the right answer, they felt good about themselves. When they got a wrong answer, they didn't linger in shame, they simply moved on to the next question (which, as it happens, is probably the number one behavior that leads to success over time). And they were happy.

In other words, it's not simply nice to treat ourselves nicely, it's strategic.

But it's not always easy to do. Certainly, Dorit has to put up with a lot of screaming kids, bad attitudes, and poor behavior. What is her secret?

Watching Dorit engage with the children — and talking with her afterward — it became obvious that what she did with the children was a lagging indicator of how she felt about them. I sensed it immediately. Clearly, the children did too. That feeling?


Think about it: When you love someone, you don't dwell on their mistakes, you move past them. If they don't know something, you don't make a big deal about it, you find the answer somewhere else. And when they succeed, you feel great about congratulating them. You encourage them when they're struggling, you try to catch them doing things right, and, maybe, if you have the nerve, you sing with them as you go about your day.

Isn't that the classroom you want living in your head? Does the way you talk to yourself reflect your love for yourself? Or does it reflect annoyance, impatience, and frustration?

This is important to talk about even in a work setting — maybe especially in a work setting — where we spend so much time and where our performance matters. When we feel loved, appreciated and cared for, we try harder, take more risks, work more collaboratively, and perform better.

Sure it would be ideal if our managers and leaders treated us with love and respect. But before asking that of others, I think it's important to ask it of ourselves.

The question is how? As one particularly business-focused friend of mine asked me, "how do you operationalize love?" It's surprisingly easier than you might think.

Start by noticing your voice in your head. What do you hear when you catch yourself thinking about yourself? Do you sound like Dorit? Or do you sound like that manager you once had that you still hate? Just paying attention will begin to change the way you speak to yourself.

And changing the way you speak to yourself will change the way you feel about yourself. Act the way Dorit did with the children: Don't reward negative behavior with attention by lingering on your failures. Instead, distract yourself by immediately getting busy doing something else.

When you succeed, on the other hand, is a great time to pay attention. Spend a minute congratulating yourself. Let your good work reflect on you. Think about what you did that led to the success so you have a better chance of repeating it. Laugh with yourself. Enjoy yourself. Notice how cool you are.

At first, it might feel awkward. But feelings follow actions — once you get the hang of it, you'll gain more confidence in yourself. You'll start to take more pleasure in yourself. And if you're not there already, you might just fall in love with yourself.

At that point, what you find won't look like arrogance. Arrogance is thinking you're better than everyone else, which is often a protective mechanism born from insecurity when you don't feel good about yourself. When you love yourself, you won't need to feel better than anyone else, you'll simply feel good about yourself.

Loving yourself won't just influence the way you talk to yourself. Over time, it will influence the way you talk to the people around you. Which will positively impact your colleagues, your department, your organization, and everyone who comes into contact with your organization.

In other words, if you stick with it, this little mental exercise will expand beyond just your head, and the whole world will start to feel — and act — like Dorit's first grade classroom.

*Name changed

Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. The article fist appeared in the Harvard Business Review