When Your Toughest Conversations Are the Ones You Have with Yourself

Martin leads the largest division of a global company. You feel his presence immediately when he walks into a room. Not because he’s flashy or full of ego, but because he’s neither. Instead, it’s the unshakable confidence that comes from knowing exactly who you are, and the star power that accompanies a certain kind of seniority. It’s hard to imagine him in a moment of self-doubt.

And yet on the inside, he does berate himself. If something catches him by surprise, he’ll think, “You should’ve seen that coming.” After giving a keynote, he tells himself, “Lousy talk!” If a client turns down a proposal, he asks himself the aching question: “What’s wrong with you?”

Dominique, an executive at a European company, has a similar kind of inspiring confidence — and critical inner monologue. I’ve seen rooms full of people stop talking and turn their attention to the door when she shows up. She’s a force of nature, but they look up to her with admiration, not fear. She’s tough but fair. She hears people out. Still, at the end of the day, it’s her team, and no one is confused about who makes the final calls.

But despite her hard-earned stature, she’s pulled down by an inner voice that questions her every move. Though her team talks to her with respect, the way she talks to herself is far from it.  “Why should they listen to you?” she sometimes thinks. “Why didn’t you prepare more?” And other times, “You’re a fraud.”

Advising Martin, Dominique, and other C-suite executives, I’ve learned that for successful senior leaders like them, the hardest difficult conversations they have are the ones they have with themselves.

When it comes to having tough conversations with their colleagues, clients, or direct reports, they often take them in stride, seeing them as just “part of the job.” A common reaction is, as one leader told me: “We have an opportunity to build something truly special here. I don’t shy away from tackling anything — including “people issues” — that stands in the way of our mission.” To be sure, none of the people I work with enjoy confronting people on performance issues, or delivering bad news. Yet, they tell me, it comes with the territory. They expect it.

Though these executives are comfortable dealing with topics most people would find stressful to discuss, they still struggle with how they talk to themselves. What I’ve learned, however, is that leaders whose gravitas runs deep don’t run away from this struggle. The ones who make it to the top learn to deal with the universal voice of self-doubt head on.

When I ask executives how they think about difficult conversations with others, they say things like, “We’ve built a culture I call ‘high challenge, high support.’” So I build on that, encouraging them to apply the same standard to that critical innervoice.

The negative voice in your head wants something. It wants to be heard. It needssomething, too: a bit of compassion and friendly reassurance. When you provide these, the conversations with yourself start to go a lot better. Instead of silencing or denying that inner voice, respond to it. Here’s how it sounds:

  • Lousy talk! “You know what? No one hits it out of the park every time.”
  • Why should they listen to you? “Some will, some won’t. All you can do is your best.”
  • Why didn’t you prepare? “Focus on the present moment. Your experience will see you through.”
  • You’re a fraud. “Almost everyone feels this way. Breathe deep and get on with it.”

Other techniques you use for difficult conversations with others can also work when contesting with your own inner voice. With other people, you ask yourself “is this battle worth fighting?” Pick your battles with yourself, too. You know best practice is not to lecture someone, but rather to have a dialogue. Embrace the tone of dialogue in your inner speech as well. Hostile confrontation is rarely the way to go, with other people, or with yourself. Do you give people second chances? Do you forgive a small mistake? Then give yourself a second chance, too. Forgive yourself when you miss the mark. If you expect the people around you to learn from their mistakes and move on, then you can, too.

What makes conversations difficult is the desire to avoid them, and the way we lose our cool when we have them. Practice makes powerful. The same is true whether you’re talking to someone else, or to yourself.

Erica Ariel Fox is the author of the New York Times bestseller Winning From Within: A Breakthrough Method for Leading, Living, and Lasting Change. She is a founding partner at Mobius Executive Leadership and she teaches negotiation at Harvard Law School.

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