That Not-So-Helpful Inner Dialogue

Sometimes, it feels like I have an inner voice that calms and stills me. But more often, there’s another, louder voice that is more like an annoying sports parent in the stands, screaming something like “Choke up on the bat!” “What’s wrong with you?” “That’s not the way you do it!”
Many years ago, I was preparing to facilitate a leadership program with a new client. During our walk through of the first program, the client briefed me on the culture and made a strong point that most of the leaders in the room would be introverts. She warned me to be very specific in my questions and to not expect an easy, open dialogue. At this point in my facilitation journey, I was sure she was being overly careful, and I was also quite confident that my big ole extraverted self could draw them out.
So, on the opening session of the program, I started with the opening we had planned, and then I winged it with a broad question. My intention was to send the message that it’s ok to talk, and that we would have a lot of back and forth dialogue. Also, some part of me did not believe Judy’s assessment.
I asked my question and then waited for someone to answer. And waited. And waited. The faces staring back at me were flat.
It was almost as if 30 people were colluding to make Lynn squirm.
My calm inner voice was nowhere to be heard. Instead, Ms. Sports Mom showed up and started screaming: “Didn’t Judy warn you? You totally blew it. Not only are these people not going to talk to you, Judy is going to fire you. And you deserve it.” I was so busy trying to tune out Ms. Sports Mom, I could barely pay attention to what was happening in the room.
Ever heard the phrase “Looks like a deer in the headlights.”? Yeah, that was me. I had entered “Splitsville”, that place where my body was in the room but the rest of me was running for cover.
To make matters worse, I was aware that I was blowing it and I was frozen and that the inner dialogue was not helping. Ms. Sports Mom got even louder, screaming “helpful” words at me.
Then I remembered a performance practice taught by one of my first facilitation coaches. Just feel your feet. Get grounded. Breathe.
Ms Sports Mom faded into the background and I was able to ask a follow up question. The part of me that was running came back to presence. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I acknowledged the silence. I asked a different question and someone answered. Then I picked up the easel chart marker and started writing as more and more people started talking. The ice was broken and the real Lynn showed up for most of the rest of the 3 day program.
I went on to teach that program for several years, with hundreds of people going through it. During our debrief at the end of that first day, Judy acknowledged my mis-step and shared her worry. She also recognized my recovery. Learning to perform under pressure, especially to recover under pressure, was one of the core teachings we eventually brought to the leaders of her company.
Just today, I was on the phone with a client who was sharing her business case for a huge decision that her company is making. As I listened, the words sounded ok, but her tone sounded shrill and even desperate. When I mentioned that, she said she wasn’t comfortable with the words. And as she was speaking, she knew she didn’t like the words coming out of her mouth. So, her tone became ineffective. Her own inner “Sports Mom” had started pulling her into “Splitsville”. The rest of our session focused on how to bring her best thinking to the table under pressure – even if Ms. Sports Mom decided to show up.
For pretty much all of us, the way we talk to ourselves is much crueler than we would ever speak to someone else.
Here’s the thing: We all have a point where the pressure is greater than our ability to handle it. It’s up to us to keep practicing in order to build our capacity to keep showing up, even as the pressure increases.
What are the ways you speak to yourself? What does your inner “Sports Mom” say to try to help you? What do you say to bring yourself back from “Splitsville?” What types of pressure keep you from performing at your best? How are you developing your practices to perform under pressure?