Three Little Words

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I had an unusual, emotionally ambivalent experience during a coaching session this week. In a single statement uttered by my client (we’ll call her Alice), I winced twice AND had an epiphany!

Curious about Alice’s loaded proclamation? She said, “I should have prepared more for the training session. But afterwards I recognized that I ROCKED IT and gave myself a mental fist pump.”

Alice was reporting in about an experiment I offer to most clients during their very first coaching session. Her intention was to convey her “success” with practicing celebration.

So, what was it about this shining declaration that led to my multitude of reactions? Let’s call it “should” “prepared” and “but”— 3 words with subtle but deadly effects.

First, a little context. The fact is, “Words Create Worlds”. This is true both internally and externally. The words we tell ourselves, the stories we’ve convinced ourselves as being true, as well as our stream of consciousness (or self-talk) directly affect our thoughts. This, in turn, guides our behaviors and actions, and ultimately our interactions.

When Alice used the three aforementioned words, it seemed innocent enough. And that’s part of their toxic nature. They’re used without scrutiny— like sugar in coffee. We too often allow these words to inadvertently guide how we think.

Read on to discover how Alice used these words, and how she can present more powerfully in the future by substituting her words.

“Should” creates an internal guilt trip.

Let’s start with the word “Should”. This is the ultimate example of an ANT (Automatic Negative Thought).

What do you repeatedly say or think you “should” or “need to” do or stop doing? “I really should go to the gym today” or “I should eat more vegetables” or “I need to stop watching TV in bed”.

Think about it, or rather, FEEL it. These “ANTs” trigger an inner world of guilt, regret, shame, doubt, and questioned confidence. They are gasoline to the fire of our negativity bias. And our tendency toward the negative can release cortisol into our bodies. This neurotransmitter, nicknamed the “stress hormone”, amplifies the negative effects of stress. And in addition to the physical consequences is the psychological: Cortisol fogs the brain.

There is an antidote to the negative effects of “should”: Turn this ANT into a PAT (a Positive Automatic Thought). That’s right! “I should” becomes “I can” or “I get to”. “I need to” becomes “I want to”. “I can’t” becomes “I can’t yet”. Try it out, and feel the change in your body.

If you sense a difference, give yourself that aforementioned mental fist pump. Then, start catching yourself using these ANTs and actively correct yourself. It’s clumsy at first, like when I started omitting the word “Sorry” (the queen of the ANTs) from my vocabulary. Be patient and notice how your brain adapts. It’s neuroplasticity at its best!

Over-preparation stifles our brilliance.

Many motivated professionals lean heavily on preparation to ensure their success. And most of them over-prepare.

I tied this concept back to something Alice had said earlier in our session. She mentioned her need to be “super polished”. When I asked why she felt this way, she said she feared that her company’s leadership wouldn’t take her seriously if she weren’t buttoned up.

It is indeed the case that women have to perform markedly better than men. Even when that’s accomplished, their credentials are often questioned. Consider that Ginger Rogers danced every step that Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels! Ginger still didn’t command the same regard and credit as Fred.

Where I push back is that by WORRYING about it, again, our protector the amygdala steps in and releases that cortisol. This disallows the Prefrontal Cortex to fully engage and boast Alice’s brilliance.

So, I asked Alice to consider three reasons she could be more effective by preparing less for meetings:

  1. Over-preparing is often a form of procrastination.
  2. When we overprepare, we tend to be more proactive and less responsive. This stifles the ability to get into flow and interact with those in the room.
  3. Alice is an expert in her field. Even at her “worst”, she would present within 20% of her best. Think about that in terms of one’s expertise. It is a liberating thought! At least it was for Alice.

I then invited Alice to try this for herself when preparing for a low-stakes meeting. Would you consider trying this for yourself, too?

The Epiphany

If you’ve ever taken an improv class, you have learned to stay away from the word “but”. That word tends to close down conversation. “Yes, and”, by contrast, opens up thought channels.

Likewise in the brain, when we hear a positive sentiment at the beginning of a statement, followed by a “but”, everything said up until that point is figurately erased. Our sense is that the important part of the message lands following that three-letter word.

This is also an especially sensitive word when it comes to receiving feedback. “The presentation was great, but…” or “Honey, the dinner you cooked was wonderful, but…”

My epiphany was that when used as a positive reframe (via the growth mindset), it’s absolutely effective. Thank goodness my attitude is “never say never”, because two superlatives occasionally do make sense.

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  • Deborah Goldstein

    Deborah Goldstein, recovering restaurateur, has been working with DRIVEN professionals since 2009 as an executive coach and workshop facilitator. It’s Deborah’s personal mission to support people in realizing their greatest career and personal potential. She works one-on-one with clients and she partners with whole organizations to build cultures of trust, alleviate workplace stress, and empower teams and individuals to optimize their productivity.

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