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Managing the Critical Voices Inside Your Head

06 Apr
At 8:20 am, my twelve-year-old daughter, Isabelle, was rushing to meet her ski group. She was 20 minutes late and stressed – she takes her skiing very seriously and was training for a race in a couple of days.Near the competition center, she ran into one of her coaches, Joey. He looked at her, then his watch. “If this were a race day,” he told her, with a disapproving scowl, “I would tell you to turn around and go home.”

His words stung and she burst into tears. A few moments later, she was greeted by another one of her coaches, Vicky, who saw how stressed she was.

“Honey, don’t worry,” she said. “This isn’t a race. It’s okay that you’re running a little late. You’ll just catch up with your group on top of the mountain.”

Two vastly different coaches, two vastly different responses. Who’s right? I bet you have an opinion.

But that’s not the point.

My advice to Isabelle? You will have Joeys in your life and you will have Vickys. They will show up as teachers, bosses, colleagues, and friends.

So, I said to her, it’s a good idea to get used to the different responses without getting thrown off balance. You can’t control how people respond to you, but you can control how you take them in and how you respond to them.

But let’s go one step deeper. The truth is, we all have a Joey and a Vicky inside, and they can both be useful.  Joey might seem unkind, but his high expectations and low tolerance for failure can be helpful in driving us to be our best. On the other hand, sometimes we need empathetic support. To some, Vicky may appear soft. But her comfort and reassurance can be useful, especially during times of stress.

Here’s the key: Be strategic and intentional about who you listen to  – and when – even if the voices are inside your head. In fact, especially if the voices are inside your head. Those can be the sneakiest. It’s pretty easy to call Joey a jerk and ignore him; it’s much harder to dismiss the voice in your head because, well, it’s you.

Try this tactic: when you hear the voices, give them names and personalities. Imagine a Joey on one side, a Vicky on the other.

  1. Notice the voices in your head as voices. A lot of the time, most of us simply believe what we hear – either from other people or from ourselves. If your inner voice calls you lazy, it’s hard not to think you’re lazy. It helps if you imagine it’s Joey calling you lazy instead.
  1. Resist the urge to judge whether the voices in your head are right. It’s impossible to know and it doesn’t matter anyway. Are you lazy? The truth is that you probably are, in some ways. And, in other ways, you’re not. But that’s not the right question.
  1. Instead, think about the outcome you want and ask this question: Is what this voice is saying — and how it’s saying it — useful right now? This is the same question you should be asking if you’re confronted by an actual Joey or Vicky. Is this voice helpful to me in this particular moment? If you think it’ll motivate you, listen to it. If it will demoralize you, don’t.

This is an important skill: the ability to ignore critical voices when they’re destructive, without discounting them entirely. They might be useful another time.

The goal is flexibility. Cultivate a varied group of critics and coaches, both internal and external. Be aware of who is speaking and when you should listen.

Comfort with multiple voices is particularly important if you are a manager. You need to be able to be Joey or Vicky, depending on the situation. Sometimes, people need to feel your high expectations and disapproval. Other times, they need your gentleness and empathy. Don’t default to one or the other. Pause to assess what’s needed and then make a choice.

“It’s hard,” Isabelle told me after we spoke about the different voices and messages they brought with them, “How do I stop from thinking Joey is just a jerk? Or that I’m lame for being late?”

“He might be a jerk and you may be lame,” I said, “but not because he said so. Here’s the question: Will you be more likely to be on time tomorrow because of what he said?”

“Yes,” she conceded. “But it felt terrible.”

“And, when you feel terrible, can you hear Vicky’s voice too?”

“Yes,” she said, beginning to smile.

“Then it’s a good thing you have two coaches,” I told her.

Because sometimes, both voices are the perfect combination.


Peter Bregman is CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that strengthens leadership in people and in organizations through programs (including the Bregman Leadership Intensive), coaching, and as a consultant to CEOs and their leadership teams. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Four Seconds (February 2015). To receive an email when he posts, click here.

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