Something I’ve noticed about the thoughtful leaders I work with is that they can fall prey to unhelpful thinking.
You might say that everyone has a tendency to do this.
However, I find that thoughtful leaders are often more introspective and may have a tendency to get wrapped up in unhelpful thoughts.
Of course, the thoughts that people most often become wrapped up in are negative thoughts.
The ones that assault us throughout the day and deep into the night.
“I’m a failure.”
“I can’t believe I did that – how stupid am I?”
“I should have said <something else> instead.”
We are wired to focus on negative experiences more than positive ones, so these are the thoughts that stay with us.
Rumination = Unhelpful Thinking
Psychology Professor Edward Watkins describes rumination as:
“Repetitive, prolonged and recurrent negative thinking about one’s self, feelings, personal concerns and upsetting experiences”.
According to Prof. Watkins and his colleague Henrietta Roberts, rumination can have a number of negative effects, including:
- Magnifying negative moods
- Potentially exacerbating several mental health conditions such as anxiety; and
- Maintaining our physiological stress responses.
In my own words, this unhelpful thinking can mean that we feel bad about ourselves for a long period of time, be more prone to mental health problems and also feel the ongoing impact of stress long after the original negative event is over.
For leaders, it’s obviously important to try to reduce this type of thinking. After all, having a negative voice inside your head will likely make you feel a whole lot less confident about what you’re doing.
Simple Ways to Tackle Unhelpful Thinking
Over the years, I’ve become increasingly interested in the thinking part of leadership including what helps, and what doesn’t.
Personally, I’m very introspective by nature.
I find this to be a valuable trait in making sense of events and emotions, but it can go too far.
Especially in my younger years, I would often find myself caught in the rumination trap. Thinking negative thoughts over and over and experiencing negative events time and time again.
I call this “unhelpful thinking” because it doesn’t get us anywhere.
It reduces confidence, makes us feel miserable and does not include any practical steps to get us to a better place.
I used to think that I could think through my problems. To some extent, I believe this is true, but we really need to take a coaching approach to make this happen. Simply thinking about a situation more and more does not necessarily help us.
By a coaching approach, I mean acknowledging our current situation, but then also asking ourselves “So what are you gonna do about it?” and moving to take constructive action.
Next, I’m going to suggest some research-backed approaches that you can try to reduce this unhelpful thinking and start taking action instead.
Learn More: Worrying About Work? Tips For Thoughtful Leaders.
1. Use Psychological Distancing to Stop Unhelpful Thinking
This concept is quite simple and can be powerful.
In the paper “How ‘you’ makes meaning”, Orvell, Kross and Gelman discuss Psychological Distancing through the use of the word “you” when reflecting on our experiences.
When reflecting on a past event, instead of speaking to yourself in the first-person (“I”), you refer to yourself in the third-person instead, such as by using “you”, “they” or your first name.
For example, instead of saying:
“I could have said ‘no’ to taking on more work.”
You would say:
“You could have said ‘no’ to taking on more work.”
This does a few interesting things. First, it tends to reduce your emotional involvement in the situation, because it references your contribution from an outsider, impartial perspective.
Second, the use of “you” or “they” broadens the context to include a greater group of people.
When you say “I”, the focus is narrow – it’s just you. But when you refer to yourself in the third-person, it generalises the situation as if this could apply to many other people too, not just you.
It’s a simple reframe that can be used when simply sitting and thinking by yourself, or through an activity such as journalling.
When I first read about this, I was surprised to realise that I naturally tend to do this automatically – as if I’m having a conversation with myself. You can do it too.
2. Try Temporal Distancing to Reduce Unhelpful Thinking
Temporal distancing is a little different, but also works to reduce the stress of unhelpful thinking.
In the paper “This too shall pass: temporal distance and the regulation of emotional distress”, the authors discuss this concept as a way to reduce the emotional impact from reflecting on negative events.
The word temporal refers to ‘time’, so it’s no surprise that this technique involves reflecting on a situation from a distant future perspective.
In other words, we may reflect on a recent negative event from a far-distant future, such as five or ten years from now.
This could be performed using a reflective question such as:
“How will this situation feel ten years from now?”
In many cases, time heals all wounds.
Embarrassing yourself in front of the CEO may feel terrible today, but it’s likely to be a far less significant event if you consider it from ten years down the track.
I’ve also seen a similar concept used by consultants in what I’ve heard called back-casting.
This is where you start from a point five-years into the future and think back to the present. You brainstorm backwards – going from the future to the present, including all the steps it would take.
This approach can have the effect of minimising any pessimistic thoughts from the current reality and instead taking a more optimistic future-focused perspective.
3. Perspective Broadening
The last technique to consider in this post is that of perspective-broadening, which is something I often use with coaching clients.
This is discussed in a paper by Travers-Hill, Dunn, Hoppitt, Hitchcock and Dalgleish specifically with reference to people with a history of recurrent depression.
Although the ideas in this post are not treatment for mental health disorders, I still find this a useful tool personally, and for coaching.
In a similar vein to Psychological Distancing, this technique aims to widen our perspective of a negative circumstance, so we aren’t just thinking about it from a personal standpoint.
The authors suggest doing this through the use of reflective questions such as:
“What would you say to someone else who is experiencing this situation?”
I was recently coaching somebody who was prone to putting their own needs on the back-burner, instead focusing on everybody else. While this type of helpfulness can seem like an admirable trait, it often has its drawbacks.
My client was feeling stressed and overwhelmed with their workload. So I asked the question:
“If your colleague was experiencing this, what advice would you give them?”
Their advice? To look after themselves as their top priority.
So then, the conversation started to move deeper – into why they weren’t following their own good advice!
Again, Perspective Broadening could be used during your own personal introspection, or as part of reflective activities such as journalling.
Could You Use These Techniques to Think Better?
I enjoy techniques like these because they’re simple, practical and within our control.
If we can reduce the mental stress involved in rumination, we’re likely to be able to think more clearly and respond in a way that we’ll be proud of, rather than reacting in an emotionally-charged manner.
You could also use these types of techniques as part of a team. Reflecting back on a difficult project, or some sort of failure.
Try them for yourself and see if they make a difference for you.
What do you do to reduce unhelpful thinking that can derail your leadership? Let me and all the other thoughtful leaders know in the comments!