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The Inner Game

Many of the leaders I have met through coaching have shared their discomfort and fear with difficult conversations, speaking up to express a contrarian’s point of view, or speaking in public altogether. Leaders, however, don’t have the option of simply avoiding these types of high stakes situations. Difficult conversations, offering opinions, speaking up and presenting are requirements for effective leadership in all organizations.

Tim Gallwey, sports psychologist and author of the Inner Game of Golf and other books in the series on Tennis, Skiing, Music, and Work, provides a formula for us to rethink our approach to wrestling with this type of discomfort and fear. The formula is P = p – i, where big P is Performance, small p is potential, and i is interference. In other words, our performance will be equal to our potential (the combination of our talent, knowledge, experience, preparation for the task at hand) less anything that gets in our way.

Looking at potential, we can rationally see that in most cases, our talent, knowledge and experience have gotten us to the place we find ourselves in, and we can trust that it is adequate. We can also prepare properly for the situation or event to the best of our ability.

Next, looking at interference, we can start to observe ourselves to notice what is getting in our way and distracting us from performing at the level of our potential.

At times, interference may comprise external factors, such as negative body language, facial expressions and vocal tone of the people with whom we are speaking. Other external factors may include equipment malfunctions, background noises in or outside of the room, missing documents, etc. In the majority of cases, however, the internal factors are the greatest source of interference.

Our thinking mind splits into two tracks that Gallwey calls Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 tells us how we should be doing something and Self 2 is trying to focus on the task at hand, the conversation, speech, presentation, etc. My coaching clients and students describe their Self 1 commentary as follows: “He’s going to get angry when I give him this feedback.” “I should have said that differently.” “I wish I had practiced more.” “I don’t think they like what I’m saying.” “I’m doing a terrible job.” And so on. It’s clear that these Self 1 comments are simply not helpful.

Using inner game principles to stop interference in a high performance activity, we must bring our attention back to the task at hand, back to what Self 2 is doing. In order to do this, we must be very clear on what the task at hand is. What is our message? What are we trying to accomplish? Choosing a specific word to use as a signpost to bring our self back can help a lot. When we notice our self getting caught up in Self 1 conversation, think of our signpost. It will get our mental attention back on track and focused on our task at hand.

When singing, I apply this technique using WORDS as my signpost. When I find myself self-critiquing or worrying about my voice, I think WORDS, and that brings my focus back to the very immediate task of articulating the words and meaning in the song. Through this I am able to be more relaxed and remain fully present to the music and to the audience.

You can learn to use and access this inner game technique by practicing it before any high stakes situation or event. Choose a signpost word that will be easy to remember. In your talk-through or dry run, notice the level of your interference. Practice getting yourself back on track with your signpost whenever you notice an interfering thought enter your mind. You will find that it not only will help you perform better, but will also increase your confidence. With your signpost to help you stay on track, you will be going into the conversation, presentation or even your golf game ready to reach your full potential.

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