This week I’m with two of my colleagues, teaching a five-day leadership and management “bootcamp” for high-potential mid-level women managers in the cable industry. One of my responsibilities, over the course of the week, is to hold ‘office hours’: 30-minute mini-coaching sessions that the women can sign up for, if they’d like to talk to me about some issue they’re facing.

One topic that keeps coming up again and again is ‘self-talk’—that mental monologue that runs in our heads pretty much non-stop—and how to manage it.

You do know you talk to yourself all the time, right?

Pretty much everyone has that non-stop mental voice, and most of us aren’t very aware of it. And unfortunately, that continuous internal commentary can really have a tremendous impact on how we feel and how we behave. Sometimes what we say to ourselves is pretty benign (“I love oranges,” “great shoes,” “it’s hot today,”) but often it’s not. Too often, our mental monologue consists of unhelpful and inaccurate statements about ourselves and others (“that guy doesn’t know anything,” “I’m going to blow this presentation,” “she hates me”) .

The good news is, you can put it under your conscious control: you can manage how you talk to yourself. This is a very powerful and hugely under-exercised capability. Learning to gain more control over how you talk to yourself is powerful for anyone, but is especially helpful in learning to be a more effective leader. Because it’s such a critical leader capability, I’ve covered it in some depth in my new book, Leading So People Will Follow. Since the book’s not coming out till October, I thought I’d give you a little preview here—a summary of how to talk to yourself in a more accurate and supportive way:

  • Recognize: The first step in managing your self-talk is to “hear” it. Unless you’re aware of this internal monologue, it’s impossible to change it. Start by simply recognizing what you’re saying to yourself. For instance, let’s say you’re thinking about a new project for which you’re accountable. You realize you’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed. When you focus on your thoughts about the project, it might be something like, “There are so many reasons this won’t happen. I should just give up.” Suddenly, your sense of hopelessness or overwhelm makes sense—you’re believing that negative voice in your head.
  • Record: Writing down your self-talk creates a useful separation; when you see it written down, it feels less like an intrinsic part of you. If you write down that self-talk statement, above: “There are so many reasons this won’t happen. I should just give up,” you’ll be better able to look objectively at how this negative self-talk affects you: perhaps making you more likely to abandon the project, or to feel cynical or hopeless about the possibility of accomplishing it.
  • Revise: After you’ve recorded any inaccurate, unhelpful self-talk, you can decide how to “rethink” it. This step is the core of the process. Your goal is to create alternative self-talk that you’ll believe and that will lead to a more useful response. For instance, if you try to substitute self-talk that’s falsely positive, like, “There are no obstacles—nothing can stop me,” you simply won’t believe it, and therefore it will have no impact on you: you’ll just revert back to your original negative self-talk. What could you say to yourself instead, that’s believable and that would create a more useful response? How about something like: “I know there are reasons this might not work. I’ll look at them carefully, so I have the best chance of understanding and overcoming them.”
  • Repeat: Like any habit, managing your self-talk requires repetition. Substituting more hopeful and accurate self-talk for your negative self-talk will be helpful the very first time you do it. And you’ll need to consciously do it again the next time the voice in your head comes up with a similarly unhelpful statement. And again. This is a process for creating new habits of thought. Whenever you find yourself falling into a pattern of unhelpful self-talk—either overly negative or overly positive— consciously substitute your revised, more realistic and accurate self-talk.

So that’s it. Until you try it, you may not see see how dramatically helpful it can be. Think of it this way: imagine if you had a ‘friend’ who was saying the kinds of unsupportive, unhelpful, negative things you sometimes say to yourself. Would you just nod and accept it? I hope not. By learning to manage your self-talk, you can make sure you’re not getting in the way of your own success and happiness.