Usually, when addressing self-talk, we’re dealing with the inner voice that constantly narrates our thoughts. It affects how we perceive ourselves, others, and the situations we’re in, subtly entrenching beliefs that can often be limiting. 

Unhelpful individual self-talk can sound like “I don’t belong here,” “This will never work,” or “Bad things always happen to me.” These limiting beliefs can hold individuals back and even contribute to creating negative outcomes.

Great leaders understand that teams also have self-talk that impacts their effectiveness and holds them back. Let’s explore how you can hear the team’s self-talk and decide how to help them so they can get unstuck.

Hearing Team Self-Talk

Unlike silent, individual self-talk, you can observe team self-talk in the interactions of the team members.  This isn’t just about what’s being said, but also the nonverbal cues that create a collective team narrative. 

Here’s what to pay attention to:

Words: Listen closely to the language used during meetings and discussions. Are there phrases like “we can’t,” “that’s always a problem,” or “no point in trying?” Another common challenge is using global words like “always,” “never,” “everyone,” and “no one.” These can indicate a team is stuck in a negative self-talk loop.Tone of voice: Does the tone suggest resignation, sarcasm, or frustration? A team that believes it can’t succeed will often use a defeated or cynical tone in its communication.Body language: Crossed arms, slumped postures, and lack of eye contact can all signal a team feeling disengaged or unmotivated.What’s not happening: Are some team members disengaging or avoiding conflict? Are some team members excluded from certain types of conversations? Is there a lack of brainstorming, problem-solving, or risk-taking?

Take some time to observe without rushing to analyze or assume the intent behind the actions. (Note: a major exception to this is when conflict is escalating, where timely intervention is essential.)


Once you’ve observed these elements, take a step back and analyze the overall team self-talk narrative. What are the patterns, and how is it all affecting the team?

Benefits: Is this negativity creating a sense of camaraderie or shared experience? This might be the case in a situation where the team is united against a common enemy (e.g., unrealistic deadlines). Even maintaining the status quo power structure can be a compelling benefit to several team members.Costs: Negative self-talk can hinder the team in several ways like decreased creativity, lower motivation, and escalating, unproductive conflict.


Just as with our internal self-talk, we tend to respond defensively to external forces attempting to directly confront it. Imagine someone telling you, “You’re wrong, you can succeed!” It probably wouldn’t be very effective. The same goes for teams.

Instead of a direct frontal assault, coaching approaches will be more effective. Here are a few ways to address negative team self-talk:

Curiosity: Instead of attacking the self-talk, ask questions that spark curiosity. “I think I’m seeing a pattern. What’s your perspective on this?”Questions: Use open-ended questions to encourage the team to explore solutions and possibilities. “What are some ways we could approach this challenge?”Springboard: Remind the team of their past successes and strengths. “What are some ways we’ve succeeded with similar challenges in the past? What could we apply from that to help us now?”

For deeply entrenched negative self-talk, consider how the team can attain the benefits they are getting from their current self-talk in another way, and then use the approaches above to explore alternatives.


By being a mindful observer and using a coaching approach, you can help your team shift their self-talk from limiting to empowering. This will lead to a more positive, productive, and successful team environment.

And this is how you can help your team get unstuck.

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