What Voices Are You Listening To? Steps toward Achieving a Productive Life

Recently in my community, a respected professional took his life. His wife and children were heart-broken at the passing of their father. This event caused me to ask myself, “What voices am I listening to?”

Chris Argyris and his colleague Donald Schon introduced the notion that all of us have an internal voice that is constantly editorializing, analyzing, criticizing, and judging what others say and do. These mental exercises lead us to what they called our “undiscussables”, things we think and feel but don’t share.[i]They encouraged us to explore these thoughts and feelings as a means of understanding and learning about the issues that confront us in order that we may solve our challenges more effectively. Not only do we engage in formulating negative judgments about others, but we also engage in the same activity concerning ourselves.

In addition to the internal voices that confront us, we are also confronted with a number of external voices from the media, our leaders, politicians, colleagues, peers, companions, and even trusted family members. Many of these voices are extremely debilitating, confrontational, and destructive. They do not elevate, inspire, or celebrate the challenges and opportunities that are present in our daily lives.

Here are a number of voices that seem confront us most frequently:

1. Belittling voices are used to attack or diminish the worth of others. Such voices often put down others in an attempt to elevate oneself. They are disrespectful and demeaning and have no place in a culture that values appreciation, contribution, and civility towards others.

2. Criticizing voices often are used to discredit the thinking or efforts of others. What we ought to understand is that what we criticize in others is usually what we would criticize about ourselves. Such voices usually lack the objectivity required to help others learn of their deficiencies and take effort to improve. These voices sap motivation and dampen individual effort.

3. Blaming voices are usually used as a means of shifting responsibility to someone else. When we don’t get what we need from others, we need to ask ourselves how our behavior contributed to the shortfall of another’s efforts, rather than doing nothing but passing the blame to someone else.

4. Confusing voices may take us off our present course of action by challenging the effectiveness or meaningfulness of our efforts and the worthiness of our goals and aspirations. These voices are often rife with opinion and judgment that have little or no support or evidence for their support. If we let them, these voices may pull us in a variety of different directions that increase our confusion and leave us wondering what course we should take.

5. Seductive voices often are used as a means of thwarting our efforts. Sometimes these voices attempt to persuade us to take the easiest course of action or to believe that we can achieve superior results with a minimal amount of effort. Such a voice would have us believe that one has a “right” to certain results where no effort or sacrifice on our part has been expended toward the attainment of the desired results.

6. Self-deprecating voices are an attack on oneself. Such voices find acceptance when one has not achieved the desired results. Because we fail to realize that we are not our performance, we allow our performance to not only define who we are, but also determine our future efforts. Our emphasis should be more on the opportunity of future success rather than past failures.

No matter how many voices you might be able to identify, what is important is how we handle the voices that we frequently hear. Here are some suggestions for steeling your resolve and improving your success.

1. Center yourself. Think about what is important to you, what you want to accomplish and the worthiness of your goals and aspirations. You might also take a moment to examine your goals and ask yourself if your actions will contribute to the achievement of your goals. I only say that because sometimes I have noticed that it is easy to focus on the path rather than the destination.  

2. Listen to what the voices are saying. I have found that if you don’t acknowledge the voice that it has a tendency to go underground and influence you outside the realm of your consciousness. Listen for the detail with which the voice may speak, but don’t be surprised if you only hear judgments and broad generalities.

3. Challenge the message. I have found it useful to keep a journal of the negative statements that I hear. If you write them down then you make visible what you are hearing. For every negative statement that I hear, I have found it useful to write down two positive statements that run counter to the negative statement. Some people have told me that when they hear the negative voice, they look for an opportunity to say aloud, “That’s a lie!” and then identify two positive statement out loud.

4. Turn down the volume.Sometimes just going to a quiet place or taking a moment for self-reflection and evaluation is a great way to turn down the volume and intensity with which such messages come.

5. Seek the truth. Sometimes the voices you hear may speak the truth about your efforts or your results. If what you are hearing is accurate, then learn from it and choose a different course of action. Develop new plans and go to work. Find ways to celebrate your successes and don’t be discouraged when you don’t succeed. If what the voices are telling you are devoid of evidence, then you know that you can discount them.

6. Steel your resolve. What a great word “steel” is. It suggests that you become strengthened, unbending, strong, and resilient in the accomplishment of your goals. Because our results are determined by our thoughts, we must become more aware of our thoughts and keep them on track to drive the behavior that lead to the desired results.

7. Change the message. I am a big believer in creating a life vision and mission. Research shows that the recitation of positive affirmations can have a powerful influence on your feelings and thought processes. Creating some positive statements of belief and aspiration of who you are and what you will accomplish will help you to change your thought processes and your results. What you can conceive and believe, you can achieve.[ii]

Whether the voices you hear are the result of your internal musings or from outside sources, recognizing the message and taking steps to shape that message into something constructive can have a powerful impact on your results. Being more aware of the voices you listen to and then managing the effect of those messages not only requires greater awareness on your part, but also deliberate effort to create what you want. Hopefully you can learn to celebrate your shortcomings as a vehicle to your success and not be dissuaded by the ever-present, negative voices that surround us.


Chris Argyris and Donald A. Schon. Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1974

[ii] Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich, originally published 1937

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What people are saying

Barbara Suderman | April 14, 2016 | REPLY
I can honestly say that I have heard all of these voices in the past more so then --than now. Why? Because I recognize the negativity associated with all of them. When that happens --I get busy with the magnolias---send it down the river and send the magnolia with it. That stops the negativity for me and I am much calmer. Also, I have been working on anger issues and know how to deal with those much better. In short, I stay focused and try--try--not to get derailed by negative people or negative thinking. This article was excellent and I hope others see its worth as much as I did! Thank you!
John Stoker | April 16, 2016 | REPLY
You are very welcome. Thank you for commenting for all to learn from. I think as long as a person has a strategy for recognizing the voices and then doing something, any thing to negate their effect, then one is well on the way to not being influenced by them. Best wishes!
Kathy Polozola | April 14, 2016 | REPLY
Our work community recently lost a well-respected professional to suicide. His accomplishments were recognized around the world, and he received a life-time achievement award from the company. He was active in his church, had many children, and was considered a "good man" in every sense. How does one come to terms with such a suicide when it doesn't seem to make any sense.
John Stoker | April 16, 2016 | REPLY
That is the challenge, isn't it? It doesn't make sense to us because we are not them. My guess is that people get overwhelmed to the point that they do not see another option, but to end it all. So they do something to remove themselves from the pain and depression that they feel about their lives. I can't help but think that when they get to the other side, that they look back and realize that they could have handled things in a different way. For those of us who are left behind, we would do well to look for opportunities to brighten and lift everyone we meet. We may never know how our kindness may positively impact another's life or perspective. Thanks for sharing. J