The Dangers of Being in a Conversation with Ourselves

A little less conversation, a little more action please” Elvis Presley

We all talk to ourselves. If ever you’ve been alone and shouted out “Damn!” (or much worse), you’ve been talking to yourself. Some people talk aloud to themselves whilst they are doing something, or thinking about something. Most of us keep that conversation inside our heads. Being in a conversation with yourself is part of being human. We are thinking and we tend to think in words, in a kind of spoken inner voice.

Shall I? Shan’t I?

The problem arises when we tend to only be in a conversation with ourselves, not really allowing in the voices of other people – people who challenge us, ask us difficult questions, question our assumptions and even suggest other ways of doing things.

Businesses that are in trouble are often locked into a conversation with themselves. Even as their profits plummet and cash flow reaches crisis they are in a conversation with themselves:

“I can sort this out. I’ve been in worse situations than this and got myself out of them” 

“All I need is a few more weeks”

“The problem isn’t really that bad.”

“I’ll try this and see if it works. If not, I’ll try that.”

Who is left out of the conversation? Customers and clients are often excluded. Some businesses go through the motions of surveying customers and asking for feedback without ever really taking it on board.

Shareholders are left out of the conversation and are only really heard at angry board meetings and votes of no confidence, and not even then.

Suppliers are left out of the conversation, even though they have much experience to offer and have a direct effect on the chain of value of the business’s product or service.

Funders and investors are left out of the conversation, usually until it is too late. They are viewed as irrelevant, biased and out of touch with the true reality of the business.

Employees are left out of the conversation, seen as a threat, only focused on self-interest, or even trouble makers.

Friends and colleagues are left out of the conversation as the business leader or owner doesn’t want to hear tough questions or difficult challenges.

Even the business owner or leader can leave themselves out of the conversation as impersonal “business rules” take over and the business either automatically copies the best and worst perceived practices of competitors or nosedives on autopilot, crashing into the ground. Then the business is truly in a conversation with itself as even the pilot has lost control of the plane.

The problem of too much self-conversation is obvious, yet it doesn’t stop people getting stuck doing it. WIthout outside input to refresh our thinking, to shake us up, to offer new ideas and insights, we tend to recycle our dreams, our thoughts, our habits and impulses. We become the only source of advice to ourself and that advice soon goes stale.

Signs of a business stuck in a conversation with itself include:

– having no real idea what your customers and clients and communities really want

– having a distorted and idealised picture of your finances

– being convinced you are the only valid commentator on your business and the only source of answers to questions and solutions to problems

– not taking time to seek the advice and input of colleagues, friends, customers, suppliers, advisors and investors

– being out of touch with trends and developments in the wider world

– a board of directors of a business in trouble seeing itself as the only chance of a way out of that trouble and never acknowledging they might be responsible for getting the business into trouble in the first place

– mistrust of outside help and advice, mistrusting the motives of other key stakeholders in the business

– creating ever more elaborate and clever strategies for moving forward based on a very closed conversation – either the leader alone, or in a very small group of the same people, relentlessly and repeatedly meeting with little turnover of group membership

Not surprisingly, the conversation needs to be opened up, widened, with more people invited in. Processes such as action learning can help to open up that conversation as they invite input into the conversation from other people, offering new perspectives on the self-conversation. A self-conversation needs to be acknowledged and named as stale, now the cause of, not the solution to, the problems being faced.

Owner-managers and self-employed people can become very arrogant, often trading for years on past, sometimes one-off success. Pioneers and inventors can feel their “magic touch” is immortal and they close their eyes and ears to the disaster of that “problematic second album”, of maintaining and enhancing success, not through continued maverick isolation, but through openness, humility and a pair of listening ears.

You can’t stop the conversation with yourself and you shouldn’t try.

No one can tell you what you deeply want, or who you feel you truly are, but you. No one can tap into your own deeper instincts and intuitions. But you are not a closed system, you are an open one, in a changing environment. Openness and flexibility are vital to the  survival of a business. When you are in an open conversation with the world around you, you can sense better what is needed, both “out there” and also inside. It isn’t always comfortable to hear challenging questions and advice. But it can, literally, be a life saver.


  1. Nice post, Paul, a very valuable conversation for people to have with themselves – hopefully to encourage us to get other heads in there to take a look.

  2. Thanks for the positive feedback, Harold and for underlining the importance of “going in there”!

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