How to change limiting beliefs 2: What’s the real issue here?

Very often we are not aware of our limiting beliefs. After all, if we knew about them, and we were aware that they were limiting, we would probably have done something about them by now.

If we can identify the beliefs that limit us, we are doing ourselves a real service. In the terms used by Chris Argyris, we would be moving beyond ‘single loop learning’ (where we change our actions based on the results we get, but always within the limits set by our ‘theory in use‘ that we aren’t even aware of)  to ‘double loop learning’ where were can also examine – and change – our beliefs and values, so that our ‘espoused theory‘ (the reasons why we think we do things) and our ‘theory in use’ (the real reasons why we do things) become more aligned.

One of the most useful things you can do for yourself is to hunt down and change your limiting beliefs. The resulting increase in self-awareness will make you more effective as a leader, since self-awareness is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence, and high emotional intelligence is the best predictor of high performance in leadership and management roles.

The best place to go hunting for limiting beliefs is situations where you feel stuck, frustrated, or a failure. Very often these situations arise because our actions, based on an unrecognised limiting belief, make them happen. Usually, we don’t see the link (although people around us often can), because the belief that limits us doesn’t seem like a belief to us – it just seems like the way things actually are. The belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

If, for example, you believe that people won’t take you seriously if you say what you really think, you will tend to feel nervous whenever you do decide to speak up. This unresourceful emotional state will express itself in a shaky voice, unconfident facial expression, submissive body language… and as people judge your credibility largely on non-verbal signals, they probably won’t take you seriously. The belief has proved itself once again, and the memory of the episode joins the ‘database’ of other reference experiences shoring up the belief and making it seem even ‘truer’ than before.

How can we change this? The real issue in a meeting that you want to influence is not really whether they take you seriously, but whether you influence the decisions that are made. Being taken seriously is only a means to that end. If you were focused on the real issue – your desired outcome of having the meeting go the way you want – your attention would be focused outside of yourself, on how the meeting was going, which people might be ready to change their minds, and on what you needed to do to persuade them. Consequently, you would be less self-conscious, more credible, and more likely to reach your real desired outcome.

Even if the decision didn’t go your way that time, a focus on your real desired outcome would mean that after the meeting you would be paying attention to what you could learn from how things went, rather than beating yourself up on how you blew it – so you would be more effective in the next meeting, and able to learn from any setbacks.

So – a good way to change a limiting belief, once it’s identified, is to ask yourself “What’s the real issue here? What’s my real desired outcome in this situation? What else could I focus on that would be more useful?”

This strategy, of focusing on a more useful or more important desired outcome, is known as the “Another Outcome” pattern in the set of 16 ‘Sleight of Mouth’ patterns identified by NLP trainer Robert Dilts. The exercise that follows is adapted from Robert’s excellent book Sleight of Mouth: The Magic of Conversational Belief Change.

    1. Think of a situation in which you feel uncomfortable, unresourceful, or you’re not getting the results you want.
    2. What negative judgement or generalisation have you made about yourself, others, or the way things are, and what is the desired outcome implied by that judgement?

      (e.g. the judgement in the case of the nervous speaker above might be “Getting nervous in meetings means that people won’t take me seriously.” The desired outcome might be “I want people to take me seriously” or even “I want to escape from this meeting and avoid all meetings in future.”)

    3. Ask yourself what other outcomes might be more useful or relevant in that situation. For example, these might include becoming more credible as a speaker, or influencing the meeting to go the way you want. If you get stuck, ask yourself “Given that I do sometimes find myself in these situations, what do I want to happen? If the outcome I identified was a means to an end, what end would that be?” (NB the ‘given that I do sometimes find myself in these situations’ is important, as it identifies the ‘escape and avoidance’ option as not relevant or useful in that situation).
    4. Choose which of these outcomes makes the negative generalisation or judgement less relevant, and notice where it directs your attention. What do you now choose to believe about the situation in the light of this new outcome? (e.g. “I am learning to notice what works in meetings, in order to influence the decisions they reach”).

Another example of applying the “Another Outcome” pattern to shift a limiting belief, this time used in a coaching conversation, is in the earlier article How Limiting Beliefs Can Affect Your Leadership. In this case we shifted the outcome from “telling people what to do” to “getting the best results”, and so shifting the belief that “you’re only a leader if you are directing or advising your people all the time”.

More ways of challenging and letting go of limiting beliefs next time. Do let me know how you get on by leaving a comment below!

© 2010 – 2021, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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