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The dangers of leaders using psychological language

An old electrician once told me, “a little bit of information is dangerous”. He was referring to untrained people playing with electrical circuitry. Watching a few Youtube videos about how to work with electrical wiring does not make you an electrician. In fact, it’s downright deadly.

While fixing your own electrical systems is obviously not a risk worth taking, what about the risks amateur psychologists take when they use the language of psychology in everyday conversations?

During a recent coaching session, an executive reported, “My colleague John is a narcissist and his whole team is dysfunctional. The CEO is planning a restructure to take them out of the picture.”

When asked what he meant by this, the executive realised he didn’t really know what he meant and he had been dismissing his colleague and the entire team because of his own assumptions. He left the coaching session with an intention to check his assumptions and discuss the planned restructure with the CEO. “Maybe we could be approaching this differently,” he mused.

Judgments like this happen often and they are not only unkind but dangerous for the organisation’s bottom line.

Dismissing someone as ‘dysfunctional’ can be a wonderfully sneaky defensive strategy of your own ego. In doing so, you avoid examining the impact your own behaviour has on others.

Rather than using psychology to judge others, use it to understand yourself. Learning about how your own attitudes and behaviours affect your colleagues will enable you to uncover hidden strengths in others – helping build a stronger team.

Here are five tips for leveraging psychological language as part of your leadership strategy.

1. Know your self-talk

All of us have an internal dialogue. According to neuroscientist Daniel G. Amen, we each have up to 70,000 thoughts per day with 80 per cent of those triggered by fear.

The ego is determined to recreate the emotional dynamics it is familiar with from childhood, and your thought patterns are driven by beliefs and assumptions linked to these old emotional dynamics.

For example, when someone holds the belief I can’t win, their mind will foster thousands of examples to prove the belief true. Confirming the belief can be emotionally satisfying because it will leave the person with the feeling of hopelessness. No one logically aspires for hopelessness and yet if that feeling reminds them of the emotional dynamic of their childhood, their ego will be satisfied.

It’s tricky to master, but it is possible to be aware of these patterns. Listen to your self-talk and see if you can sit with the emotional dynamic it carries.

2. Distinguish between ‘absolute’ and ‘objective’ language within your self-talk.

Many of our fear-driven thoughts come from the ego either celebrating or chastising itself and can be recognised as absolute or ‘black and white’ language. We tell ourselves we should be stronger, smarter, richer or prettier. I’m amazing, I’m an idiot, I wish I was better, I deserve to be respected, I’m ugly, or I’m the smartest person here.

If the ego grabs hold of psychological language you may start to hear things like, I’m depressed, I’m OCD or I’m dysfunctional. All of this is very black and white – there’s no room for solutions to these perceived problems. Absolute language places you into a child-like dynamic and limits access to your adult mind.

The ego also likes to direct its absolutism to other people and the outside world. They should be more professional. It was better in the old days. We need more money. The government should do something. You’re an idiot, Everyone else is stupid. Life’s hard.

The ego is comforted by the certainty of absolute language because comfort is required for keeping things the same. Absolute language avoids new possibility and seeks to avoid change. Objective self-talk, however, opens a whole new world of opportunity, which will terrify the ego.

Objective self-talk might sound like: This is me. These are my thoughts. This is how I’m feeling now. I’m not sure what to do next. What is possible here? What could I learn? How can I help this situation?

Or when self-talk turns its focus to the outside world: What can be achieved in this situation? Who can assist? What do they need? How do we adapt to this?

Buddhists believe all suffering comes from your cravings (desires) and your aversions (things you seek to avoid). Listen to the narrative of your thinking and see if it is absolute about desirable outcomes and seeking to avoid failure or are your thoughts objective and eager to learn?

3. Connect your thinking, feeling and doing.

There is a useful technique developed by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) field that many executives find invaluable. It is known as the ‘I statement’.

For example: “When I think about the 234 unread emails in my inbox, I feel swamped, and what I’m going to do is walk around the block and come back before going through them.”

This technique serves any situation and empowers your adult mind to accept the situation, honour your feelings (all feelings are legitimate) and act in your adult capacity to choose an action.

Try it yourself right now:

“When I think about (insert any subject), I feel (observe the emotional feeling - happy, sad, frustrated etc) and what I’m going to do is (an action).

4. Use your ego’s shadow to save time and reduce stress.

The ego is a vital facet of your adult mind. Without it, you couldn’t make decisions and you couldn’t function in the business world. But it also has a darker side.

Twentieth-century psychotherapist Carl Jung believed that as the ego formed through the tumult of childhood it learned to accept or to disown parts of itself. Usually, people accept the good things and disown the bad by pushing them into what Jung named ‘the ego shadow’ of their psyche.

As you look out, you don’t see others and the world – you see yourself projected onto others and the world.

This old Jungian saying offers an infinite opportunity for reflection and growth.

Have a look at the next two weeks in your calendar. What do you see? Do you see space for creating new possibilities with new people? Do you see new opportunities? Do you see a balanced schedule allowing you time for both your personal and professional life? Or do you see an exhausting and frustrating calendar packed with meetings and people you’d rather not be meeting with?

Whatever is there are a projection and manifestation of the thinking, feeling, decisions and actions you made or allowed others to make for you. Changing the outside starts on the inside and reflecting on your projections onto others and the world can provide wonderful personal insight.

5. Ask open questions if someone uses psychology language

If you encounter someone sharing their fear-driven or judgmental perspective by using psychology language, ask them open questions and let silence and time work its objective magic.

Telling someone they are judgmental doesn’t work. Telling them they are projecting their ego shadow doesn’t work. Arguing with them doesn’t work and if you do any of these things you may have fallen into the trap of your own ego’s shadow.

If you want to experiment with influencing others, regardless of their age, experience or the status of their role, try asking them open questions.

Open questions are short, they allow the other to think, they give the other a chance to talk, they allow the other to hear the folly of their perspective and for minutes, hours or even days later, their mind will still be mulling over the impact of the generous and powerful act of asking them open questions.

Remember to include the open question’s best friends: silence and time.

For example, a colleague says: “You can’t work with Susan, she’s impossible – I’m pretty sure she is ‘on the spectrum’ if you know what I mean.”

Try asking one of these open questions.:

  • “What do you mean by ‘on the spectrum’?”

  • “What does that actually mean?”

  • “How does your perception of them impact you?”

  • “What can you do to check your assumptions about Susan?”

  • “What opinions do you think Susan holds about you?”

After asking your open question, be silent and hold eye contact. Silence and time will bring the other towards their adult mind and their ability to be objective.

Psychological language is here to stay and like electricity, it is invaluable and dangerous. Learning about the workings of your mind is a life-long pursuit. Become an apprentice of your own self-awareness and use the power of psychological language to spark objective thinking in others. The business benefits could be profound.

About the Author

Peter Shields is a Transformational Executive Coach and expert at assisting individual and collective leadership to create rewarding, profitable and sustainable businesses. Read his new book Leadership Alchemy - a leadership fiction about transforming business value from the inside out. Visit

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