Avoid The Comparison Trap

The way we communicate is highly sensitive to our emotions and feelings. When we lack confidence in our ability to express ourselves it shows up – insufficient voice volume, speaking too fast, stuttering and stammering, memory loss – typical nasties which sabotage our communication purpose. One common, yet unconscious, way in which we reduce our confidence is by comparing ourselves to others. Not to less skilled communicators of course – no, we compare ourselves to people who have mastered speaking. And inevitably our confidence plummets. An interesting example of this occurred recently with my partner Olivia. Olivia’s first language is English but she also speaks French fluently – well fluently to my ear anyway. Interestingly, I had often noticed Olivia’s reluctance to speak French when opportunities arose. I think it is a beautiful language and I would like to speak it as well as she does. Olivia’s mother, Florence, is French. She is a simultaneous interpreter – one of those clever people who can listen to one language and simultaneously say it in another – and we think speaking in one language is tricky! Florence asked Olivia and me to help out at an interpreting class she was running in Bristol. We went along and played various roles and Florence’s students interpreted. Now these students all had degrees in French and regularly used the language, but Olivia realised that her French, her accent and her fluency, were better than those of all these formally trained interpreter students. The effect of this discovery showed up when Olivia was next on the phone to one of her mother’s French friends. Instead of passing the call onto Florence to sort out the details, Olivia completely handled it herself. She confidently chatted away in French – something she wouldn’t have normally done.
Why the difference?
Olivia had been comparing her French speaking to some very competent speakers – her mother, her French relatives, and other native French speakers. While making that comparison, she unconsciously put down her own skills and reduced her confidence to use them. When she assessed the skill of her mother’s students, people training to be professional interpreters, she realised that she was actually pretty competent – and consequently, her confidence and the use of her skills, went up. I see the same thing happening with many of my speaking clients. They compare their presentation skills to those of really competent, experienced colleagues and they unconsciously demand of themselves that they should be as good. It’s a recipe for disaster of course because by having this unreasonable expectation, they put pressure on themselves – which actually makes their speaking worse! Using Rational Emotive Behaviour Training (REBT), they free themselves from this common trap by learning to give up the self-sabotaging demand. If you must make comparisons, then compare yourself to how you were five years ago. Your communication skills will have improved since then and that thought will encourage you to keep practicing and improving. Remember, you’re not a professional speaker so you don’t have to be like a professional speaker. Just be yourself.

“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself” – Desiderata – Max Ehrmannn, 1927. © Robert L. Bell

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