Why Questioning Your Own Abilities Can Make You MORE Successful

Why Questioning Your Own Abilities Can Make You MORE Successful

Chances are, anyone who has had a glimpse into the world of so-called ‘self-help’ will have come across a concept called ‘self-affirmation’.

Self-affirmation involves the repeating of mantras which, so the theory goes, direct your subconscious mind towards a certain goal by making you feel, think and act in a certain way.

For almost a hundred years, self-styled ‘gurus’ have endorsed this method for everything from losing weight to getting rich.

In recent times, one of the most prominent proponents of self-affirmations (which he refers to as ‘incantations’) is Tony Robbins, perhaps the most famous self-help guru in the world.


Now, I’m not entirely disputing the value of declaring an unshakeable belief in our own abilities. Undoubtedly, this kind of positive self-talk is an excellent way of feeling invigorated in the moment, and it makes sense to try and exercise some control over the declarations we make about ourselves. Clearly, positive self-talk is better than negative self-talk.

There is just one small problem with the idea that self-affirmation helps us to achieve our goals.

It doesn’t.

In a series of fascinating experiments, Delores Abbaracin, Kenji Noguchi and Ibraham Senay discovered that ‘self-affirmation’ wasn’t nearly as effective as ‘self-interrogation’ when it came to achieving an objective. In the language of the researchers, the effects of ‘positive self-talk’ weren’t nearly as beneficial as the effects of ‘interrogative self-talk’.

To prove this, the researchers ran an experiment which saw participants tasked with solving anagrams, by rearranging the letter of one word in order to form another. The first group were instructed to ask themselves whether they could solve the puzzles, whilst the second group were to tell themselves that they could solve them. The results were clear. On average, the self-questioning group solved about 50 percent more anagrams than the self-affirming group.
Surprised by these results, the researchers furnished a new group of participants with yet another collection of anagrams. This time, they also told the participants that they wished to study their handwriting practices. Using this as a ruse, the participants were given a sheet of paper and asked to write down one of the following phrases, twenty times:

  • ‘I Will‘
  • ‘Will I’
  • ‘I’
  • ‘Will’

Sure enough, those who had written ‘Will I’ solved almost twice as many puzzles as those who had written ‘I will’, or any of the other phrases. In further experiments, the same phenomenon held true. Interrogative self-talk won out against positive self-talk, every single time. Those who asked themselves if they ‘could’ do it fared better than those that who told themselves that they ‘would’ do it.

So why is this the case, and how can you use this knowledge to convert more shoppers into buyers?

It seems that when you ask yourself whether you are capable of doing something, your subconscious begins to actively look for evidence to support the idea that you can. Rather than receiving a baseless emotional boost, as one might get from self-affirming, your brain kicks into problem-solving mode. For instance, you might remind yourself of several reasons why the task you are facing is well within your circle of competence. In this helpful frame of mind, even ‘insurmountable’ tasks suddenly don’t seem so unassailable.

Imagine you had always fancied the idea of running the London marathon, and have decided that this was the year you are going to do it. Not only that, but your aim is to run it in three and a half hours, about 30 minutes faster than the average runner. You could tell yourself, ‘I’m a great runner, this is going to be a picnic’, but research suggests it would be much more effective to take a different line and ask yourself, ‘have I got what it takes to run the marathon in this time?’

In this frame of mind, your subconscious might dredge up something like the following response: ‘Well, actually, yes, I have got what it takes to run the marathon. Once I have a goal, I stick to it. Besides, I’m still younger than most of the other runners, and if they can do it then I definitely can’. You might even look back on past experiences to see where you could improve: ‘Whenever I’ve trained for a marathon in the past, I have always tried to do too much, too soon. I should build up slowly to stop myself getting put off and to keep my motivation high’.

Whilst merely declaring that you are capable of something might feel good, it doesn’t prompt you to dig deeper, and examine why you are capable of something. In contrast, self-interrogation draws on your past experiences (and what you learned from them), to help accomplish the task you are facing in the present.

In business, self-interrogation can be used to great effect. Before undertaking a challenge, businesspeople would benefit from asking themselves: ‘Can I accomplish this?’
After asking the question, don’t allow your mind to move onto another question. Instead, list five or six specific reasons why the answer to your question is a definitive yes. This exercise will put your mind in a considered and helpful state, and remind you of the tactics that are needed to overcome the challenge you’re facing.

Asking questions can also be a powerful tool in influencing the behaviour of others. As long ago as 1990, researchers Daniel Howard and Robert Burnkrant discovered that when they presented undergraduates with a strong argument in favour of the idea that seniors should be required to pass a comprehensive exam in order to graduate, the students were much more likely to agree if it was phrased as a question, rather than a statement. For example, the researchers might have asked, ‘Will passing a comprehensive exam be an aid to those who seek admission to graduate and professional schools?’ rather than simply declaring that: ‘Passing a comprehensive exam will be an aid to those who seek admission to graduate and professional schools!’

However, this came with a caveat. If the argument was weak, then presenting them in the form of a question had a negative impact, making the undergraduates less receptive. This naturally occurs as the interrogative process leads one to pause and reflect. If, on reflection, the argument is found wanting, it is likely to be rejected. Equally, if the argument is valid, it is likely to be successful.

The result of using this questioning approach is a win/win for both salespeople and customers, where the former can ensure their product is suitable for the latter, and vice versa. Rather than simply declaring how brilliant their product is, salespeople can instead lead their customer to arrive at the conclusion that the product is perfectly suited to their needs. As technological advances allow businesses to identify prospects in ever growing numbers, the onus is increasingly falling on the product’s ability to serve the customer, rather than merely the sales rep’s ability to sell. After all, as Kevin Systrom, the co-founder of Instagram once said: ‘Great products sell themselves’.

By Callum Woodcock (@CDWoodcock)

IMAGE: AprilMYPWorkshop

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