In the NFL, trash talk is an art. As the Baltimore Ravens sack master Terrell Suggs says, "I have a master's degree and two doctorates in trash talk.”* Trash talk is the art of getting an opponent to lose focus on their most important task: playing the game with no distractions. Effective trash talk succeeds in it’s task of distraction. However the opponent responds — by getting mad, reacting with a smart retort, or just trying to get even — the trash talker effectively takes his opponent’s mind OFF THE GAME and OUT OF THE MOMENT.
As a leader, others can launch a sneak attack on you and talk trash when you least expect it. I remember when I was just ready to speak at a large public event, a supposed friend said to me, "You sure love all that attention don't you, when you speak." The remark was laced with contempt and startled me. It took me off my game, and I had to refocus quickly on exactly what I was going to say. The objective of the trash talker was for me to get up, stumble around, look bad, and sit down a bit humiliated. My "friend" could have then gloated over how poorly I behaved in front of others.
For a few moments I was hurt by the comment he made, and thrown off my purpose. Fortunately, I regained composure and said to myself, "There's something going on here I don't understand. I will have to address it AFTER I speak, but right now my responsibility is to the people in this audience to do a great job and deliver on my promise to them." I got up and thankfully nailed the talk. Afterwards, before the night was over, I said to my supposed friend, “Hey, I’m not sure what you were trying to communicate to me right before I spoke, but whatever you were trying to accomplish, I want to talk about, either now or tomorrow when you've had a chance to think about it." The person immediately apologized and said he was just kidding. Note to myself, of course: “This guy is jealous, envious, or just plain mean. Whatever the case, he's to be treated respectfully but with clear boundaries in the future. He damaged my trust.” The lesson here? When others do it to you, it’s not about you: it’s about them, and they’re trying to get you off your game. Don’t let them.
Self-inflicted trash talk, though, is more dangerous and is harder to manage. Your brain hits a trigger point of insecurity. Just at the moment you need to be your strongest — right when you are about to take an important leap and make a courageous decision — a small voice goes off inside your brain and says you are an idiot. "You know, you probably won't succeed with this and besides that, there are people out there who will react to your boldness. So back off. Don't think you can really do this." Or, "You are going to look terrible and people won't want to read or hear what you are saying." And, "You are just not that clever to keep people's attention."
There are literally a million different phrases and subtle emotions triggered in your brain — you know the ones you’ve already adopted. Sure, in some cases, it's not trash talk, it's wise self counsel. Learning to discriminate between wise self counsel or trash talk requires a well developed sense of self. When I practiced as a clinical psychologist, much of my work was helping healthy people figure out bold steps they wanted to take, making sure they weren't crazy to step out on a limb. In more cases than not, the trash talk was self-induced criticism based on old experiences that may have been helpful in the past but now serve as anchors and chains, holding back bold life-changing action.
So what is the best remedy to handle what you know is trash talk - either from someone else or from your own head?
Stay on the high road. Whether it’s another person or yourself, there is a low road and a high road. Your opponent wants you to engage in low road thinking - to take you down a path of self-doubt and questioning. It’s their strategy and their issue, not yours. You’ve just had your button pushed, the moment you engage them on their level, you lose.
Claim your best self. You have a vision of who you know you can be. Your best self stays focused on the game at hand.
When you start to get emotional, and you will because of you’re human, step back, literally take a deep breath, and envision who you are at your best.
Not getting hooked by trash talk is truly the art of a champion. It is learned over time. It is like engaging in combat with a boxer and using tae kwon do as your defense. You do not respond with force against force. You step aside and let the negative energy go right past you. You then use your advantage to put all your energy into moving forward with what you intend to get done. You do not get distracted, you do not question yourself, and in fact, you are even more inspired to step up to greatness.
** Picture from Washington post.com
*USA TODAY, 1/26/2014, Page 1 Sports