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Leaders: Are You Trapped By Your Thinking?


One of the most useful tools I use in my Executive Coaching sessions are the 12 Thinking Errors or Traps. They originate from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and I unashamedly introduce them as such.

So often if I can get my coachees to recognise that we create our own worlds, for better or for worse, by the way we think about things, how we frame things, the thinking patterns and traps we repeatedly fall into, then my job is literally half done.

What is Reality?

There is no such thing as reality. We create our own unique version of reality nanosecond by nanosecond by the way in which we respond to our environment and the situations we find ourselves in.  We can make that reality positive and empowering, or we can make it negative and limiting, purely as a result of our thinking patterns and style.

If we think about things negatively, if we frame things negatively or if we look at things through a negative lens, we will feel negative. Conversely, if we think about things positively, if we frame things positively, and if we look at things through a positive lens, we will feel positive.

It doesn’t sound like rocket science, does it? In fact, it’s not rocket science. It’s almost blindingly obvious.

Yet if we’re trapped in these negative thinking patterns and modes how do we change?

How Do You Create Your Reality?

As always the first step to change is self-awareness.

How often do we stop to think about how our thinking is colouring our world?

Take a moment to consider these questions:

Are you painting your pictures as dull and grey or vibrant and multi-coloured?

Are you putting rigid inflexible structures around your world or flexible, fluid ones?

Are you creating open, expansive mindsets or closed, defensive ones? 

The great news is that this is all of our making.  We are in control.  We can’t stop what’s happening around us but we can stop thinking it’s happening to us.  We can change our response to it. We have ownership.

So often I’ll hear phrases in my Coaching sessions such as:

“My boss really wound me up”

“The meeting really stressed me out”

“It really frustrated me”

The fact is that nobody and nothing makes you feel a certain way.  How you respond, the things you say to yourself as a result, the script and soundtrack you have playing in your head are what’s making you feel bad, good or indifferent.

The 12 Thinking Errors

So the 12 Thinking Errors are a great coaching tool.  They highlight the 12 most common negative thinking patterns we human beings typically indulge in.  The likelihood is that we will use all of them at different times but we’ll have two or three go-to favourites!

Today I’m highlighting three of the Traps and sharing with you some strategies for breaking their hold on you.

Thinking Trap 1

One of the most common in my experience is the Making Demands thinking trap.

It’s certainly one of the easiest to spot as your language will be peppered with words/phrases like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘ought’ and ‘have to.’

How do you feel when someone tells you that you must do this or have to do that!?

Exactly. You resent it, you challenge it, you want to rebel – “why should I?”

This thinking pattern puts you into a corner. It literally makes you feel trapped as if you have no choice.  It’s a duty or a chore.  You feel as if you’re being forced to do something you don’t want to do and it’s a horrible place to be.

It’s also highly likely that you won’t only be using this pattern in relation to yourself and making yourself feel bad, you’ll be using it in relation to people in your team, peers and the like and making them feel bad as well!

How To Break The Pattern

So challenging that language and toning it down is the key to change.

Try substituting:

  • Could for Should
  • Might for Must
  • Want for Need


Then notice what a huge difference it makes to the way you feel about things and your influencing skills over others.

Thinking Trap 2

Another common one is All or Nothing thinking.

Again it’s a really easy one to spot once you’ve been made aware of it as your language will be full of extremes:

  • All or None
  • Always or Never
  • Everyone or No-one
  • Everything or Nothing

It’s a brilliant trap. It paints the world as black and white with no grey. There’s no middle ground, no room for manoeuvre, no room for compromise. It’s this way or that way. It makes us feel as if we have no options, no way out. It makes us feel incredibly stuck.

How To Break The Pattern

Once again it’s about gently challenging yourself and humour’s a great weapon here.

Is it really always like that?

Is it really everyone who’s like that?

Is there really nothing we can do?

As soon as you start to notice and challenge your thinking life will be a lot more pleasant all of the time. Well maybe not quite all!

Thinking Trap 3

Another favourite is Mind-Reading – thinking you know what another person is thinking (always in a negative context) when the reality is that you don’t.

A client of mine gave me a beautiful example of it only yesterday when she said:

“I think they think I’m no good at my job”

If you hear the words “I think they think” in your head, you can be pretty sure you’re mind-reading!

Have you ever sat in a meeting worrying that other people in the room are judging you?

Have you ever been convinced that someone is questioning your ability?

Have you ever spoken out and felt sure other people thought you were talking rubbish?

I’m guessing we all have at certain points in our careers and some more often than others.

However the harsh reality is that it’s rarely other people judging and questioning you though of course that can happen.  More typically it’s you judging and questioning yourself. Let’s face it we’re renowned for being our own harshest critics.

Thus usually these are your own thoughts and concerns playing out in your head which you project onto others. Then hey presto they suddenly come flying back at you.

How To Break The Pattern

Again challenging yourself in the moment is the key to change. Ask yourself:

Who’s really judging me?

Who’s really questioning me?

And so on.

Also recognising that most people are in the same boat as you, too busy worrying about their own performance to judge you for yours, can be a helpful re-frame.

One of my clients recently coined the phrase “it’s not all about me!” to remind herself of the fact – it literally transformed her life!


So the reality is that we can very easily trap ourselves by our thinking and as leaders the last thing you need is to be thinking about things and framing things negatively.  The implications for your business, your team and your own performance are huge.

Start noticing how often you use these three thinking traps and start to challenge and change them.  The positive impact will be fast, far-reaching and truly transformative.

We’ll take a look at the other Thinking Traps in future blogs.

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