The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 53

Tara Mohr

Playing Big

How can we convey our ideas with confidence and clarity? Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message, has the answer. Though her mission is to help women be heard and take action, her wisdom applies to everyone. Discover how to embrace your inner critic, find your inner mentor, and the small words you can fix to make a big difference in how people perceive you.


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Book: Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message
Bio: Tara Mohr is an expert on women’s leadership and well-being. She helps women play bigger in sharing their voices and bringing forward their ideas in work and in life. Tara is the author of Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead, named a best book of the year by Apple’s iBooks and now in paperback. In the book, she shares her pioneering model for making the journey from playing small–being held back by fear and self-doubt–to playing big, taking bold action to pursue what you see as your callings. A Coaches Training Institute-certified coach with an MBA from Stanford University and an undergraduate degree in English literature from Yale, Tara takes a unique approach that blends inner work and practical skills training. Her work has been featured on national media from the New York Times to Today Show to Harvard Business Review, and has captivated women from all walks of life including Maria Shriver, Jillian Michaels and Elizabeth Gilbert.


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. With me today is Tara Mohr. The book is Playing Big; practical wisdom for women who want to speak up, create and lead. Tara is the founder of the acclaimed global Playing Big Leadership Program for women and the book is excellent. I highly suggest you pick a copy up whether you are a man or a woman.

I’m going to start with this beef that I have with you which is … It’s actually a beef that I have with myself, to be honest, which is that I received the book in the mail. I guess somebody sent me the book, it might have been your PR or the publisher, and I looked at it, and this is embarrassing but I’m going to admit to it because I think that this is important, I looked at it and it’s titled, “Playing Big; practical wisdom for women.” I turned to my wife, Eleanor, and I said, “Hey Eleanor, you should read this book. It’s for women to speak up, create, and lead.”

I was persuaded by the title just looking at it and thinking, “Okay, this is for women and I’m a man so I’m going to go give it to my wife and have her read it.” She loved it. I delayed a little bit more and finally read it. I found so much value for me in it. I found it so profound. I completely understand why it would make sense that this is specifically directed to woman but I want to admit to my own bypass of the book originally and I’m so happy that I didn’t pass it up in the end. I think that this is practical wisdom for men who want to speak up, create and lead as well.

Tara: Yes. Well, thank you for sharing that. I love that. Now, you know, it’s funny when the book came out people would send us photos if they snapped a guy reading it on the subway in his business suit or we were hearing from a lot of mean. It became clear to me that I wrote the book with that focus because of a passion for bringing women’s voices forward but not because the tools and concepts are only relevant to women. It’s been really heartening to see has the book makes its way into the world, people get that. They get that’s it’s relevant to everyone.

We are doing corporate trainings now that are coed and a company I just did an event at bought the book. I thought it was very courageous. They bought the book for all of their colleges interns; probably 75% percent whom were male because it was a tech company. I thought that was pretty cool that they were going to hand them all a book with women in the subtitle and say, “We trust this is relevant for you for your own career and because you’ll be managing and working with and being colleagues with woman.” Some of the things that are gender specific I think are great for men to have awareness raised about too.

Peter: I think that’s exactly right. I was going to say it and you said it. I find it’s as important for me personally, as a man, to use some of these techniques and I’ll point to a couple of things that really hit home for me but also as someone who runs a business. Women work for Bregman Partners and I’m working with female clients and I have daughters. I think we’re living in a world now in which this conversation has to happen. I think you articulate it really skillfully and beautifully so thank you.

Tara: Thank you.

Peter: I’m glad I didn’t bypass it. I would love for you to start with the story you have in the book about the producer. You identify a crucial balance between victim and actor which is really, really important. Can you share that story?

Tara: Sure. This is a story of years ago, I was doing a television segment about some of the ideas I talk about in my work and particularly some of the ways that women can use each patterns or phrases in our writing that undermined how we come across. I was waiting in the green room about to go on my segment. I was already feeling nervous because it’s TV and it’s 5:00 am and I was surrounded by the cast of a reality television show who were loudly bantering with each other.

About 5 minutes before I was supposed to go on, and it was a live show, the producer came in and she said, “Okay, I just want to do” … They do the quick talking points and run down. She said, “Here’s what the anchor’s going to say. The anchor’s going to say women are only 12% of senior managers and 4% of Fortune whatever CEO’s and our next guest, Tara Sophia Mohr, is here and she says women have no one to blame but themselves.” [crosstalk 00:05:24] You’ll need to find your voice on the spot in a moment when you’ve got five minutes, already nervous thinking about my talking points. I say to her, “Wait, wait, wait, wait. That’s not, can we change that?” “No, no, we can’t change it. It’s too late.” “What if we just said our next guest says there’s something women can do about that?” She said, “Oh, let me go talk to the executive producer.” Came back and it was changed.

I thought it was such a great emblematic moment about the confusion that we have between the internal and the external barrier that we all face but specifically that women face to their own empowerment and that we tend to think of those things as really separate. There’s bias and there’s discrimination and then there’s these habits and behavior patterns that women do to themselves and they should go fix them and it’s nobody else’s problem. Instead of seeing the connection that whatever those undermining patterns are that we might have, we have them in response to how we’ve been socialized or to external barriers. Some of those can also enhance or cause us to not enhance some of those external barriers or cause us to not be able to effectively navigate around them or beyond them.

Peter: You might not be the cause of your challenge and at the same time you can also be responsible for changing how it impacts you.

Tara: How else could you be at this transitional, historical moment. Right? Knowing what the history is for women. What our mother’s and grandmother’s and great grandmother’s lives and opportunities were like. Therefore, what we were taught. Therefore, what we saw about what women’s lives could be. Now having a set of pretty different opportunities, what else can we do except look at what the legacy of that history is and think about how we want to unlearn some things and learn some new things.

Peter: That’s great. Talk to us, if you would, about the inner critic and inner mentor which is a central piece of the book and I think important.

Tara: Yes. I think one of the most important things we all need to do is understand the multiplicity of voices inside ourselves and really stop thinking of ourselves as there’s just me. Nope, there’s different parts of you. There’s your inner wisdom. There’s your voice of self doubt. There’s the voice of fear. The more that the neuroscience is able to really help us understand our brains, the more science is also showing we’re not one holistic self with an executive function that controls everything else. There’s a lot of competing parts of us that evolved in different points of human evolution and they’re often conflicting.

Along those lines and the [inaudible 00:08:23] model we look at one inner critic which is that voice of self doubt that we all have. Two, something called the inner mentor. The inner critic, conventionally what people tend to think is, “I’m not that confident. I need to become more confident. I can really beat up on myself”, as if it’s a personal problem. It turns out this is a universal for men and women. We’ve all got this voice. It does tend to show up a little bit differently along some gender lines but we’ve all got that voice. We can come to look at it as not something we need to get over but a fundamental part of us that is an expression of our safety instinct. Any time we’re going out of the comfort zone. Any time we’re taking emotional risk our safety instinct doesn’t like that. Tries to get us to go back in the comfort zone and how is it going to do that?

One of the most powerful ways it can do that is by using that inner critic voice that says, “You’re about to make a fool of ourself. Who do you think you are? There’s no way you’re qualified for that. Better go home and get another PhD in that subject before you say anything about it.” Right? All those inner critic lines. We want to come to expect that the inner critic’s going to be there when we’re stepping forward and not try and overcome it or get rid of it but learn to hear it without taking direction from it.

Peter: I just read some research at HBR, that was looking at how the best CEO’s differ from average ones. What the researchers came to is two traits. The top CEO’s are more likely to embrace appropriate risk and they have a bias toward acting and capitalizing on opportunities. Both of those things are traits that your inner critic will say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on. I don’t know that you should take that risk. Maybe wait on taking the action. Talk to a few more people.” While the inner critic might have value, there are ways in which these voices might hold us back from being, certainly in business in the CEO role, the most successful.

Tara: Absolutely. We know that the safety instinct in us, which is the root of the inner critic, the safety instinct is not looking out for probable danger. It’s not looking out for clear evidence of danger. It is looking out for any possible danger. Any possible danger because it has an evolutionary basis of if you think that that berry might be poisonous, if you think there might be a predator on the horizon avoid it. That’s how you’re going to survive. It’s very, very over reactive and very conservative.

Peter: It’s a survival instinct.

Tara: Yeah. When it’s applied to things that aren’t really about life and death survival in that over reactive way, it misleads us a lot of the time and we can’t see things that are low risk, that are medium risk. Everything is if it’s a risk, don’t go there.

Peter: How do we manage that? Meaning, how do we distinguish between the advice that our inner critic is giving us that actually should be listened to and the advice that’s actually holding us back?

Tara: Yeah. I would say there’s no advice our inner critic is giving us that we should listen too. There’s critical thinking that can be helpful. There’s realistic thinking that can be helpful. In the book I talk about how do you distinguish realistic thinking from inner critic. Sometimes you can tell from the tone of the voice. Realistic thinking tends to be linear, meaning forward moving. It will take you, “Oh, if this is [inaudible 00:12:27] then what can we do about that? Let’s brain storm.” Inner critic tends to really loop. Inner critic tends to talk in a very chattering, anxious ton. Realistic thinking is more curious and generative. You can start to distinguish.

When you’re hearing your inner critic, it’s really a mindfulness practice to say, “Oh, I know what that is now. I’ve spent some time studying what the inner critic is and what mine tends to say. Okay, I’m hearing my inner critic right now and now I get to make a choice. Do I want to take direction from that part of me or do I want to take direction from my mission, my values, my desire to serve, my instinct toward growth? All of those things.”

The inner mentor, which you referred to, is also a really great way. I think for me and from what I’ve seen and how it’s impacted so many people, it’s one of the most powerful and easy ways to move beyond the inner critic because it really replaces in a way that the inner critic voice in very important moments. The inner mentor, in the business world so much talk about mentoring and especially in women’s leadership conversation there’s another layer [inaudible 00:13:42] of mentoring which has not lived up to it’s promise.

The idea of the inner mentor is that through a guided visualization, that we do in the book, you meet an older, wiser version of yourself. Yourself about 30 years in the future. When people do this through that right brain vehicle and in a very relaxed state, they’re often very surprised and moved by who shows up. This is not your worries about how you’re going to look when you’re 30 and will you have a [inaudible 00:14:18] and will this partner be still … It’s almost like the image of your essential self or your elder self. Elder in the kind of most gracefully way shows up and then you can relate to that figure like a mentor and consult with them. Check in with them. Ask how they would handle any day to day situation in your life. The answers are really there for people and it’s very powerful.

Peter: I did that exercise as I was reading through the book and I was very handsome I aged very beautifully. I imaged myself in this garden but I couldn’t figure out if I was on the sea or not on the sea. I was relaxed, a writer. I struggled with that image a little. I thought, “Huh, is this really what I’m going to look like? Where I’m going to end up? What I’m going to be doing? Am I going to be this kind of a writer?” It was more fiction. Some fantasies that have showed up in the future looking view of my mentor. I found myself wondering, “Is this just my fantasy of what I would like to be or is this actually my future me?” I may be asking the wrong question.

Tara: Yeah. Often the images that come up, first of all, there’s a combination of literal and symbolic. We would want to look at, “Okay, what are your associations with that garden?” What did it feel like for you? What is that a metaphor for? How can you bring more of that energy into your life right now?” Similarly, maybe you’ll be writing fiction in 30 years, maybe not but that longing, what you’re calling a fantasy, I would be like, “Fantasy sounds a little demeaning to that.” That sounds like there’s something there that’s real that wants to come forward. What is that? That could be getting more into your creativity. That could be spending a couple hours a week writing fiction now. Right?

It’s not a literal prediction of the future. It’s really almost like dream imagery, expression of your more authentic self. Then the question becomes, “How do I move towards that?” Not, “How do I arrive at it?” It’s a north star. In whatever choices your making today, how would that self choose.

Peter: Also, the question that comes to me is how do I know to trust it? I’m going to take some risks to move in that direction. How do I know to trust it?

Tara: What would be a risk you would take?

Peter: I would put off doing some current work that I think would move me forward currently in my mission and the work that I’m doing and I would spend time doing some stuff that probably my inner critic would say is not a very good use of my time.

Tara: Got it. What is it that you have to trust? That that step is going to be what or bring what?

Peter: That is a great question, Tara. For me, what immediately comes up, is that it wouldn’t be successful. That I would write some fiction and it would be terrible.

Tara: What does your inner mentor say about that concern?

Peter: What my mentor says about that concern is, first of all, if you don’t do it there’s no way it could be successful. Second of all, the first few times that you do it, I could pretty much guarantee you that it won’t be successful. If you’re doing it in order to be successful certainly the first time out then you’re going to be disappointed because you can’t. If you don’t do it for fear of it not being successful then you’ll never really get to the point of success. If it is something you long for … I want to talk about the point that you made which is so valid and so right that I demean it by saying fantasy, but if you don’t pursue the things that you long for that’s exactly what you’re going to end up regretting whether it’s successful or not.

Tara: Yeah. For your inner mentor this is really not about whatever this definition of success is that your holding. There’s something more there and probably the more you delve into that conversation the more sense you can get from your inner mentor of what it is about and what the why really is for you. I also think this is a beautiful illustration of when you open about talking about the relevance for men. One of the big things I see for women there’s so much inner critic around, “Am I legitimate? Who do I think I am? Do I know enough?” That’s all our baggage.

For men, there’s this whole other set of challenges which is, “How do I trust the callings in me when I’m in a society that still defines so often men’s worth by an external success, earning power, all that stuff?” That’s a whole other load of inner critic messages and a different set of challenges around trusting what comes from within.

Peter: Right. That’s absolutely true and I immediately default to the consequences od not being successful enough. My inner critic can be very, very practical. Right? There’s really practical concerns. This is, I guess, how you know it’s an inner critic versus realistic . . .It is very easy for me to follow the imaginary path that leaves me homeless on the street. Step by step by step by step making all of these poor decisions.

Tara: Your inner critic would love to convince you it’s either/or. When, really, if you are to actually go sit with your inner mentor and say, “How do I honor this creative part of myself and be responsible and fulfill my financial responsibilities?” I can promise you your inner mentor is not going to say, “Tough, you got to choose. It’s one or the other.” You can tell me what your inner mentor would say.

Whenever we’re hearing that either/or between callings and financial liability that, to me, is like a number one sabotage tool of the inner critic because it’s a way of saying, “Don’t go there. Don’t go into the scary territory of listening to your voice. Don’t try something new. Don’t be a beginner. Don’t listen to these callings. Don’t standout because all of this will be lost if you do.” It’s not true. It’s not true. Find me a person who can’t find thirty minutes in their week to give a calling a little breathing room.

Peter: I don’t know if you know Hal Hershfield. I’ve written some on this and he’s done research on “future you.” This idea of your future self. He’s done these brain scan images where he has you think about, for example, yourself now and then he has you think about a stranger, a complete stranger. Name someone who comes to mind. Name anybody.

Tara: LeBron James.

Peter: LeBron James. [crosstalk 00:22:12]. First, think of yourself. Then you think of LeBron James and then you think of yourself in 30 years, your future self. The part of your brain that lights up when you’re thinking about yourself is different then the part of the brain that lights up when you’re thinking about LeBron James. The part of your brain that lights up when you’re thinking about yourself in the future is the same as the LeBron James part, not the same as the “you now”part. In other words, when you’re thinking about yourself in the future, you see yourself as a stranger.

He’s doing this research around how you get people to save for their retirement when they really see themselves in the future as a complete stranger. It’s much harder to get them to save and so he’s doing that research. We talked a lot about how you begin to connect yourself to your future self. You are suggesting something very beautiful which is that you could actually see your future self as a little bit of a stranger. That’s okay and let that stranger give you a little bit of advice and follow that advice. I think you’re suggesting something around this research that I think works very well.

Tara: That is very interesting. That’s very interesting around the research. I would say most people when they encounter their inner mentor, there’s some combination of surprise and otherness and deep familiarity. “Oh yeah, I know that. That’s all the parts of me that I left behind.” There is a resonance. That’s interesting.

Peter: Let’s talk about some of these communication moves that help us come across more powerfully. When I looked through your list and I’ve actually even heard myself say it here when I say, “I think blah, blah, blah.” I fall into this trap and I see people falling into this trap all the time. It almost feels aggressive to not use some of the language that makes us smaller because it feels like I’m imposing my view on people as opposed to stepping back and using words like just or actually or I think and I wonder if you can talk about that a little bit. First of all, could you share some of those words or some of those linguistic traps that we fall into that reduce our power in situations? How do we manage ourselves in those moments where we may not want to come across too forcefully but at the same time, we don’t want to undercut our own power?

Tara: Right, right. Yeah, there are a number of them. As you mentioned inserting a lot of just. “I just think, I just have a question.” Actually, actually I disagree is a really common one for women which, of course, [inaudible 00:25:08] we should be surprised that you have an opinion or that you’re disagreeing. I’m not an expert in this but a very common one is often after saying something that takes a few sentences to explaining asking, “Did that make sense? Does that make sense?” Which has a good intention to connect with the listener but the way it’s expressing that intention is, am I coherent or am I crazy kind of thing. “I almost think, I kind of think”. All of these things.

The research shows those speech patterns are more common for people who have lower status in society. There is a race and gender component there. Also that they are read differently when conflated with a stereotype. For women, for people of color, they’re more likely to have a dramatic effect in a negative way. Whereas for someone in a high status group in our society, it might soften how they sound [crosstalk 00:26:12].

Peter: I thought about that. As I hear myself saying it I think; I’m white, I’m male, I’m in a high status position, I’m somewhat known in the world. All of that already pushes up my authority – maybe using some of the same linguistic measures allows me to connect with people in a way that I might otherwise seem or feel standoffish or overpowering. I could see why this might be a section of the book where men should maybe use some of this softening language and women should not. Can you to talk about that?

Tara: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Women tend to use them because either we’ve absorbed it by habit because we hear other women using it or we know we are much more likely to be told we’re too aggressive, we’re abrasive. That’s a world that only gets used for women. It often gets used in women’s performance reviews. We’re being too direct. We do these things to tone it down so we can be heard and we’ll still be seen as likable. The problem is it also tends to undermine how competent people perceive us to be.

What we can try and do is let go of those diminishing habits. The kinds of things I was just referring to. Not only do that, we also then need to be conscious of warmth because, for better or worse, if women don’t communicate in a way that conveys warmth … We just went through this election which we could say a million things about but one of them was that there was a huge discussion about how much Hillary should smile and trying to find the perfect balance. That’s exactly that. How is she communicating warmth so that people can also receive the competence that’s coming across in and the knowledge that’s coming across.

For women we want to let go of those diminishing the does it make sense, the just, the actually but then also think about, “How do I convey warmth?” That can help through facial expressions. That can happen through connecting with the listener, expressing a personal interest. Instead of, “Does this make sense?” It’s, “I really am looking forward to your thoughts.” What do you think kind of thing. The bid for connection is still there. The expression of warmth that we demand in women is still there but not in a way that diminishes us.

Peter: Let me ask you one final question which I should never promise because this conversation is really interesting and I’m going to want to continue it but I also want to keep to time. You are bringing this into organizations. There’s a very human side, an element, to your message and also to you that comes forth. You were talking about warmth and competence. The research says we build credibility through this combination of both warmth and competence.

I think there’s something useful to learn about what you’ve learned about bringing this kind of a message into corporations that can be somewhat results oriented and hard-nosed. I think there’s much more openness for this now then there was probably 20 years ago. I also think there’s something to learn from how you share this in a way that brings people in and on board and doesn’t threaten people and also allows for, what I’m going to call feminine energy, into the conversation which is often very much driven by male energy. Whether it’s women or men, the corporate world has a lot of male energy in it. You’re bringing this feminine energy into it. I’m wondering what you’ve learned from this or what you might be able to teach us.

Tara: It’s fun for me because I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling like I had one foot in each of 2 worlds. I grew up in a home where spirituality and psychology were everyday topics. I was raised from age 5, dream analysis and unconscious motivation [inaudible 00:30:39] but I was also expected to excel in school and school was a totally different world with a completely different set of values and norms. That often felt like a real split for me.

Now that I can go into companies with my left brain, with a MBA, with analytics about the impact of this training and bring in some concepts that are softer and an energy that’s softer that people are starving for in my experience, it’s a beautiful … This thing that people used to tell me. These two things have nothing to do with each other. It’s nice to see people being like, “Oh, that’s just what we need.”

I have found that, actually my assumptions, about what’s wanted in the corporate world are usually wrong and stereotypical. I have done trainings, for example, with conservative financial institutions where I thought, “Of course we’re not going to touch inner mentor. We’re going to do this module and this module.” 3 days before they’re like, “Why isn’t inner mentor in this agenda.” Doing inner mentor visualization with hundreds of people who work in a financial institution in their corporate office and having the room be so silent a pin could drop and have people weeping and love it. Me being surprised. That was my limiting vision and they’re so thankful to have the opportunity. I’ve had to learn a lot of the things I thought would be difficult to bring, people are so, so starving for it.

Peter: Right. That’s great. The book is Playing Big; practical wisdom for women who want to speak up, create and lead. The book itself was a high bar for this conversation and you have exceeded it. It’s such a pleasure to have this conversation with you, Tara. Thank you for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Tara: Thanks so much for having me and thanks everyone for listening.

Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive as well as access to my articles, videos and podcasts visit Thank you to Claire Marshall for producing this episode and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.