Listening for Cognitive Errors

Listening for Cognitive Errors

This is the first listening area and the most extensive. It is here where you will have to pay close attention to your client’s language. When you hear any of the listed cognitive errors, it is vital you bring awareness to the identified error.

Cognitive errors are faults in our thinking patterns. These faults often come out in how we use language and in how we behave. When your client is speaking, it is important that you listen for inconsistencies between what they say they want versus what their behavior is. These errors also present themselves in competing thoughts when a client is double-minded and immobilized by indecision. Cognitive errors are more traditionally known as cognitive distortions because they reinforce negative thinking and emotions. It is important to listen for this language from your client because it may also be an indication of blaming and not taking self-responsibility. Cognitive errors will keep you from your dreams!

Let’s take a look at the ways cognitive errors present in a client’s thinking.


  1. Overgeneralization – taking an event and applying it to all situations. Identified by words such as always, never, nothing, everything, all, and everyone. People struggling with this language and thinking create patterns from past experiences. They may find ways to take an isolated situation and connect it to a previous experience. The key to getting rid of overgeneralizations is to understand that every situation is a new situation –life is not on repeat. Additionally, with each new situation, your client will have an opportunity to exercise new skills and influence new outcomes. 


Examples: “This always happens.” “This is what everyone does.” “This will never work.” “Every time I try, this is what happens.”


  1. Magnification – making a big deal and magnifying mistakes or small details; blowing things out of proportion. I like the saying, “using a bazooka to kill a mosquito!” Your client is obsessed over or consistently talks about the same negative details of a situation. Magnification can also hinder progress and success by trapping people in the deception of perfection. Nothing is perfect! I remember my father-in-law purchasing a new 2003 Mercedes-Benz M Class. It was no more than a month later that it was in the shop due to manufacture defects. These things happen to the best of us. Conquering magnification rests in (1) being grateful for what you do have, (2) focusing on what can be progressively done, and (3) learning that mistakes are opportunities to grow.


Examples: Your client wants to grow their business but constantly postpones or avoids events and tasks because specific things are not “perfect” or “the way they envisioned it.” “I messed up, now I have to start all over, I need to get it just right.”


Things tend not to feel comfortable for those who magnify the negatives, and it will be your job to push them outside their comfort zone. A not of caution: Clients who struggle with magnification may be prone to intense anxiety, panic attacks, or comparisons. If this is a concern, you may want to make a referral to a mental health professional.


  1. Minimization – described as pessimistic thinking, minimizing the positives, and speech where the significance of something is ignored. Clients may overlook their achievements, potential, or ability. Magnification and minimization will sometimes show up together. Minimization will cause clients to overlook when they have reached their goals. It will also cause them to underutilize their resources. To help clients with minimization, model to them what appreciation looks like, celebrate their small victories, and allow them to experience what being celebrated looks and feels like.


Examples: “Just because I have these skills doesn’t mean I’m any good.” “This is nothing to celebrate, this is what I am supposed to do.” “I didn’t deserve it; I just got lucky.”


  1. Polarization – also known as “all-or-nothing” thinking where the client will think in extremes, black or white, with no middle ground. It often will immediately decrease motivation because of the unrealistic expectation it places on people. To overcome this, help clients look at the first step instead of the colossal journey they have ahead. Clients must be reminded that success is made up of small changes over a long period of time. There are 12 inches in 1 foot, 3 feet in 1 yard, 1760 yards in 1 mile, 26 miles in 1 marathon –but you can’t win the marathon without making 1 inch of progress. Celebrate the inches!


Example: “I ruined my diet by eating junk food; I might as well continue eating badly the rest of the day.”

“I woke up late, now the rest of my day will be terrible.” “I overspent on my budget; I might as well spend the rest of the money.” “I never completed college, so I’ll never get a good job.”


  1. Catastrophizing – assuming the worst will happen or negatively exaggerating the outcome of something. This cognitive error is rooted in the fear that you will never escape something bad happening as if one was cursed. Always focusing on the worst-case scenario, worrying about calamity, and exaggerating difficulties will lead to failure; in extreme cases, giving up success because of this fear. A few ways to help stop catastrophizing would be to (1) know that God turns all things around to benefit his people, (2) realized that this thinking is habitual and not factual –break the habit, (3) move forward with the fear, then document all the positive outcomes as evidence that bad things will not always happen, and (4) know that every situation is unique.


Example: “If I can’t do this one thing everybody is going to hate me.” “What if I don’t make it there on time!” “If I miss this opportunity, everything is going to be bad.” “I knew this would happen; this is why I hate doing this.” “Why try, it isn’t going to work.”


  1. Selective Abstraction – neglecting to see the full picture and selectively choosing the details that support a negative, unhealthy, or unproductive narrative. Sometimes clients will get fixated on specific details or have tunnel vision to support unproductive narratives about how they are being treated, what they have access to, or their overall experience. Selective abstraction can be difficult to combat because a client’s experiences are subjective and they may have real feelings connected to the event, while simultaneously, having a productive way of viewing the situation. The problem is their choice to become fixated on the negative meaning and cementing it as their reality. Bring awareness to the choices of reality your clients have in their experiences; but they must be responsible for the consequences of whichever choice they select.


For example, a wife may experience an instance where her husband has failed to notify her that he will be staying at work later than usual. As a result of working longer than usual, the husband arrives home late. Upon coming home, the husband realizes the time and picks up food and other thoughtful snacks for himself and his wife. Once home, the wife ignores his oversight, ignores the food, ignores the thoughtful snacks, and selectively abstracts the grievance of his late arrival. At this moment, she has a choice of what to focus on and place her energy toward.


  1. Jumping to Conclusions– this is predicting a future outcome based on personal experiences and biases, and no objective evidence; making assumptions. While experiences are helpful, they should be balanced with sound counsel of wiser people and objectivity. Your clients will often make the fallacy of evaluating a situation based on their assumptions. Jumping to conclusions causes a person to tailor their language and behavior to their excepted experience. When the conclusion is unfounded, it is typically too late because the individual has already acted in an unproductive way and entered a cycle of negativity. When there is an absence of details, the mind seeks to fill in the missing information. When the mind does this, it fills in missing information with limited available knowledge, personal biases, and personal experience. Teach your clients how to be curious and asks questions when there is missing information; and not jump to conclusions.


Example: “I can tell by the way they look” “I already know what you are going to say.” “They looked guilty.” “They look like someone I don’t like.” “This would not have happened if you would not have done that.”


  1. Mind Reading – closely related to jumping to conclusions, but entails assigning assumptions and personal feelings to someone else, as if you know their thoughts, neglecting the perspective of the other person. The problem with mind-reading is obvious –we can’t! As logical as that may sound, many engage in this cognitive error. In psychology, there is a theory called, theory of mind, which refers to the idea that we all have unique perspectives, beliefs, emotions, thoughts, and intentions. It is far better to simply ask questions and allow a person to communicate their intentions than to tell another person what they think or feel. Helping clients avoid mind-reading will involve having them slow down and get curious about the experiences of others. Those who mind read tend to think and respond quickly, have racing or ruminating thoughts, and do not spend time reflecting on others' experiences.


Example: “I already know what you are thinking.” “You don’t really mean that, you’re only joking.” “They do not like me; I can tell based on how they look.”


  1. Personalization – assuming that you are at the center of a particular action without consideration of alternatives. Clients, especially in relationships, will assume that the actions of others are directed towards them. Personalization may also manifest as feelings of responsibility for something one has no power to control. Depending on the type of personalization, a person will either incorrectly blame others or incorrectly assume blame. Personalization may also show up when personal thoughts and feelings are shared in dialogue and the recipient personalizes it as a personal attack. Help clients with perspective-taking to combat personalization. Perspective-taking is the practice of understanding alternatives and that others have their own point of view.


Example: “I’m upset that you ignored me when you came into the room.” (Not considering the other person’s state of mind.) “I did not get the job because they wanted to keep me from being great.” (Not considering there were other qualified candidates.) “You meant to disrespect me by hanging up on me” (Not considering that the other person was rushing)


  1. Emotional Reasoning – cementing one’s personal emotional experience as the objection reality and allowing them to guide decisions. While emotions have their place and are helpful, they must not establish a person’s reality. To combat emotional reasoning, identify the factual supports of any emotional determinations. Identifying the facts will lead to better decision-making.


Example: “Today feels like it’s going to be a bad day.” “I have a gut feeling about this situation.” “I don’t fly in planes because I feel afraid when flying.” “I don’t feel like you love me.”


  1. Shoulds – shoulds, musts, have to’s, and ought’s are all false and irrational expectations that people tell themselves. People struggle between an ideal self and a true self. The ideal self is the self of shoulds and conformity (“I should be like this.” or “I should act like this”); the true self is the self that desires to live and enjoy life as they were created –free from expectations. Healthy people find a balance between the ideal self and the true self. Helping your clients find the balance is based on (1) helping them understand that failure is part of growth and (2) to only focusing on what they can control. They have no control over the person who cuts them off in traffic, who “should” drive more carefully. No, you “should” not have known what you have no knowledge of. A friend once shared a saying with me that goes, “A man is a fool to what he does not know.” In other words, you will make mistakes and sometimes foolish ones.


Example: “I should have known about the tax deadline; now I have to pay penalties.” “I demand respect because people should respect me.” (Not realizing you do not have control over another person’s actions). “I must be successful by the age of 40.”


  1. Upward Social Comparisons – this is when a person compares themselves to someone they believe is better than they are. While it is possible and healthy to be inspired by those who are better off, unhealthy upward comparisons can lead to bitterness, envy, dissatisfaction, and lack of motivation. Think of this as looking up at someone and wishing you were there. This can cause a person to interpret their life as inferior resulting in difficulty appreciating what they do have. The antidote to an unhealthy upward social comparison is (1) fostering gratitude, (2) realizing that you are gaining knowledge along your journey, and (3) God’s providence. There is a Latin phrase that the early church would recite, “Deus pro nobis,” this meant “God is for us.” God’s providence simply means that God is for you and with you in any situation, and therefore will see you through that situation.


Example: “I wish I was born into money.” “If I was more like Jason, I would be more successful.” “If I drove a nicer car, I would have more friends.” “If I was smarter, I would have a better job.”

Complete and Continue