Are Limiting Beliefs Holding You Down?

By Dave Kahle

“In your training, do you focus on instilling new skills, or do you try to remove the hindrances to people using their existing skills?”

That was one of the best questions I have ever been asked. I recall it clearly. I was having lunch with the CEO of a large non-profit organization, for whom I was training their social workers in sales skills. As a professional speaker/author/trainer, it is a question that I have considered for decades. It really speaks to the heart of the task of helping someone improve and develop. And, while it is a deep question that I’ve considered, I never expected to hear it from a client.

The answer is that we – the teachers and trainers in the world – do both. We teach the practices and competencies that are proven and fundamental for success in sales and leadership. In many cases, these are new skills, new ideas and new practices for the learner.

At some point in the process, though, a very predictable phenomenon occurs. While the learner accepts, intellectually, the value of what has been taught, he/she makes no — or very limited — attempt to actually put it into practice.


The Process.

It’s a two-step process: First, the learner needs to become aware of some practice, process, idea or skill. Then, they need to intentionally work to put it into practice.

The first step is the easiest. It only takes a small amount of effort to identify practices, processes and skills which have been proven to be effective in your job or profession. No matter what your job, I suspect that there are at least five books written on the subject, and at least 20 websites offering solutions. A 15-minute web search will probably uncover enough practices and ideas to keep you busy for weeks.

From the trainers’ perspective, the more important issue is identifying that combination of practices and processes, ideas and strategies, that will have the most impact at this moment for this group of people. Whenever I’m contracted to speak at a national sales meeting, for example, in a conversation with the meeting planner, I always say something to this effect: “I could do 40 hours of training for your group But we don’t have 40 hours, we only have 3 or 4. So the question is which combination of principles and practices will get you the biggest bang for the buck. Let’s sort through the possibilities and prioritize those that hold the greatest potential for making an impact.“

In the course of a 60 – minute phone call, we always identify a group of practices that will bring the greatest improvement in results.

So, that part of the process – identify the new things to teach or learn – is relatively simple.

The real challenge lies in the second part – helping the learner to actually use those practices. For someone intent on helping people develop, tap into their potential, and become more successful, it is the primary hurdle. I call it the “gap between idea and action.” It is relatively easy to transmit ideas; it is incredibly difficult to help the individual put them into action.

It is a complex problem, with lots of reasons that dissuade people at different times and places. For example, they can be as simple and superficial as not having the time: “I was so busy with other things that I just didn’t have time to give it the thought necessary to make the change.”

Fear of the discomfort that comes with any change in behavior is one of the most common. “I’m not comfortable doing that new thing. I’m not an expert at it, and I’ll feel foolish for a while. I’d rather not pay that price to gain a new skill.”


The Most Potent Obstacles.

That list of reasons why the gap between idea and action is a difficult one to traverse can go on for pages. I’ll save that for a future article. For now, I’d like to focus on a class of obstacles to changed, and better, behavior: Our pre-existing beliefs.

As an educated and experienced practitioner in the profession of helping people change their behavior, I’ve come to the conclusion that our set of preexisting beliefs supplies the largest and most potent set of obstacles to self-improvement, and is the most difficult hurdle preventing greater success and fulfillment.

Human beings naturally make observations and conclusions about our experiences as we grow up and experience life. Eventually, some of these become hardened into beliefs. These beliefs that form our base set of assumptions about the world, and we make choices and live our lives based on those beliefs.

For example, a child can have a difficult relationship with one of his parents and begins to think that all people of that sex are arbitrary, aggressive and can’t be trusted. He forms a ‘confirmation bias’ which leads him to look for those things in others of that sex. After a couple of experiences that seem to confirm his bias, that belief, that men, or women, are arbitrary, aggressive and can’t be trusted, coalesces into a belief, and then begins to influence all his behavior.

This belief becomes buried into the deeper layers of his heart. And it burrows into the subconscious level. He doesn’t even know that he believes it, he just operates on the basis of it. So, when he is dating, for example, he sees his potential life mates through the lens of this pre-existing belief. And that hinders his relationships with the opposite sex.

He may go to an excellently presented workshop on ‘Communicating with the Opposite Sex’ for example, and learn some of the best practices of communication, but is unable to put them into practice because the gap between idea and action harbors his belief, and that belief prevents him from turning the good idea into action. With the best of intentions to implement his newly found practices, his belief trumps his intellectual ascent, and prevents him from following through. His potential for a loving, life-long relationship is hindered because of the unconscious belief that he developed along the way.

This process is such a part of human life that every human struggles with it. The Bible, for example, calls these unconscious beliefs “strongholds” and indicates that they are destroyed through the spiritual power inherent in Christians.


Cultural beliefs.

Limiting beliefs are not just an individual issue. They can be distributed among affinity groups of people and become part of the culture of that group. Families have limiting beliefs that they share, as do larger communities.

One of our travel experiences that made a life-long impact on me occurred in the 90’s when Coleen and I were visiting Soweto, the African township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. On the day that we were there, the children were on strike, refusing to go to school. Even stranger than that was the reason they were on strike: They objected to being graded as individuals. Their tribal belief system promoted the idea that they were a closely connected group, and that any attempt to recognize that one person did better than another was an attack on that belief. Either the whole class passed, or the whole class failed. The individual had value, not as an individual, but only as a part of the larger group.

As with all such cultural components, these beliefs have consequences. A family can share a belief that all authority figures are arbitrary and not to be respected. As a result, family members are regularly in trouble with employers and the courts.

In my Soweto example, the belief holds people down, and prevents individual achievement that would lift up the entire community. As a result, the community lives at the level of subsistence generation after generation.

While these two examples, above, illuminate some life-changing and society-impacting beliefs, not all limiting beliefs are so potent. We all have a host of them that impact our on-the-job performance. It is those that I find at play in the work that I do. In earlier blog posts, I have identified a number of them that impact professional salespeople and hold them back.

“Salespeople are good talkers” is one. “I have great relationships with my customers” is another.


How to Overcome Limiting Beliefs.

Beliefs can be both positive and negative. Martin Seligman’s great book, Learned Optimism, describes the impact that positive beliefs can have in bringing success to one’s life.

Not everyone is hindered by the gap between idea and action, for example. Some – typically about 20 to 30 percent of a training class – go on to incorporate the new practices into their routines and enjoy the positive outcomes as a result. The focus of this article is not on developing positive beliefs (we’ll save that for another article) but rather on overcoming negative ones. It’s not the minority who seamlessly incorporate the training that is my focus; it is the majority who don’t.

In many ways, our development as human beings is dependent on our ability to eliminate or overcome our limiting beliefs.

Since limiting beliefs are subconscious, and influence our behavior, the way to identify them is to study our behavior. Patterns of behavior that seem to be unreasonable, that often lead to negative outcomes, are often indicators of a limiting belief that prompted that behavior.

Back to our example of the man raised with a limited belief about the opposite sex. If he sees himself acting unreasonably, in multiple situations, then that behavior indicates a pattern, and that pattern of unreasonable negative behavior indicates a limiting belief. For example, he may get overly angry at the slightest perceived insult, when none was intended, and other reasonable people would not have acted that way.

A little introspection indicates that this is a pattern of behavior. That it has become habitual. Those are indications that there is a limiting belief prompting that behavior.

So, the first step is to identify patterns of unreasonable, negative behavior. Friends, family members and colleagues can provide some insight into this.

The next step is to identify the belief that prompted that behavior. This is where a professional consultant can help. If you’re working by yourself, ask the question, “Why” and as objectively as possible, search for the belief. See if you uncover and label it. Give it words and describe it.

This is difficult work. Multiple books have been written on various aspects of it. It is much more complex than my few words indicate.

Once you have identified the negative behavior and the underlying belief, you can attack it at both levels. You can become aware of the behavior, and whenever you find yourself in that situation, follow one of Seligman’s techniques: Simply tell yourself to “Stop” and then “Switch” to some other behavior. Do that enough, repeat it enough times, and you will have built a more positive habit.

Or you can attack it at the level of the belief. Now that you have uncovered and labeled it, argue with yourself. Think through all the reasons why the belief is false. Convince yourself that the belief is unfounded and leads to negative behavior, Defeat the belief itself. You may find it helpful to formulate a positive rule and substitute that every time the old belief expresses itself.

If you can successfully bridge the gap between idea and action, you’ll have gained a self-improvement tool that will serve you well for the rest of your life.

Dave Kahle

Dave Kahle is President of Kahle Way® Sales Systems, a sales training and consulting company. He is one of the world’s leading sales authorities and the author of 13 books. For more information, go to or call 616-451-9377.

Dave Kahle is one of the world’s leading sales authorities. He’s written twelve books, presented in 47 states and eleven countries, and has helped enrich tens of thousands of sales people and transform hundreds of sales organizations. Sign up for his free weekly Ezine. His book, How to Sell Anything to Anyone Anytime, has been recognized by three international entities as “one of the five best English language business books.” Check out his latest book, The Good Book on Business.