The common shorthand in psychology circles for the tension between emotion and cognition—between what we feel and what we think—is to use the Star Trek characters of Captain Kirk and Officer Spock. Kirk is all heart, a man of intense and compelling emotions. He’s fire. By contrast, Spock, that lovable, pointy-eared half human half Vulcan, is all head; he’s a cerebral problem solver unencumbered by the distractions of feelings. He’s ice.
The key to avoid rumination is to combine the two Starship Enterprise crew members. When supporting others, we need to offer the comfort of Kirk and the intellect of Spock.
The most effective verbal exchanges are those that integrate both the social and the cognitive needs of the person seeking support. The interlocutor ideally acknowledges the person’s feelings and reflections, but then helps her put the situation in perspective. The advantage of such approaches is that you’re able to make people who are upset feel validated and connected, yet you can then pivot to providing them with the kind of big-picture advice that you, as someone who is not immersed in their chatter, are uniquely equipped to provide. Indeed, the latter task is critical for helping people harness their inner voice in ways that lead them to experience less chatter over time.
Time, of course, plays a role in our ability to offer perspective-broadening support to the people in our lives. Studies consistently show that people prefer to not cognitively reframe their feelings during the very height of an emotional experience when emotions are worked up; they choose to engage in more intellectual forms of interventions later on. This is where a certain art in talking to other people comes into play, because you must walk a tightrope to take upset people from addressing their emotional needs to the more practical cognitive ones.
As it turns out, one version of this balancing act was codified decades ago by the New York Police Department Hostage Negotiations Team, which emerged in the early 1970s after a series of disastrous situations not just in New York City but also worldwide. To name just a few: the 1971 Attica prison riot, the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, and the 1972 Brooklyn bank robbery featured in the film Dog Day Afternoon. A police officer and clinical psychologist named Harvey Schlossberg was tasked with creating the playbook for the new unit, whose unofficial motto became “Talk to me.” Along with prioritizing the need for compassionate engagement over the use of force, he stressed patience. Once the hostage takers understood that they weren’t in immediate danger, their autonomic threat response (presumably) eased. This reduced the negative frenzy of their inner voice, allowing the negotiator to shift the dialogue toward ending the standoff.
As soon as the NYPD Hostage Negotiations Team was up and running, the city saw an immediate decrease in bad outcomes for hostage situations. This breakthrough spurred law enforcement agencies around the globe to follow suit, including the FBI. The bureau developed its own approach called the Behavioral Change Stairway Model, a progression of steps to guide negotiators: Active Listening → Empathy → Rapport → Influence → Behavioral Change. In essence, it’s a road map for satisfying people’s social-emotional needs that nudges them toward a solution drawing on their cognitive abilities. While law-enforcement negotiators are naturally trying to defuse dangerous situations and arrest criminals, their work bears some similarities to coaching someone we care about through a problem. In both cases, there is a person who can benefit from the right kind of verbal support.
While all of these strategies apply to how you help the people in your life manage their inner voices, they can also help you make better choices when selecting the people you go to for emotional support. After they’ve made you feel validated and understood, do they guide you toward brainstorming practical solutions? Or do they excessively extract details and revive the upsetting experience by repeating things like “He’s such a jerk! I can’t believe he did that.” By reflecting after the fact, you can often determine if someone helped you immerse or distance. Most likely, it’ll be a combination of the two, which can be a starting point for a dialogue about how the person can better help you next time. By thinking through other experiences with your “chatter advisers,” you can also narrow in on which people are right for which problems.
While some friends, colleagues, and loved ones will be useful for a broad range of emotional adversities, when the problems are more specialized, specific people may be more helpful. Your brother might be the right person to coach you through family drama (or, perhaps just as likely, he might be the wrong person). Your spouse might be the perfect chatter adviser for professional challenges, or maybe it’s that person from another department at work. Indeed, research indicates that people who diversify their sources of support—turning to different relationships for different needs—benefit the most. The most important point here is to think critically after a chatter-provoking event occurs and reflect on who helped you—or didn’t.
CHATTER: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It (Crown), by Ethan Kross