Chatter keeps circling in your head like a school of sharks. You could be concerned about an upcoming job interview. Maybe you worry about how the pitch came across to the large customer account. Or perhaps you have lingering thoughts about the way your boss squinted at you in the meeting. You’re stuck and can’t get rid of the chatter. To the rescue, Dr. Ethan Kross psychologist and professor at the University of Michigan, who has been conducting studies on what he calls chatter detailed in his new book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It.
How Mind Chatter Impedes Job Performance
When I sat down with Kross, he explained why the voices are there and how we can use them to our advantage. Self-talk, he said, creates narratives that help us make sense of our world. We use it to work through sticky problems. “We human beings have this remarkable capacity to use language silently in our head,” Kross said. “Some people call it self-talk or the inner voice. This tool lets you do many things from keeping information active in your head for short periods such as memorizing a phone number, rehearsing what you might say in a presentation or to control yourself when working on a problem.”
We spend one-half to one-third of our waking hours lost in thought, according to Kross. And a lot of that time is spent talking to ourselves. He describes chatter as the harmful variant of self-talk—the toxic form when we get stuck with catastrophic thoughts and worry on auto-play over and over in our head. “This is one of the big problems we face as human beings. We struggle when chatter consumes our attention. We know that when you get stuck or immersed in chatter, your mind zooms in. All you can think about is this thing that’s bugging you whether it happened in the past, present or future. You try to work through, it but you can’t stop thinking about it,” he explained. “When that happens, it undermines people’s ability to think and perform—which is what work is all about. If all our attention is on chatter, it doesn’t leave anything over to do the thing we need to do at work.”
He suggests this exercise: Think about a time you try reading a few pages in a book when you’re worried about something. You read the material but you don’t remember what you read by the time you’re finished because your mind was somewhere else. “Apply that to a work scenario,” the psychologist said. “Chatter causes us to overthink things, have paralysis by analysis and under perform at work. Even things we’re good at such as presenting before our colleagues or performing a complex procedure, we start thinking, are we doing it well. Once we start zooming in too much, our capabilities unravel.”
Solutions To Managing Work Chatter
The concept of distance—a unique feature of the human mind—is the secret sauce to manage work chatter, according to Kross. “When chatter zooms us in narrowly, distancing enables us to take a step back to think about our circumstances more objectively. That’s where science comes in handy. Enlarging your perspective is one of the best tools we have, and scientists have identified lots of different tools to do that.” Kross said the key is not to get rid of the inner voice but to figure out ways of mitigating harmful kinds of chatter. He identified 10 strategies to free you up—all of which include a form of distancing.
- Address yourself by name. Kross has shown in experiments that when you use your name in the second person pronoun to coach yourself through a problem, it improves your performance. Many people find it easy to give friends and loved ones advice. But when they’re struggling, they suffer enormously. When you refer to yourself with words typically used to talk to other people, it switches your perspective. Think of what you’d say to a close friend, and use your name to give advice. Saying something like, “Bryan, you can do this. It’s a piece of cake,” gives you the emotional distance to address the issue.
- Apply temporal distancing. Thinking about how you’re going to feel about a problem down the road reminds you of the impermanence of the moment. When you’re immersed in a situation, it’s all-consuming, and you think it’s always going to be this way, forgetting everything’s impermanent. “If you have chatter about a presentation to colleagues,” Kross said, “think about how it’s going to feel in an hour after you’re done. When you think about how you will feel about the situation a week from now, a month from now, a year from now, that mental exercise makes it clear—as awful as this situation is—it will fade with time.”
- Journal. Keeping a log of your thoughts and feelings in the moment is another way to zoom out and enlarge your perspective.
- Practice past recall. Think about how what you’re dealing with compares with other experiences you managed effectively in the past zooms you out and renews confidence.
- Find a chatter advisor. Talking to the right people can help broaden your perspective, Kross notes. Not just someone who asks how you’re feeling but also who gets you to look at the bigger picture.
- Have awe experiences. We don’t realize it, but when we’re immersed in chatter we make everything so big. When we step back with awe in the presence of something vast and indescribable—such as a sunset or mountain vistas—it leads to what researchers call the shrinking of the self. You feel smaller when you’re experiencing something vast. And when you feel smaller, so does your chatter.
- Perform a ritual. Immersed in chatter, emotions take over, making you feel you don’t have control. Rituals draw you away from chatter. When you do something that’s under your control, it helps you feel better before a stressful event. Some basketball players, for example, take several breaths before doing special handshakes and jump up and down. These are behaviors under the athletes control that give them a sense of being in control instead of emotions taking over right before a stressful situation.
- Meditate. The reason meditation has proliferated over the past 15 years is because it helps people get distance from chatter. Although meditation is a way of evoking the capacity to distance, we’ve worked on finding other ways that give you distance that don’t require you to meditate.
- Set boundaries on traumatic images. Television news and social media create chatter. When we’re constantly bombarded with the same loop of distressing information, it engages us in nonstop collective rumination. You want to remain informed, but you don’t want the news to suck you into negative echo chambers of distress. Kross suggests having a rule of, “I’m gonna read or watch the news for 10 minutes in the morning or evening, but I’m not going to go down the clicking rabbit hole of checking the Ukraine situation every hour of the day. If you’re tempted, ask yourself, ‘What am I going to gain from reading every bit of information on the war every single day?’ Do you think it’s going to change your circumstances or the circumstances out there?”
- Use self-affirmations. Affirmations can be very useful and give a broader perspective. Just reminding yourself that you are a human being with value and worth can be helpful.
There’s not one solution to managing chatter, according to Kross. “I’ve been doing this research for 20 years,” he said. “I haven’t found a single tool that helps all people in all situations. Different tools work for different people in different circumstances. So the challenge is to figure out what are the best tools that work for each of us.”