SPEAKERS

Greg McKeown, Ethan Kross


Greg McKeown     

Dr. Ethan Kross, the author of a really important new book, Chatter, the voice in our head, why it matters, and how to harness it. Let me officially welcome you to the What’s Essential podcast. Thank you for joining me.

Ethan Kross   

Thanks for having Greg. Big fan happy to be here.

Greg McKeown     

That’s nice. That’s a nice thing to say big fan. Now. I’m now I’m curious about that. So do you see how familiar are you with Essentialism?

Ethan Kross     

I think I’m pretty familiar. I’ve, I’ve read I’ve read the book. And I’ve listened. I’ve listened to you. So whether you’re going to roll out the test, you know what, what great I get, we’ll see, but the argument certainly resonates. And so let me stop there, although, you know, in your opening you mentioned something that I would love to come back to at some point.

Greg McKeown     

No, go what is it that I mentioned, you want to come back to

Ethan Kross     

What you mentioned that that you are struggling today with being an essentialist and I detected there a little bit of, of discomfort knowing that you yourself are struggling. And what was striking to me about that admission, Greg is that we’ve in our lab, we’ve studied something called Solomon’s paradox. And it forms a foundation for a lot of what I talked about in chatter, and a lot of the research we’ve done. And in essence, what Solomon’s paradox is about, is the idea that human beings in general are much better at giving advice to other people and offering sound advice to other people about how they should act when they have problems. We’re not as good as following that own advice ourselves. So there’s this fundamental disconnect that we often experience when advising other people versus ourselves. And of course, there are ways of, of advising ourselves more effectively, but it just struck me that your example was a great illustration of that.

Greg McKeown     

In your research on the Solomon’s Paradox, is there. Is it inherently a negative? Is it just Wow, look at that we can give advice, but we’re not as good at doing it, which I think is a totally real phenomenon and one that I think I do struggle with? Or is there also an upside to it, where it’s like we need each other. Because actually, we are genuinely better at giving advice. And if we give advice to other people, it is more likely to be accurate. And we’ll help them in the same way that we need other people to look at our lives with a bit more perspective and help us with how do you think about Solomon’s paradox?

Ethan Kross     

I think you frame it really well. I think you know, other people can be an incredible tool for helping us manage our inner noise, so to speak. The trick is to be deliberate about who you seek out for advice. One of the another really interesting phenomenon that we see play out time and again, is often when people are experiencing chatter so and what chatter is refers to is the negative cycle of thoughts and feelings we experience when we when we introspect to try to find solutions to our problems. So the ability to introspect is this amazing, amazing gift. And you certainly, you know, I’ve read, I’ve heard you talk about this capacity, right, we need to preserve time in our lives to think about what really matters. The issue that that that we often see playing out is that when people are under stress, or dealing with really important high stakes decisions, their attempts to introspect to find solutions to their problems, often just lead them to spin. They worry, they ruminate, they catastrophize in ways that, that make the problems worse and don’t provide clear solutions. So that’s what chatter is. And other people can be really helpful in bringing us out of those chatter episodes of giving us the bigger picture, the broader perspective. But not everyone does that for us. So I like to tell people to be deliberate about who they who they choose to go for support when they find themselves stuck in these chatter states.

Greg McKeown     

I love the phrase chatter episodes; I think that’s something that most people can relate to when they get into sort of a spiral of thinking. Some sort of stuck pattern that either just repeats itself, like a song stuck in your head that you wish wasn’t or even becomes a negative spiral where one thought leads to another more negative thought leads to another. And there’s this downward pressure until I don’t know still unchecked, it can become a hugely negative episode a record you become completely flooded, you can become, you know, deeply unhappy, and very quickly, due to, due to this pattern. How do you distinguish between the sort of different kinds of chat episodes?

Ethan Kross     

You know, chatter episodes exist on a continuum from, from the kinds of getting stuck in thought and not being able to think about anything else that I think is part and parcel of daily life, for many people, to full blown episodes of chatter that lasts weeks and months that get us into the clinical territory. You mentioned, Greg, that that chatter can have some really negative consequences. I like to break it down into three territories. You know, the one thing that happens when we experience chatter is it makes us It makes it hard for us to think and perform well. So have you ever had the experience of having a problem on your mind and trying to read a book and you ever get to the point where you read two pages, and then you think God, I don’t actually know what I just read? I can’t remember a thing, has that ever happened to you?

Greg McKeown     

Oh it happens to me, often. I would say there’s not really a day that I’m reading whether isn’t a point at which I am reading a paragraph. And I think I don’t know what I just read. And sometimes, sometimes, I think, oh, that’s not good, you’re distracted. And sometimes I think there’s like a positive chatter. And I don’t think that’s probably the right phrase, because I think chatter, it’s, it’s such a clever, you know, word for you to have chosen, you know, that name, something I think we all are familiar with, on it, and on the sort of unhelpful side. But I think there is this other voice. That’s a helpful if I say distraction, it’s, it’s actually, as you’re reading something comes to you, and, and now you’re reflecting on something else, even as you’re technically going through the words on the page. And sometimes I think you have to pay attention to those things that you’re being pulled to, because it’s actually maybe even enlightened thoughts. They’re good thoughts. They’re, they’re, you know, inspiring thoughts. And, and I’m sure we’ll get to it. But I’m curious about how you think about this internal voice, do you make allowance for these two voices inside?

Ethan Kross  

Absolutely. So you know, the inner voice is not good or bad, it has both manifestations, we spend between a third and a half of our of our waking hours not being in the moment not being present. Instead, we are lost in thought, we’re planning, we’re fantasizing, we’re simulating future events. And all of those qualities are our amazing strengths that make human beings unique. And then I would argue, make many successful people really successful, this ability to harness this capacity to introspect and to like you’re saying, Greg to also listen to that voice. And so, you know, like, I, for example, will when I’m, when I’m struggling with a difficult problem at work, and by problem, I mean, not, not an interpersonal problem, but just an analytic issue that I’m having trouble seeing through, often just go for a walk in the park by my house, and just let the thoughts go. And what usually ends up happening is solutions and thoughts and ideas popped into my head, many of which can be really useful. And so I think that’s a that’s an example of this positive side to introspection, at play. I for one would not want to live a life without this capacity, I think it’s one of the things that has allowed me to accomplish things in my life. The dark side of introspection is when this tool that we possess that is so amazi ngly helpful. When it is occupied instead, with a problem that we keep on spinning over, we are worried about ruminating about and so forth, all of that energy that is typically devoted towards solving problems and having moments of insight and so forth, instead gets occupied by spinning by ruminating and worrying. And so that makes that’s one of the ways that chatter can undercut our ability to think and perform well, in our jobs and at work.

Greg McKeown      

So this idea of chatter, from your perspective, is a good servant, but a poor master?

Ethan Kross     

I haven’t thought about it that way. But it yeah, it can be although I tend to use the term chatter for the negative side of the inner voice in particular.

Greg McKeown     

What words do you give to the positive side?

Ethan Kross     

I think that’s the ability to, you know, to adaptively reflect on your life. So chatter is negative self-reflection, if you will, not self-reflection is his creative thinking.

Greg McKeown  

So, so let’s just be practical with this, if somebody’s listening to this, and I’m sure, literally every person listening to this feels at some time, this idea of chatter, this feeling of being stuck in a thought pattern, being negative about a situation they’re faced in, in a way that’s not helpful, not leading them in a, in a useful direction. And they’re reflecting in it in a negative way. What are, let’s choose like, three really practical things that someone can do to either snap out of it, or shift into a more helpful state, what can someone practically do?

Ethan Kross     

So I like to vote to divide these tools into three buckets; things you could do on your own, ways of interacting with other people to get chatter support, and then ways of interacting with the physical world around us. And so let me give you an example of each one. And then we can go deeper if you like. In terms of things that you can do on your own. You just mentioned how powerful language can be in giving things names can be for helping people make sense of their lives. And so one of the interestingly, one of the strategies that we’ve looked at in the lab is something called distance self-talk. And what it involves is coaching yourself through a problem using your own name. And you rather than thinking in the first-person using I, so if I’m struggling with something, I might literally talk to myself silently in my head. That’s an important caveat, not out loud, but silently, I might think to myself, Ethan, what’s the best way to solve this problem? One of the things that we find that that does it   helps give people the mental distance, that can often be so helpful for thinking through problems clearly and objectively that we lack when we’re in the midst of experiencing chatter. So we, you know, I mentioned earlier, the Solomon’s paradox, we’re much better at advising other people on their problems, and we ourselves. In essence, what this tool does distance self-talk is, is it plays on that idea. And it allows us to think about ourselves more similar to how we think about others using our own name.

Greg McKeown  

Yeah, I love that idea. So is there any particular language that you have found that helps beyond the one you’ve already just shared there? You know, you said, What’s the best way to solve, you know, to think through this, but use your own name, right. So I would say, you know, Greg, you know, what’s the best way to handle the fact that you’re feeling like you have too much to do today?

Ethan Kross      

Yeah, that that that’s, that’s the solution. Now, what that does, is that in turn, leads us It changes the way we think about problems that we face. So when you put people in, in in difficult situations, there are two ways of thinking about them. If you want to simplify things, you could think about these problems as a threat. So the way of thinking about a problem as a threat works as you plop a person in the situation, typically what they do is they think, okay, what’s required of me here? And do I possess the resources to handle this situation? And the other way of answering that question is to do the same thing, take stock of the situation, what resources do I possess, and then you come up with the idea, you know, what I can manage the situation? That’s what we call a challenge interpretation. And one of the things we find is that when you try to work through your problems using your own name, it’s almost like you become your own inner coach, if you will. You’re coaching yourself through the problem which in turn is allowing you to think about these difficult problems as challenges that you can actually manage, rather than threats that you can’t and that we find is really helpful, helpful for help for enabling people to control their emotions and perform more effectively under stress.

Greg McKeown     

What it sounds like is that the Solomon’s paradox grows out of the idea that because you’re removed from the situation, you can see it with more perspective, you can see it more clearly, you can see more options of how you might handle it. And I think what you’re saying is that this, this coaching yourself, the inner coach, is trying to create some space between you and the triggers the emotional things that you’re dealing with the chatter, so that you can try to come at it with better perspective, a bit more space between you and it. That sounds right?

Ethan Kross     

That’s exactly right. And the reason it works is because when we become emotional, and when we experience chatter, what ends up happening is we focus our attention very narrowly on the problem, to the exclusion of of everything else. And so, so a little bit of space, stepping back, brings the fuller picture into focus.

Greg McKeown 

So you’ve talked about tools for how to manage this on our own. Now, give me your favorite practical tool for how to manage chatter with other people.

Ethan Kross     

So with other people, one of the things we know is that when people are experiencing chatter, they often want to talk about it, emotions serve like jet fuel that propel us to want to share them with other people. And the reason that is, is because we’re looking for two things from other people, we want to get support, and empathy, we want to know there are other people who care for us. But we also want advice. We also we want other people to help give us that bigger picture. What’s interesting, though, is lots of people think that the key to getting chatter support is to just vent your feelings, just get it out, you know, just unload what happened and what you felt to a sympathetic ear. And, and, and that’s actually in and of itself, that’s not sufficient for getting support, right. And for getting help, that is, when we share our emotions with others. That’s certainly and someone out there is, someone’s there to listen to us. That certainly gives us the sense that, oh, someone cares about us. But if we stop there, if we just keep talking about what happened, and don’t wait for that other person to give us the advice, then we don’t feel better about our chatter. So when I look for other people for help, I think really deliberately about who I’m approaching for support. So who, who is uniquely positioned to both give me the empathy that I crave but also the perspective that I need to solve this problem, which I’m struggling with right now. What that ends up meaning is that if it’s a problem at work there is I have certain chatter advisors that I that I consult when it’s chatter at work, but they’re very different when, when it’s chatter in my relationship, at home or problem I’m experiencing with my kids. It also means that I don’t talk about my chatter with everyone in my social circle, there are lots of people who I’m very close to who I care for and love deeply who aren’t the best chatter advisors who, who actually in their attempts to make me feel better can can actually sometimes make me feel worse, because they don’t provide me with the advice. And so I’m really careful who I select, to speak with.

Greg McKeown     

How can you select someone who’s really optimal at this?

Ethan Kross     

I think so what I do is I think to myself, when I’ve spoken to this person in the past, have they just been a shoulder to cry on? Or have they additionally, been a shoulder to cry on and offered some perspective, to help me work through the problem cognitively to make sense of the experience, and I choose the latter. The reason why the shoulder to cry on in and of itself is insufficient, is because if someone is just there to hear about what happened to us, that ends up getting us to rehash the negative feelings over and over again, doesn’t help us make sense of them doesn’t help us edit that experience in ways that are useful for helping us find closure, which allows us to move on.

Greg McKeown     

Okay, if I’m trying to help somebody else with that chatter, what do I need to do skill wise to help with that?

Ethan Kross   

You need to learn about what happened. So you want to you want to learn a little bit about what the problem is show that you care, validate their experience, help make it clear to the person that what they’re going through is not is not unique, which it often isn’t. And then once you get the sense that the person feels like they are being supported, and they’ve explained what happened fully, then you want to start shifting to help them consider different ways of thinking about the experience of putting it in perspective. Well, let’s look at the big picture. You didn’t get this job you interviewed for, but you’ve got six others lined up, giving them that kind of perspective. So starting off, learning about the situation, validating the person’s experience, it’s natural to feel that way anyone in your situation would, and then getting them to really take that bigger picture perspective. Now, there is a caveat here, which is some people you speak to, it may take three minutes for them to feel supported. And they’re ready for the advice right off the bat. Other people, it may take a little bit longer before they’re receptive to getting advice. And so, there’s an art to being a good chapter advisor. It’s not something that you can say, okay, 30 seconds, tell me what happened. And 90 seconds, we’re going to be an advice mode. Each individual is unique.  

Greg McKeown     

I think I’m trying to frame an opinion as a question here. But I’m just curious about the role of deep empathic listening in this being a chatroom advisor. I’ve spent more than 20 years really intensely interested in empathic listening, its power, its superpower, and its limits. And one of the things I’ve come to the conclusion of is that for many people, they have never been deeply listened to. That very often, the listening that has been done for them is very surface. So it’s like layer one and they have 10 layers. And so people are giving advice at let level one because that’s as far as the conversation ever gets to. And so at least my interpretation of chatter is that a lot of the chatter that’s going on inside of people is layer 234 through 10. And they never get to process it. Now, I don’t mean literally everyone, but my experience is that when I have engaged in empathic listening and gone to level two, three and four, it’s like real news, when people are speaking the words that are coming out are new words that they have not put it into actually voiced language before and it can be enormously liberating. And I’m just curious about this in your, in your own experience in the lab, in your own research. What is the role of this kind of empathic listening?

Ethan Kross     

Well, you know, I think I think the one additional layer I would add to that is that there, you know, you’re talking about layers. 1234 There are also problems, problems 1234 some problems, I think, don’t require deep, deep empathic listening, layer seven through 10, or whatever the metric. You know, I think this is a, this is where the artistry of self of social support comes into play. If the problem is sufficiently is deeply significant than I think the listening part takes more time and effort. And, and, and before you get to the advice, giving, and sometimes sure, talking about those experiences, to be clear talk, talking about our emotions, and having someone else to listen to us, that serves a function, right? It makes us It makes us know there’s someone else there, who cares about us. And sometimes a process of just talking in and of itself, helps us begin to create that narrative around our experience that can be so useful for moving on. You know, when we’re experiencing chatter, or thoughts are often disorganized, they’re scattered, our experiences don’t have a beginning, a middle, and end. There’s no story to what happened to us or what we’re going through. And creating that story can often be really, really helpful. I think that’s what you mean when you say processed. So deep empathic listening is part of is certainly part of it. But I think it can be supercharge, optimized by bringing in also the deliberate perspective, broadening that you as a as someone else, as an advisor to this individual is coming to you for help, or in a unique position to do. It doesn’t have to be over the top like, let me tell you exactly the six things you need to do to work well with this with his boss you have, sometimes it can be as simple as nudging the person to consider different ways of thinking about the situation like they can do the work on their own. The issue is to get them to start broadening their view so they’re not super narrowly focused on the emotional and devastating parts of the experience. That that’s not the only thing they’re hyper focused on.

Greg McKeown     

It there’s a there’s a researcher, Barbara Fredrickson, has research that says, I think it’s called the broaden and build theory, if familiar with this. What she was effectively finding was that when people experienced negative emotions, their sense of optionality really decreases. You know, that they, they feel I mean, classic, fight, flight freeze, fall down, I mean, you just got these very few options, you feel you do. And so because you feel so limited, you are in a weakened position for whatever the next challenges. And so in this way, you can become more and more stymied, more and more weakened, more and more isolated. And again, at time of this conversation, I think there’s lots of people who will feel that because of an increase of fear and uncertainty with everything to do with COVID, and civil unrest, and just a sense of things that used to be dependable, not being dependable. So this, this is sort of the something I think many of us are familiar with the, what she goes on to suggest with broaden and build is that the moment you have positive emotions, almost regardless of the cause of them, your sense of options increases. And because your sense of options increased you realize what this, I could do different things here, I’m not so stuck, I could go in this direction or that direction, I could try. Try out something new, I could go and talk to somebody about this, you have a sense of broadening. And because you have an increased set of options, you’re able to take action and actually develop your capability. And therefore, you are more prepared for the next big challenge. And I think that I mean, you’re describing here, I think something similar to that, that someone else can play that role for you. The when you’re starting to be narrowed, they can come in and say well, remember, you have these options. Remember, you could do this, you could do that and expand their set of options for them. Does that sound right?

Ethan Kross     

It does sound right and there’s a there’s a paradox Surrounding all this, which is studies show that many people think so. So let me back up, Greg. So you know, you’ve been doing deep listening, deep empathic listening so for 20 years, you are not the average, you’re not the average individual. When we look at people, by and large, a lot of people tend to think that the best way of helping others is to show them support to show them that that you care. So they tend to over prioritize listening alone, at the cost of also giving advice. So the advice piece tends to fall off. And so that’s where I think there’s a real opportunity here, which is to, to make clear that support is great, but it’s only one half of the equation, we also need to provide that   broadening that they you just very eloquently described.

Greg McKeown     

Well, what’s surprising to me about what you’re saying is, is that I tend to see that people are heavy on advice, and on reading their autobiography into other people’s lives. And oh, let me tell you what I would do. And let me tell you, it and so someone feels more alone in their internal chatter, because they’re not understood. Is that what you’re saying?

Ethan Kross     

No, I’m saying that. I’m saying that you want to do both you want to the sweet spot is both showing support and giving advice. And, and, and, and not moving to advice until you know that the person you are talking to does feel, doesn’t feel alone feels like they have alliance with you. Right once that condition is met, that’s when you want to shift into helping them go broad, helping them get perspective, that doesn’t mean that the best way to do so is to say, Well, let me tell you, I’ve been through this. And here’s exactly what you should do. Right, then kind of prescriptive. And this can often be very alienating. I think there’s a gentleness to this. And that, again, is where the art comes in.

Greg McKeown     

What is something in the physical world we can do to manage and take advantage of this internal chatter?

Ethan Kross     

So one thing we can do is we can we can seek out all inspiring experiences. So you know, AWS on emotion, and this segues back to some of the work that you mentioned the bar this isn’t her research, per se, but it’s consistent with her theory, this often emotion we experience when we’re in the presence of something vast, that’s hard for us to understand. So some people experience it when they stare up at the sky and contemplate the number of stars in the universe, like my god, how many how many planets are there out there? I don’t know how to make sense of that. It’s a billion trillion. If you contemplate what that number is. Other people experience all when they when they look at an amazing painting or watch their kids do something amazing. What happens when we experience awe is we basically experience something called a shrinking of the self, right? But our perspective is so broadened, right? That we ourselves and our own concerns end up feeling a lot smaller by comparison, right? So if I’m if I’m contemplating the universe, alright, but what about the feelings of pain I felt when I was rejected on a job interview, or when I was told a paper, you know, wasn’t up to snuff for my editor didn’t like a draft of my book that feels a whole lot less, less, less big, when we’re thinking about these vast issues. And so research shows that experiencing awe can be a powerful tool for helping people manage their chatter. And so one easy way to do it is to go for a walk in an unnatural setting. Look up at trees that have been around for hundreds of years, think about think about that, how they’ve managed to stick around through all the pandemic and civil strife and everything else that’s chatter provoking that you mentioned earlier. And, of course, there are lots of lots of other means of, of having that emotional experience. But that’s one-way people can harness their physical environment, to regulate their chatter.

Greg McKeown   

I remember years ago, I was teaching a class at a training center. And I had just had these small classes assigned to me, maybe 12 students, and we went on a walk one day out to the mountains. And it was really profound just to stand there and look at them, and just the sense of still standing, you know, we come and go, but they’re still standing, there’s going to be ups and downs. But they’re still going to be here. And, and so I can definitely relate to what you’re describing and just physically shifting to being outside alone. Just even that shift, just go on a walk for a bit, see things beyond what you are immediately dealing with that I think again, can be perspective enhancing. And that I think is what you’re I think that’s maybe a golden thread running through this conversation and through the tools that you’re recommending whether their own tools or others or physical world is its perspective shifting. So that you’re, you’re trying to create space between you and your chatter.

Ethan Kross     

So another tool, that that involves the physical world involves making order. So, you know, tidying up organizing when I was working on this book, and I found myself experiencing chatter for any number of reason, a looming deadline, a paragraph or sentence that wasn’t coming out, like I liked, I would find myself oddly, because I’m not a particularly neat fellow, you know, arranging the books on my shelves and making sure the papers were aligned, and so forth, and so on. And essentially, what I was doing is I was creating order in the world around me in the spaces around me to compensate for the lack of order that I felt in my in my head when my thoughts felt disorganized. And, and so that’s another way that people can try to regain control of chatter is to is to organize their spaces around them.

Greg McKeown     

Yeah, I think that’s one I think, I certainly can relate to. And I’m sure lots of listeners can as well that, that if you tidy up the room, you’re in just tidy up the desks, set a timer for 10 minutes, tidy up your physical surroundings, there is a signal from that to your internal voice, that this is what we want. This is what we’re looking for. We want clarity, and outside of us, we want clarity inside of us. And I do think that there’s a there’s a relationship there that’s surprising in some ways, that when there’s external order, that can be internal bursts of creativity. And I’m not exactly sure why but I’ve definitely experienced that myself. Tell us tell us where can we find you? You know, people that want to know more? What should they do next?

Ethan Kross     

Well, you could find me at EthanKross.com, it’s Kross with a K. You can learn about Chad or the book. It’s coming out in January, January 26. And on the website, there’s lots of links to the original research that goes into the book so check it out.

Greg McKeown     

Dr. Ethan Kross, what a pleasure to have you come and talk to us about something that we all experienced this internal chatter what we can do about it specific tools. To be able to manage it better, we’re not going to get rid of it completely in our lives. So better to be able to know how to have it work for our good. Not so much the chatter, but this ability to reflect and how to be able to do it in the three ways. You’ve mentioned that it’s very helpful. And I appreciate so much your time and being on the what’s essential podcast with me today. Thank you.

Ethan Kross    

Thank you, Greg.


Essentialism Podcast

Greg McKeown

Wheelhouse Entertainment

Credits:

  • Hosted by Greg McKeown
  • Produced by Greg McKeown and Wheelhouse Entertainment
  • Executive Produced by Greg McKeown, Avi Gandhi, Brent Montgomery, Eric Wattenberg, and Ed Simpson
  • Edited by Emma Gladstone and Deanna Markoff