Ethan Kross shares research on harnessing the “inner-voice” to improve work and well-being

August 2, 2021

By: Kaylee Somerville

Ethan Kross remembers that at a young age, his father taught him to introspect when things went wrong. It became a valuable tool throughout his childhood and adolescence, helping him process challenges and rejection.

It wasn’t until he began studying psychology that he learned about when introspection goes wrong. For many, turning inwards can make things worse, leading to depression and anxiety. Kross became passionate about using science to solve this problem, which Kross coins “chatter.” Ethan has spent the past 13 years at the University of Michigan learning about chatter, which is now the topic of his new book.

As part of the Center for Positive Organizations’ Summer Series, Kross discussed chatter with colleague and friend David Mayer (John H. Mitchell Professor of Business Ethics, Michigan Ross), sharing insights on how chatter works, how to overcome it, and how to lead others to do the same.

According to Kross, chatter refers to the process of getting “stuck” in a negative cycle of thinking and feeling. As a visual, Kross likens it to a hamster on an exercise wheel – the act of trying hard to get somewhere but not making progress.

Although some may feel that introspection is a nuisance they want to shut off, introspection is an important capability for healthy living. According to Kross, the inner voice helps simulate future moments (e.g., preparing what to say in a presentation), shape experiences, and better understand the events that happen.

However, “Chatter zooms us in really narrowly on our own problems…and we lose sense of the bigger picture,” says Kross. Doing so can cause people to feel that they are not in control, negatively impacting our work performance, relationships, and physical health.

Kross’ book presents several evidence-based strategies to help overcome chatter, including temporal reframing (mental time travel), mindfulness, and talking to yourself in the third person. Kross notes that there is no single magic solution and that people who use combinations of tools fare best.

In addition, Kross provides advice on how to help others overcome chatter by being a “chatter advisor” – a friend or mentor that can help process problems. He emphasizes that an important aspect of being a “chatter advisor” is not only listening, but helping others reframe the experience, so they can zoom out and see the bigger picture. We can also help others overcome chatter “invisibly” in ways that do not threaten their sense of autonomy. For example, leaders of teams should avoid singling employees out and providing ways to give feedback/improvement collectively (e.g., team workshops). Kross also recommends helping personal relationships by proactively doing things (e.g., tasks around the house) when we know our loved ones are stressed.

As the world returns to work, understanding Chatter and how to harness it will be helpful in experiencing continued uncertainty. Kross notes that: “Despite [chatters’] critical importance, we’re not talking about this at the dinner table with our kids. We’re not talking about this at our team meetings with our employees. Given the amazing things that it can do for us, I think we should be talking about it. Because there’s a whole lot of science to bear that documents not only its importance but also how it can be harnessed and usually relatively easy ways to make it work for us rather than against us.”

About Kross
Ethan Kross, PhD, is one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind. An award-winning professor in the University of Michigan’s Psychology Department and its Ross School of Business, he is the director of the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory.

This story is a collaboration between the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations (CPO) and Riverbank Consulting Group​, whose purpose is to energize and engineer organizations to unleash potential. It is based o​n an event presented by CPO, which you can watch here.