How silencing the 'chatter' in your head can make you a better leader, according to a professor

How silencing the 'chatter' in your head can make you a better leader, according to a professor

How silencing the 'chatter' in your head can make you a better leader, according to a professor
Ethan Kross, a University of Michigan professor and the author of "Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It."Insider
  • Ethan Kross is a University of Michigan professor and the author of an upcoming book on chatter.
  • He provides tools for turning negative chatter into something positive to help you regain control.
  • Creating distance, avoiding social media, and getting outside will make you a better manager.

As humans, we may talk to ourselves at a rate equivalent to speaking 4,000 words per minute out loud. That's according to Ethan Kross, a University of Michigan professor and the author of "Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It."

For CEOs and small business owners alike, that torrent of internal narrative can be paralyzing, inhibiting those in charge from leading effectively.

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"Part of what I find so interesting about chatter is that it is universal - we all have the ability to get stuck in our heads when we are dealing with negative events, and when we get stuck, that can lead to really negative consequences in an organizational or business context," Kross told Insider.

In his book, Kross provides tools for turning negative chatter into something positive - which he said leaders will find especially useful when confronted with COVID-19-related business stress. They can be even more effective when used in conjunction with one another.


"I'll do three or four things when I experience chatter over the pandemic, and it's the combination of those things that often helps me," he said.

Employers should remember that workers may also be occupied by chatter regarding health and economic issues. In his book, Kross said that demonstrating your own experience with these issues can help to show empathy. Convening a group to discuss solutions to a topic you know is top-of-mind rather than just offering advice unsolicited can provide needed assistance while empowering workers to recognize their own resilience.

According to Kross, the phenomenon of the "inner voice" has existed for thousands of years and was well documented by ancient cultures. In fact, the ability to introspect, of which the inner voice is a part, is thought to be a highly meaningful step forward in the evolutionary process, one of the things that distinguishes humans from other species. Chatter, according to Kross, is the negative manifestation of this inner voice.

"When we're experiencing chatter, one thing that does is occupy our attention, and we have only so much attention that we can focus on something at any one moment in time - so when you're talking about work, which often requires intense focus, you're talking about a serious impairment in your ability to do your job," he said.

As a business leader, if you're paying too much attention to the chatter in your head, you may be overanalyzing your decisions, for example. Or, at a time when most small business owners don't anticipate the economy returning to anything approaching normal until late this year, according to the National Federation of Independent Business, perhaps your concerns are dominating your thinking to the exclusion of being able to take care of your day-to-day responsibilities. Either, or both, could take time away from important decisions you need to be making in the here and now and leave you feeling stuck and unable to function.


Additionally, Kross warned that chatter can take a toll on how you're relating to your team.

"When we're busy experiencing chatter, we can also be more aggressive with others," he said. "We also tend to experience more social friction."

Uncertainty and a lack of control are key ingredients that fuel chatter, Kross said. "We love, as human beings, to be certain about things," he said.

Kross said the exact solution for taming the chatter in your head will vary from person to person.

"I'm a big fan of advocating the diversity of tools that exist," he said. "I think the beauty of the tools that I lay out in 'Chatter' is that most of them are really simple to use - they don't take hours of practice, and they're free," he added.


Here's a look at just a few of the solutions Kross offers.

Create distance

Convert your chatter to third person, using your name and the pronoun "you." Research showed that this led to less activation in the brain in areas associated with overthinking, which may in turn lead to wiser decision-making.

Reframe your perspective

You're facing an adverse event at your company, such as having to decide whether to lay off some employees.

Try reframing this as a challenge for your business to surmount - "I'm going to find a way to keep these two employees on the payroll," or, "I'm going to operate my business with a leaner staff" - and look for unique ways to solve the challenge. This may get you out of the flight-or-fight stress response that can trigger an excess of chatter.

Create order in your environment

"When we experience chatter, we often feel as if we are losing control. Our thought spirals control us rather than the other way around," Kross writes in his book. "When this happens, you can boost your sense of control by imposing order on your environment."


This may not necessarily mean cleaning up your office - it could be as simple as making a to-do list to organize what you need to get done or taking some time to journal out everything that's in your head.

Minimize passive social media usage

Unsurprisingly, Kross recommended limiting "doomscrolling," suggesting the use of social media mainly as a networking tool to gain insight from others who may be in the same situation.

Increase your exposure to green spaces

Science shows that nature is a good healer, expanding and refreshing the brain's capacity for attention.

Kross found in his research that when leaders put a combination of these strategies to work, they were better able to recognize the limits of their own knowledge and be open to others' viewpoints.

"When you're experiencing chatter, you're not in that wise state, but when you break out of it, and use some of these tools, we see evidence for enhancement in how wisely people can solve problems," he said.