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Ethan Kross, Author of Chatter - Part One

Published 5/24/2021

Ethan Kross joins me today to talk about the importance of our inner voices. In his new book, Chatter, Ethan outlines how our inner voices affect us and how we can shape them as a helpful tool.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
What conversations do you have with yourself and why is that important? That's what we're talking about with today's incredible guest, Ethan Kross. Ethan recently wrote a book called Chatter. It's an excellent book I've recommended it on the show before. Ethan and I have a chance to discuss Chatter in this and the next episode of Developer Tea. I hope you enjoy my interview with Ethan. If you enjoy this show, please subscribe in whatever podcasting app you currently use. That will help you not only miss out on the second part, not miss out on the second part of the interview with Ethan, but also you'll get notified depending on that that you use. When any new episode of Developer Tea comes out and we do three weeks, so that will be very soon. Thank you so much for listening to the show. Let's get straight into the interview with Ethan Kross. Ethan, welcome to Developer Tea. Hey, thanks for having me. So it shouldn't come as a surprise to the people who listen to the show often. You're not a software engineer or I assume at least not by trade, is that correct? That is correct. I wish I had those skills and I will say sometimes my family members think that I'm not going to be a good person. I think my family members think that I do. And I have to communicate. I don't. So we've got to ask someone else if we need help with some of those kinds of problems that often come up. Yeah, what, just very quickly, why does your family think you do have those skills? No, I mean, you know, because I use computers more than they do. I mean, it's not a very complicated new ones, instead of reasons that lead them to think that. Whenever there's any kind of issue with a program, it's what's wrong with it and like, how am I supposed to know? Yeah. Well, Ethan, you are the author of a book that just came out. And I'm pretty sure I pre-ordered the book. I read the book already. Both, both. I have the physical copy and then I also, I like to start with a physical copy and kind of end with the audiobook. I'm not really sure why that works out for me. And I guess it's because I like to get a really devour the primary argument first. And then here to some of the stories and expounding on the latter half. But can you tell us a little bit about what you do in your day to day work? Yeah. So I'm a professor at the University of Michigan. And I have appointments in the psych department and also in the business school in the area of management. And I run a lab called the Emotion and Self-Control Lab. And what we do in the lab is we do research to try to understand how we can help people align their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with their goals. We call that self-control. And we try to figure out what makes self-control work versus not work. And then we also try to use the information that we discover in the lab to help people improve their self-control in their daily lives. And the book I wrote, Chatter, is really an attempt to do that. That second goal that is to describe a lot of the research that we and other people in the field have done that speak to the question of when we find ourselves incapable of controlling our mind. So when we're ruminating or worrying or catastrophizing, when we're getting caught up in those negative mental loops that I call Chatter, what can we do to bring those internal conversations back on track? How can we help people regain control of their minds to make them work for them rather than against them? And so that's what the book intends to do. And that's a part of what I do here at Michigan. This is such an excellent book, at least for me at this stage in my life, because it brings forth a lot of certainly very interesting, but also very practical research on what you call self control. And this is such an age-old discussion about having, in philosophy, you might hear the phrase of having two selves where you have the one intentional identity self. And then you have this other impulsive self, the angel and the devil on your shoulder in some ways could represent these two selves. And the one self kind of defines, you know, the identity self defines the things that you want, you know, in your, in your best version of your of your life, right? And then you have to sort of write the biography of your life that that would be the version that the identity self portrays. And then this other impulsive self is just thinking about today or about what it feels in the moment. And this kind of old philosophy lineup with actual research on self control is, do you see this clear separation of identity and impulse? You know, I think we do see a, I think many people intuitively have the experience as you're describing of there being a more reflective component to our lives and a more experiential component where we just live without thinking. And that scaffolds on to work showing that if you look at how often people are, our versus aren't in the moment, what you find is that between one half and a third of our waking hours were not just in pure experience mode, we're drifting away to the fact to the past to the future, we're reflecting on our lives. And we actually spent a significant portion of that time drifting away talking to ourselves, which I think is really interesting. Obviously, because I just wrote a whole book on on that topic. But so, so we do have this ability to shift back and forth between being an experience versus reflection mode. And I think that's a really useful capacity and both modes serve a function. You know, one point that I often, I've been talking to a lot of people about is the idea that we are always, we should always be in the moment, right? We should always try to be in that kind of experiential mode. The human mind did not evolve to always be in the moment to the contrary, the human mind evolved to be able to time travel, to be able to think about the past and future. And that serves us really, really well in a variety of ways, right? The ability to think about, you know, let's us learn from our mistakes, experience nostalgia, it lets us plan for the future. It lets us simulate, it lets us weave together different experiences in ways that shape our conceptions of who we are. Like, we need to be able to travel in time to be able to do those things. And so, so I don't think we always want to be in the moment, though certainly being in the moment can be helpful at times. What we also want to avoid, of course, is getting stuck, ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. And, and I think that often happens to a lot of people. It can have significant negative consequences. And a big part of of chatter deals with when that happens, what can people do to get their internal conversations back on track? Since I've read the book, I've actually been using this phrase of mental time traveling, just constantly. I find myself thinking about it a lot. And I find it interesting, you're talking about rumination here, which is kind of like a twisted version of time travel. It's like the alternate, you know, unlikely universe. Because what we're talking about when we're when you say time traveling, I assume, and you can tell me if you disagree with this, we're talking about kind of playing out, you know, hopefully statistically likely future scenarios. And, you know, adjusting variables in our minds and replaying that and continuing to play it out to see like which variable do we think we should choose of the ones that we have control over. But rumination or in the case of the future, thinking with with high levels of anxiety or catastrophizing takes those really kind of unlikely statistical events and plays those out over and over and over like on a repeat playlist. So I'm curious about how, you know, what are some of the techniques that you outline in the book to say, okay, no, hold on, let's let's rip that playlist out. Let's not do the crazy playlist. Let's go with the good kind of time travel. Yeah, it's it's a first of all, I'm so happy that you phrased the question in that way, because oftentimes people think that the answer to not ruminating or worrying is to stop thinking about the future or the past. Like I just I just want to silence that inner voice and not have that capacity. When in fact, as you intimated with your question. And as I mentioned before, like oftentimes we can derive great benefit from being able to think about the future in the past. So the question is, how do you do it without getting stuck in these unlikely patterns of thinking where your catastrophizing meaning you're you're going to like the worst case possible scenario from the outset. The point 00001% probability chance of something happening. So what can you do the good news is that there are lots of different tools that that scientists have discovered. And I like to organize them as falling into three buckets. So there are things you could do on your own ways of shifting the way you're thinking about a situation that can be helpful for breaking you out of that rumination. So there are ways of interacting with other people. So other people are often in a in a prize position for helping us work through our chatter and silencing it. You need to know who to talk to though and how to talk to them, which I review in the book. And then there's our environment. There's the world around us. And one of the really fun parts about researching the book was discovering the very tools that exist in our physical environment. And then there's the kind of control in our conversations, the conversations we have with ourselves from the outside in, which I found fascinating. So so let me give you a couple of concrete examples though because that's all all really abstract, although I think it's useful to just have that framework of things you do on your own, things you do in your relationships, ways of interacting with the world. So the other things we know about chatter is when you're ruminating or worrying, you're really zoomed in very narrowly on the issue that's bothered you're thinking about that one comment, that one person that one interaction, very narrowly to the exclusion of really everything else in going on. And what that does is it makes it difficult for us to to generate alternative ways of thinking about the situation that might make us feel better. And one of the things that we can do is take a step back, try to pull back a little bit to focus on the experience more broadly, to broaden our perspective, to bring in other ways of thinking about this circumstance that might improve our mood. To make that more concrete, I'll give you an example of one distancing tool that that I've used when it comes to managing worry surrounding, you know, the pandemic we're all living through right now. This is I think a, I don't think I know this is a genuinely worrisome event for many and it's easy to get to get caught in a loop around it. Oh my god, the situation is so awful. You know, I'm concerned about the health of my loved ones, my kids are working from home, I can't work from home. This is this is tough. One thing you can do is you can think about imagine how you're going to feel six months from now when when we're all vaccinated and have reached herd immunity. Right. What are you going to do then when we reach that milestone. What that does what engaging in that form of temporal distancing or time distancing. What that does is it makes it clear that as awful as it is what we're experiencing right now, it's temporary. It will eventually pass and and when we have that set of cognitions, that makes us realize that gives us a sense of hope, which we know is a powerful bomb when it comes to our inner voice run amok or our chatter. That's one distancing tool. Another distancing tool you could use is to try to coach yourself through a problem like you would someone else like you'd offers advice to another person. And to use language to help you do that and by that, I mean use your own name to coach yourself through a problem. We typically use names when we think about and refer to other people. And I think it's not controversial to say that many listeners have likely had the experience of finding it much easier to coach someone else on their problems to give someone else advice and to take their own advice. And what we've learned is that engaging what we call distance self talk. So again, coaching yourself through a problem using your name. What that does is it leads you to relate to yourself like you were relating to another person. And that brings up some brings us some distance, which can which can make it helpful for managing for working through our problems more objectively. Looking right back to the interview with Ethan right after we talk about today's sponsor. Today's episode is sponsored by remote works season three of remote works is out now. Remote works is a podcast that tells extraordinary stories of teams that made the shift to flexible working more than ever remote works is relevant. I've listened to an episode recently about your workspace what your works say space says about you. There's different styles of maintaining your workspace. If you have ever felt bad about what your workspace looks like in comparison to your co workers. Then I recommend you listen to that episode. The way we work has has changed forever not just because of the pandemic but for all the other reasons that we talked about on this show actually that remote work is becoming more popular more important in our day to day work environment. Post melody green on this podcast tells an insightful story about how people and companies are adapting last season they had an episode called preventing burnout we learned about the challenges and rewards of working remotely during the pandemic. Recent study found that 75% of workers have experienced burnout 40% said the burnout was a direct result of the pandemic. But what if we don't know the signs of that burnout on this episode you're going to hear firsthand from someone who has been through burnout as well as expert advice on how to recognize that same burnout and what we can do to prevent it. Remote works is something that I really think the listeners of this show will benefit from to listen today search for remote works anywhere you listen to podcasts. We will include a link in the show notes thanks to remote works for their support. No, I just want to I want to talk about this self distancing thing there's two things that spring to mind the first is this kind of you can observe this in other people the kind of disparity between in watch I watch my wife I watch myself do this but I and she told me about it so it's fair for us to kind of go back and forth on this but she she can give advice to let's say somebody you know family or whatever co workers and I can overhear it and think wow this is and then she turned she can turn around and have the same kinds of worries behaviors whatever that she just gave advice about and it seems that there's this this interesting wall between those two things. And I always find that curing and this is obviously you know not just in your in your personal relationships and this is not a criticism it's just a factor of humanity that we it's harder to imagine you know it may seem like from the outside looking in that it's there's an inconsistency there. But actually there's there's something more going on with I assume some kind of ego protection or or something that we've evolved to kind of avoid that conflict. So it is it is something that I've observed in other people and once you apply it to yourself there's these interesting effects or I can remember for example I was experiencing some anxiety about a breakup that I have. When I was younger and I remember kind of seeking trying to find like I had never had anxiety in my life or I had never really experienced it to this degree in my life before to where I felt like I needed to seek out some kind of relief. And I remember finding just happening on some advice that was essentially distancing I didn't know it was called that at the time. But the distancing advice here was to imagine the moments that are painful and this is not advice you know I'm not a psychologist you know find the qualified help if you're listening to this. But to imagine these moments that are painful and then put them into like a old CRT television in your mind and imagine that they're playing on an old VHS. And then you have the remote in your hand and on the remote there are controls they can both speed it up they can they can rewind it you're playing backward you can distort it you can make it smaller right and it creates this objective picture of the experience that you had and puts you in control of it. And I just think this is such an interesting version and it relates to something in your book where you say okay another form of distancing is imagine that you are sitting on the couch across from you rather than in your place can you kind of explain that that form of distance things this is the one that works well for me. And I'd love to hear you kind of explaining your own words yeah well there's so much so much really good stuff you just mentioned i'm happy to explain the fly in the wall technique that you just mentioned before we do that I just want to touch on something else that you said which is this you know putting it in that old TV what was the technical name for that CRL the CRT I think is a lot of technology on the TV. Sometimes I feel like technology and I have just you know there's this eternal battle between us. It generalizes to all forms so what you described is is essentially a kind of distancing technique right you're creating the separation between your thoughts aren't you. They are they can be viewed as an object distinct from you and and once you engage in that shift that can be empowering right because once you realize that you have some separation from your thoughts then it becomes possible to play with them to push them around and and and change them which can be useful for alleviating distress. Aaron Beck is is widely regarded as a founder of a kind of therapeutic intervention called cognitive therapy which is one of the most well supported empirically validated forms of therapy out there and in the 70s you are an article that in which he basically said that one of the key jobs of a therapist working with patients is to help them gain distance from their thoughts to help them gain objectivity from them that is the. And once one of the principle jobs of a therapist what we've learned in the intervening years is that this is not just a principle job of the therapist this is a principle job of for any of us who are we're hoping to try to manage our own. Internal world and what we've also learned is that there are many many many different tools that we can use for doing that so you know I describe to temporal distancing that mental time travel distance self talk you mentioned another one putting it in a team thinking about putting your thoughts on the TV reminds me when I was growing up and. I used to have a boo boo to use that technical term and start crying and I remember my dad used to tell me just take those thoughts and throw them out the window and imagine the cars running over them and it's very similar to your example it's another kind of distancing we know that you could do this using your imagination to and visual imagery so when you think about past experiences particularly negative ones with few exceptions are few like trauma events but putting those trauma. So putting those trauma events aside the more intense the negative experience the more we tend to see those experiences in our minds more we have a visual snapshot of those from a fly in the from from a first person perspective so when we when we recall negative experiences we often see images accompanying those events and the more intense they are the more we see replay those experiences happening through our own eyes but we also know is that. Those visual images they're malleable so we can also shift our perspective and adopt a more fly in the wall perspective and see yourself in the scene and and research shows that those kinds of memories are less emotional and it's also easier for us to work through those difficult kinds of experiences when we take a step back and adopt that fly in the wall perspective so lots of different tools exist for distancing I think many of us stumble on some of these tools as we live. We start doing these things without really understanding why they work for us we keep using them so a lot of people throughout history have reported for example using distance self talk during times of stress I talk about a lot of these examples in the book everyone from Julius Caesar to Henry Adams to LeBron James and Jennifer Lawrence there are these records of them just spontaneously doing this and what I've really tried to do in in chatter the book is I often feel the need to give that disclaimer chatter the book because chatter is also the phenomenon we're talking about right but what I try to do in the book is shine a spotlight on these tools because I think once you know what they are and how they work it then becomes a lot easier for us to be more deliberate about how we use them and I think that can be empowering by having a tool chest and saying okay I'm going to try this particular one in this scenario the next time it comes up that's exactly right or a particular or to use a particular combination of strategies next time you're dealing with something difficult one message in the book is that there are no magic pills no silver bullets I know we're often looking for them that doesn't mean however that there's not lots of things we can do to help matters and improve our chatter but it often involves using combinations of tools you know so I rely on like a chatter chatter cocktail if you will when I'm when I'm dealing with a worry I'll find someone to talk to who skilled at helping broad my perspective I'll use distance self talk and temporal distancing also use some environmental tools I do a couple of different things and find that that combination is really helpful and the research in this area on combinations of tools isn't that well developed but I suspect that that relying on several different techniques is going to be very useful for lots of people as we're talking about this I'm sitting here wondering you know you mentioned that people find the things that that work well for them and I couldn't help but think about the different ways that people process their thoughts I was specifically thinking about you know an artist taking what might be an internal conflict and externalizing it in some way if that could be I don't know if there's any research on this to be fair but if it could be a form of distancing they're expressing themselves in some way and you know I won't use this is probably too much of a cultural word but kind of cleansing themselves of whatever that conflict is through that artistic expression is there any basis for that kind of thinking you know I think I think to the degree you know it would require us to really understand how the externalization of that idea how getting it you know does get what that's about this is actually provide the person with distance it's certainly a viable hypothesis and one that we could explore there's certain there's certainly I mean the logic holds I don't know of data that thanks to it per se but but it's certainly consistent thanks so much for listening to my interview with Ethan Kross this is the first of two episodes that make this interview up so if you don't want to miss out on the second one make sure you subscribe and whatever you're using to listen to this episode and you'll also as bonus get to listen to new episodes of Developer Teaas they come out thanks so much listening once again if you want to be a part of the Developer Tea Discord community head over to DeveloperTea.com slash discord you can join we have open invitation now anyone who likes these episodes long enough to stay to the end certainly invited to come and join that that network of engineers who are looking to become better in their careers as well of course a huge thank you to today's sponsor remote works search for remote works anywhere you listen to podcasts we will include a link in the show notes to remote works for their support thank you so much for listening to this show and until next time enjoy your tea