Chatter: the Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters

Kross, Ethan. (2021).  Chatter: the Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters. New York:  Crown

The title gives you a heads up about the contents.  ‘The Voice in Our Heads.’  It can be bad news or good news.  Sometimes called, ‘The Grandfather’s Story (2004) published in Olsen & Sommers Trainers Companion, tells a grandson that there is a wolf with two heads.  One is the head of good and one is the head of evil.  Grandson asks, ‘which one wins?’  Grandfather responds, “which ever one you feed the most.”

Kross writes about many studies that refer to the voice in our head that can control emotions (amygdala in the brain) and decision-making (frontal cortex which affects executive function). Kross opens with the research that cites the powerful influence resulting in the behavior based on the silent conversations that go on in our head.

A robust body of new research has demonstrated that when we experience distress, engaging in introspection often does significantly more harm than good. It undermines our performance at work, interferes with our ability to make good decisions, and negatively influences our relationships.

The ‘chatter’ tends to be negative thoughts and emotions that diverts our thinking to defense versus creatively responding. The good news is the brain remembers patterns which work to help us survive and thrive in relationships and careers.   The bad news is that ‘bad is stronger than good.’ Ruminations and fears, based on previous experiences, can limit our resourcefulness.

Not only does internal chatter affect our own thinking and actions, it also affects those who we work with or spend time with.  If threat exists from colleagues or leaders, we tend to shut down not wanting to take a risk of looking foolish.

“The bottom line is that we all have a voice in our head in some shape or form.”

So, what we focus on, uses our cognitive and emotional energy narrows our options. Here is a statement, that as an educator, that got my attention. Recent research, with further studies demonstrate that children brought up in families with rich communication patterns develop this facet of inner speech earlier.

A 2010 study says, scientists found that inner experiences consistently dwarf outer ones. What we pay attention to focuses our energy and filters out most things that don’t matter.  I strongly suggest reading Amy Edmondson’s (2019) work on ‘psychological safety’ which has a huge impact on us as individuals, colleagues to share thinking, and the culture working toward shared vision and productivity. For a book summary see ‎

Overthinking or focusing on negative outcomes results in ‘analysis by paralysis.’

People feel compelled to talk to others about their negative experiences.  The more emotional or impactful the experience is, the more people want to talk about it.  Have you ever felt like saying to someone, ‘get over it, move on.’ Sometimes people get stuck in the ‘doom loop.’  Read a ‘New Rule’ at ‎

Another major learning in the book concerned cyberbullying. Cyberbullying has been linked to longer episodes of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse as well as several toxic physical effects like headaches, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal ills, and changes in how well stress-response system operates.

This issue is becoming more and more of a problem for educators, parents, and organizations.  In addition to background checks, etc. schools and businesses are asking potential employees to read and agree to anti bullying policies. As a principal, I understand this at a foundational level.

Unsurprisingly, people with depression which is fueled by the verbal stream – share more negative personal content on social media yet actually perceive their network as less helpful than non-depressed people do. Kross published in 2015 demonstrated that the more time people spent passively scrolling through Facebook, peering in on the lives of others, the more envy they experienced and the worse subsequently felt.

One of the most chilling discoveries is that chatter doesn’t simply hurt people in an emotional sense; it has physical implications for our body as well, from the way we experience physical pain all the way down to the way our genes operate in our cells.

The negative verbal stream of internal messages keeps stress alive and limits our ability to function. We must have a social support system.  Not having one leads to higher risk. This risk factor for death as large as smoking more than fifteen cigarettes a day, and a greater risk factor than consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, not exercising, being obese or living in a highly polluted city.

Salomon’s Paradox

Often people choose to do nothing rather than something. Teaching couples to distance when they focused on disagreements in their relationships buffered against romantic decline.

One of the great tasks of being a parent is teaching your children how to persevere in situations that are difficult but important, such as finding ways to help them study.

The Universal “You”

A progression of steps to guide negotiators: Active Listening—Empathy—Rapport—Influence—Behavioral Change.

Invisible Support

Offering advice without considering the person’s needs can undermine a person’s sense of self-efficacy- the crucial belief that we are capable of managing challenges.

In one particularly compelling study, the environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich had found that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery who were assigned to a room that faced onto a small cluster of deciduous trees recovered faster from their operations, took fewer painkillers, and were judged as more emotionally resilient by the nurses caring for them than patients whose rooms looked out onto a brick wall.

Many of the research findings can help people recover faster with fewer side effects. Attention to pain and stress can exhaust people.

When the scientists compared people’s rumination levels at the end of the study, they found that participants in the nature-walk group reported experiences less chatter and less activity in a network of brain regions that support rumination.

Most people are living in cities which means less nature.  I remember a workshop given by Peter Block who said everyone should be in nature or looking at nature every day. That advice was given to me over 25 years ago.  He is always ahead of the curve.

The Nadal Principle

“What I battle hardest to do in a tennis match, “he says, “is to quiet the voices of my head.”

Research indicates that people who live in more disadvantaged neighborhoods experience more depression, in part because of disorder they perceive in their surroundings.

Steve Jobs would look at himself in the mirror each morning and ask himself it that day was the last day of his life whether he would be happy with what he was going to do.

The challenge isn’t to avoid negative states altogether.  It is to not let them consume you.

Tools You Can Implement on Your Own

  1. Use distanced self-talk.
  2. Imagine advising a friend
  3. Broaden your perspective
  4. Reframe your experience as a challenge
  5. Reinterpret your body’s chatter response
  6. Normalize your experience
  7. Engage in mental time travel
  8. Change the view
  9. Write expressively
  10. Adopt the perspective of a neutral third party
  11. Clutch a lucky charm or embrace a superstition
  12. Perform a ritual.

Tools That Involve Other People

  1. Address people’s emotional and cognitive needs.
  2. Provide invisible support
  3. Tell your kids to pretend they are a superhero.
  4. Touch affectionately (but respectfully)

Tools that Involve the Environment

  1. Create order in your environment
  2. Increase your exposure to green spaces
  3. Seek out awe-inspiring experiences

There are many research studies in this book that are important to know.  There are stories and strategies to cope and quiet those internal conversations that can cause us more stress.


David, Susan. (2016).  Emotional Agility.  New York: Penguin

Edmondson, Amy. (2019). The Fearless Organization. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

Olsen, Skip & Sommers, Bill. (2004). Trainers Companion.  Baytown, TX:  AHAProcess