Mind chatter: to be stopped or savored for its insight into the human experience

If you’re stuck listening to sometime angry and critical voices in your head, you may be curious as to what they all mean. As a coach, I’ve been working with Positive Intelligence for six months and I’m learning more about what these voices mean and how to quiet them when they aren’t helping. 

In this New Yorker review of the new book “Chatter” by the experimental psychologist Ethan Kross, New Yorker writer Katy Waldman relates how different thinkers from King Solomon to Freud to Joan Didion have thought about these voices and what they mean.

Most of us want to quiet these voices, or at least slow them down so we can make sense of them. The voice or voices say so many different things that they really don’t help us “think through a problem.” Instead, they sow even more doubt and confusion.

In perhaps predictable New Yorker fashion, Ms. Waldman has a great curiosity about how thinkers and writers have tried to interpret this most human of phenomena. She is less interested in the self-help latter part of the book where the author suggests actual ways to stop the voices. Instead, Ms. Waldman relishes the polyphony of perspectives and would have preferred more anecdotes about their poetic use. She relishes the voices as part of our emotional selves. 

While I too enjoy the almost solipsistic appreciation of the inner mind’s cacophony, as if an entire universe exists between our two ears, I’m too aware of the real damage done by these voices. They stop us from feeling real happiness and force the mind to dwell on fear, shame, regret, and disappointment, disguised as ways to make us feel temporarily better. 

As a Positive Intelligence-trained coach, I’ve learned that these voices still are not meant to be stifled. Instead, we can learn to harness the best part of them. Using techniques similar to meditation and cognitive behavior techniques (CBT), we all can learn to recognize each voice, stop it, and pull from these in-the-head “conversations” wiser and more positive actions.

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/can-we-control-the-voice-in-our-head

Why are you reading this on LinkedIn?

an organized workspace

Like most everyone on LinkedIn, you’re probably a busy professional. You end your days exhausted from too much admin, too many Zoom meetings, and too much to do. BUT, you’ve found five or ten minutes to scroll through LinkedIn. And maybe after you’ve “caught up” on here, you’ll move on over to Insta or Facebook, or the place where all productive time goes to die, TikTok. 

If you’re reading this for a little scheduled break in your day, or because you are actively using LinkedIn for professional development, that is one thing. However, if you are just here for a quick curiosity hit, you may be using LinkedIn to satisfy your Restless or Avoider saboteur. 

What is a saboteur you ask? A saboteur, in the language of Positive Intelligence, is the voice in your head that says you can engage in emotionally negative behaviors because they are somehow good for you. For example, have you ever told yourself, “I deserve just a little break before I move on to write my expense report” and then realize you’ve been scrolling for an hour? 

Our generation is perhaps the most distracted ever. Some of that is because big tech knows how to hook us on mini-serotonin hits that keep us engaged on social media. Some of us are just wired to more quickly give into temptation and grab a quick distraction.  We go to these sites in order to satisfy our own inner voices telling us we can indulge in something silly right now instead of doing the things that are more fulfilling or satisfying long term. 

We call those voices the “Restless” and the “Avoider” saboteurs. The Restless saboteur tells us that greater satisfaction is just around the corner, if we just could get away from the current project or current conversation and find something more meaningful.  If we’re at a cocktail party, we are always looking around for someone one else who may be more valuable or more interesting. If we’re working on a project, we can quickly find other projects that appear to be more fun, exciting and motivating. 

Of course, we all know where that ends. We have trouble making real connections, or even fully engaging with people because we are looking over their shoulder for someone more valuable to talk to. Our friends and coworkers sense that and think of us as aloof or worse, snobbish and arrogant. 

If you have the Avoider saboteur, it tells you that momentary pleasure from a diversion is better for you because it removes the pain of dealing with difficult situations or substitutes pleasure for tasks you might see as drudgery. 

Both of these saboteurs do have a positive side. If you have the Restless saboteur, for example, that same saboteur likely means you are interested in a lot of things. You can be creative and are excited by new projects and people. You’re open to new ideas and hungry for stimuli.

The Avoider has bigger challenges since a lot of the Avoider saboteur lurks in inaction rather than in activity. The Avoider though loves peace and calm. The avoidance of conflict can be an inspiration to consensus and group harmony,

When used in coaching, we feel it’s important that we not label people as Avoiders or Restless, or any of the other seven saboteurs. We each have some of these saboteurs, in smaller or larger quantitites, within us. The trick is to become aware of their voices and stop them before the worst parts of them hijack our emotions and then our actions at work and at home. 

In Positive Intelligence, we use testing to more quickly identify the strongest of the saboteurs. We learn to identify when they are speaking the loudest. The next step is to use CBT-style techniques (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) to try to change our reactions to the voices. Over time, MRI imaging shows that we can actually change the grey matter in our brains and learn to turn the negative voices into wiser and more generous responses to even negative stimuli in our lives.  

Is Positive Intelligence the next big thing in workforce productivity?

positive intelligence

If you follow management trends in the past decade, you’ve seen Emotional Intelligence (EQ) become a buzz word for many.  Emotional intelligence is defined as the “capability of individuals to recognize  their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goals.” Emotional intelligence has been considered the weak link for many highly qualified contributors who can’t translate individual ability into management productivity. 

For many of us who have had impossibly bad bosses, the only question we’ve had is, “What took you so long?” Bad managers, or even good project managers, who can’t relate to their employees have been around for as long as there have been hierarchical structures. The first caveperson chief who threatened his underling with a bump on the head from his big club was exercising pre-EQ management style. Nowadays, similar managers holding symbolic big clubs are expected to take a look at the Meyers-Briggs scores of every team member and try to ferret out the best way to organize and motivate all of the different types of people in the workforce.

The EQ movement has been a big step forward to a more humane workforce. The problem is that much of this thinking is formulaic.  Step 1: Identify your ENTPs (or other Meyers-Briggs type). Step 2: Manage them based on a defined set of ways of working with that “type” of person.  The humanity has been sucked out of the process as each individual is reduced to a series of letters or scores that pigeonhole the employee for all time. 

What if the real management break-through was in helping the manager, him or herself, change the way he or she sees the world?  What if the manager could see the world in a more skillful and empathetic way? And find more of what we would define as happiness (less fear, regret, disappointment) during the day?

What effect would that have on how we feel about work, not to mention the results we achieve while at our desks?

I am experimenting right now with a new concept called Positive Intelligence. Positive Intelligence posits that we can and should teach our mind to recognize negative voices within our heads, and provides a framework for substituting them with more skillful ways of looking at the world. 

The history of Positive Intelligence concepts

The concepts behind Positive Intelligence will be familiar to most people and are not new . They derive from research that shows that the brain can change over time, commonly referred to as neuroplasticity. 

Even just 40 years ago, young neuroscientists like Mike Merzenich at UC Berkeley were literally laughed at by colleagues who thought that the brain was an impossibly complicated but basically inert organ. They couldn’t imagine that the human brain could “rewire” itself to learn new things after maturity, or remap its wiring to recover from a tumor or other trauma. 

Of course, by now we’ve all read of countless situations where adults with brains damaged in car crashes or ravaged by cancer have relearned how to all of life’s little tasks. After the invention of the MRI machine in the 1950s, neuroscientists could finally examine the brain without surgery to confirm what they had witnessed with individual patients: the brain is changeable.

This in turn led to experiments using the MRI to analyze the brain both during and after exposure to new experiences.  MRI Imaging clearly proves that the brain can and does change after exposure to new stimuli, like learning a language, seeing a painting, or hearing a symphony.

At the same time, mainstream psychology adopted Cognitive Behavior Techniques (CBT) as a way to help people focus and prevent self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. Along with practices like meditation and yoga, most people now consider these techniques not only anecdotally successful, but medically proven. 

Positive Intelligence, a framework designed by Stanford lecturer Shirzad Charmaine, asks whether we can proactively re-wire the brain to fundamentally change the way we react to experiences throughout the day. 

What if we could react to new situations with more empathy and search for understanding?  How would that change not only how a manager handles a situation in the workplace, but the very way he or she looks at his or her working relationships? What if we were pushed less by our feelings of guilt, anxiety, regret, and fear, and instead pulled instead by positive feelings of empathy, curiosity, and calm?

Rather than “fixing” the brain in therapy, Positive Intelligence gives individuals a set of new tools to organize responses to the world. 

Recognizing the “judge” in our daily experiences

Positive Intelligence identifies and names the main voice we have in our head: the “Judge.”  The Judge, sometimes called “the inner critic,” the “lizard brain,” or in Freudian terms, the super-ego, is there to alert us to danger. The Judge is that voice that is running constant judgement in the back or your mind. Originally created to protect us from a million risks to primitive man, it has now become the major obstacle to our happiness. It seeks to find the bad in ourselves, our situations and most of everyone we meet with the main objective of helping us avoid harm. 

By learning to recognize this voice and put a name to it, we can reach the first step in trying to control the negative messages our minds send to us during the day.

Positive Intelligence uses an app to make CBT practical

Individuals can use Cognitive Behavior Therapy techniques to slow or stop these voices. Many people who practice CBT however forget about their practice during the day or neglect it when it’s needed most. Positive Intelligence uses an app to integrate proven CBT techniques into our daily lives, gamifying them slightly so that users are motivated to complete their exercises throughout their workday. The ultimate objective is two-fold:

  1. Teach the user to gain control of their mind
  2. Remap neural pathways so that the experienced user can switch to a series of defined alternative and positive perspectives

Finally, and most important, increasing Positive Intelligence, requires substituting the negative thoughts with new ways of approaching problems. In guided mini-meditations every day, users learn how to replace the “scripts” in their heads with new ideas of how to approach old problems and conflicts. 

Before and after MRI imaging shows that even using the app and complementary coaching produces measurable changes in the grey matter in the brain. Longer practice shows the potential for helping people get out of their mental ruts and create mental fitness.

Since companies love technologies that can show measurable benefits to their employees with the goal of increasing productivity, Positive Intelligence may become a “thing” in the workplace just as gaining Emotional Intelligence has become a common objective for enlightened managers. 

Save your yelling for your kids

Hopefully, you’re not the type of person who raises your voice to make a point or to attempt to get your way.  Man (not men per se) was programmed to do that of course, when a booming voice would scare away both foe and other predators. Now a lot of yelling might be tolerated if you’re the founder or a really hot startup, but not in most other domains, including being a dad or spouse. 

One area however, where it still lives on apparently, is in a lot of households where yelling is how dad makes an impression on impressionable kids.  It’s understandable on some level. Yelling lets off steam. It feels righteous in the moment and for that reason, it probably releases adrenalin that makes us feel powerful and energized in the moment. Like any stimulant though, the effects are short-lived. 

Yelling also seems to work, at least momentarily. Kids are smaller than you are and raising your voice does scare them. They may react to you seriously, as if thye are actually hearing everything you say, or perhaps cry, making you feel doubly sure that what you are saying is cutting through. 

At the root of a lot of screaming though is not what the kids did or did not do.  Most young kids aren’t evil. They don’t yet possess the guile to do they things we ascribe to them. When they say they are sick and can’t go to school, it’s rarely that they are telling a fib to get out of it. If they break a glass because they weren’t holding it “carefully,” it’s rarely out of willful disregard for the family’s possessions. For kids under ten, yelling to make them aware of incorrect behavior isn’t only unhelpful, it goes a long way to eating away at your relationship with them. 

Whenever I’ve caught myself getting carried away and starting to raise my voice to my kids, I’ve tried to imagine how they would remember the situation. We joke in our house about the events that our kids will later retell to a therapist. I’m sure we’ve scarred them in a dozen ways I don’t even know, but I do know that they won’t be regaling a future shrink with tales of how I yelled at them.

This sometimes has meant going back to them and apologizing for raising my voice; a conversation that goes a bit like this:

ME: Hey, I’m sorry I was yelling a bit ago. That wasn’t right. I understand that you weren’t trying to make me mad. I’m sorry that what happened made me momentarily lose my perspective. You don’t deserve to feel anything less than that I love you.

THEM:  That’s okay Dad. I love you.

It’s usually that easy. For the most part, they know I’m the dad and have a lot of control. They don’t abuse my love for them. They also know that I love them.

Importantly, they also know that when I raise my voice, it means something serious. Luckily, there have only been a few times when I have had to yell a warning: “Don’t touch the stove!” “Don’t go in the street!”  “Watch that wave!”  My objective is to save that voice for times when there is real physical danger, and not just because I’ve lost control in front of my kids. 

One part of this is for them, and one part of it is for me.  In  1974, Meyer Freidman wrote published Type A Behavior and Your Heart. He wrote specifically about the studies he did of Type A people who thrive on the excitement of stress and negative emotions.  While the term “Type A” has been used as a positive in our American culture, it is not always correlated with success. There are Type A hyper people who accomplish big things (sometimes at the expense of people around them), just as there are more easy-going Type B people who find gentler means for getting things done. 

Many Type A people are hooked on the adrenalin rush of feeling stressed and in a hurry, and only feel successful when they are somehow dominating situations at work and at home.  Aside from the obvious issues some of these people feel with co-workers and family, this way of living can have highly negative effects on their health.  There is a proven correlation between this kind of “bad stress” to negative effects to heart health, high blood pressure and increased risk of stroke. To the extent, you can understand what might drive you to yell, you may be doing your body some good as well your relationship with your kids and spouse.

Can kids experience too much love from their parents?

This is a debate constantly expressed by parents whether they know it or not. Parents, perhaps victims of our “no pain, no gain” culture are constantly worried that they are spoiling and coddling their kids. Yes, there are helicopter parents and there are parents who constantly cover for their kids and help them avoid consequences for their actions. This isn’t the same as “loving too much.” Parents who really indulge their kids to that extent are often driven by something outside of common parental love. 

What I’m talking about is things like kissing and hugging them, telling them you love them every day, packing notes in their lunches, and making them feel special every day.  

Many, many parents didn’t have this type of love growing up. They may have seen family love in situation comedies but didn’t enjoy it at home perhaps due to over-worked parents or a family that didn’t know how to express love. Some people even think that expressions of love are a symbol of weakness, never to be exposed.  Parents who came from these types of backgrounds are the ones who consciously or unconsciously hold back.  

They may not even realize that they are doing it but implicit in a lot of their actions is a belief that babies and kids can be “too soft.”   They might question why you are always hugging your kids. Or they might not be able to empathize with the fears of a child, insisting that he or she go into a dark basement and quit being a baby.  

Let’s be clear: raising kids is the not the same thing as training an army.  An army needs discipline. It needs unquestioning following of an authority. It needs troops hardened by the idea that there is nothing more than three meals, a place to sleep and the hope to live another day.

In parenting, that is not our objective. We are trying to raise little girls and boys to be sufficiently self-aware and self-confident to navigate in the world on their own without someone constantly urging them to toughen up because there is no more soup and no more heat today. Rather than training kids to be tough by withholding love and kindness, our role is to fill their buckets with as much love and empathy as we can.  

We all know people who did not get that as children. And of course, some of them go on to do amazing things. They overcome adversity and become examples of how a hard life formed them. Overcoming adversity is often a core of these stories and presented as the crucible that forced the spirit to overcome. 

The luckiest children are the ones who never had to wonder if their parents loved them. They felt unconditional love from their earliest memories. Their parents rarely raised their voices in anger toward them. They never felt that they disappointed their parents. They weren’t made to feel small because they weren’t as tough as grown-ups. 

As dads, we fail every day. It’s hard to be wise, sensitive, loving and awake in every interaction with our kids. We will say things we regret. We won’t have the energy or discipline to be the Martha Stewart of parenting with a dozen creative ways each day to say “I love you.”  We can however, dismiss with the idea that we can show too much love for our kids. For a dozen short years, you are the sun and the moon to your kids; they live only for your kisses and approval.  Around age 13, that changes and they seek out reinforcement elsewhere.  

If they know that you have always and will always love them, they can venture out more courageously, their barrels filled with love, ready to face a world that does not love without exceptions and caveats.