More about Teddy Bear Talk Support

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How does the magic work?

Heard to speech

Because you are there hearing what I have to say, that elicits different speech to come out of me. Often, because of how I'm experiencing being heard, I can be heard into deeper and deeper speech.

As a talker, I'm in the here and now with this person having this one particular interaction. It's a different context, a supportive context, that the listener is helping to create, and it offers this opportunity to take a stab at discovering what happens as I hear what I have to say.

As my co-working writing partner put it, "It's amazing how I know what to say when someone is listening."

Mere presence of a teddy bear

Left to our own devices, we will tend to go down certain paths. The mere presence of a teddy bear can be all it takes for us to be finding ourselves going down different sets of paths. I might be able to stay more focused on what's important or what needs the most attention, or have better self talk, or think more big picture, etc.

Here are some other possibilities that could all just be from the mere presence of the teddy bear or could involve the teddy bear playing a more active role:

  • You're getting to hear how it sounds to yourself to be saying these things.
  • You might uncover assumptions that you didn't even know that you were making.
  • The setup puts you in a whole different mindset than before.
  • The teddy bear's presence has you benefiting from the feeling that help is right within reach.
  • Having a teddy bear along for the ride can cause different things to jump out at you automatically. So, one reason to recruit a teddy bear is because things can feel much easier when they are happening automatically, and this can help you with building momentum and gaining traction.

Imagining/simulating what is going on for the teddy bear

Because you're likely to be automatically imagining/simulating what is going on for the teddy bear, again, the mere presence of the teddy bear can be all it takes for you to reap great benefits.

Not only does the teddy bear not have to say anything, but you're not having to respond to anything. So, for the talker, they can keep a lot of the benefits of working as if they were by themselves and yet still benefit from engaging with someone else. It doesn't take the time it would take for them to say things to you or for you to respond to these things, and it doesn't take the managing of social dynamics to handle these things.

One thing that's particularly interesting with TBTS is that what you are imagining need not be anything like what's actually going on for the teddy bear. It doesn't have to be about that. It can be about your experience as the talker and what the imagining of these things does for you in terms of what you're then saying or thinking.

Small things can make big differences

So, it might be something the talker is "inaccurately" imagining is going on for the teddy bear that leads to an insight, or it can even be a misunderstanding that provides just what you needed. It might be any number of things and they can be anything from fairly random to more predictably helpful. What the talker finds helpful can have many sources, including:

  • something about the teddy bear's presence causes you to talk about things in a different order, and that makes something you've been avoiding working on much easier to handle
  • a word that gets said that makes an idea pop into your head
  • the teddy bear raises an eyebrow and that changes everything
  • the teddy bear provides needed extra emphasis on something by mirroring it back to you
  • the teddy bear leaves out an important point while mirroring back what you said, and leaving it out helps to highlight it for you. This might cause you to then say it again or rephrase it for your teddy bear or flesh out more of why it’s important to you, and you might find doing one of these things to be particularly helpful.

Totally committing

Rubber ducking is a species of Teddy Bear Talk Support where computer programmers debug their code by talking to rubber ducks. The spirit of both TBTS and rubber ducking is to facilitate your being better able to help yourself. One Rubber Ducking/TBTS technique that works well is to have an expert as your teddy bear and write to them in detail about what's going on. The indented part below is an excerpt from a blog post about Stack Exchange, a network of Q&A communities for computer programmers. The blog post attests to how many people have benefited from how Stack Exchange insists, and are kind of jerks about it, that people who post questions on Stack Exchange put effort in thinking through and writing up their questions with care. Often, investing effort in this way results in helping people to help themselves, and they often figure out the answer to their own problem. For example:

I don't know how many times this has happened:
  • I have a problem
  • I decide to bring it to stack overflow
  • I awkwardly write down my question
  • I realize that the question doesn't make any sense
  • I take 15 minutes to rethink how to ask my question
  • I realize that I'm attacking the problem from a wrong direction entirely.
  • I start from scratch and find my solution quickly.
Does this happen to you? Sometimes asking the right question seems like half the problem.
...the critical part of rubber duck problem solving is to totally commit to asking a thorough, detailed question of this imaginary person or inanimate object.

Clearly, committing to asking a question with care can be very helpful. In general, totally committing to operating in other kinds of modes can also be key and can also be facilitated by TBTS/Rubber ducking.

Committing to proceeding as if there were less uncertainty to what I'm trying to do is one such mode. Committing to operating in this mode can be very hard for me to do when what's going on is all in my head. Talking to a teddy bear (even just a recording device teddy bear) can help me with committing. I can then stick to going down just one path with what I’m saying and continuing to build on it rather than saying, for example, “No, I don’t like that” and doing a lot of starting over. It’s just a whole different ballgame from me just trying to work on things where it’s just me thinking by myself. It’s like the difference between thinking about writing and actually writing. Sitting around thinking about writing (especially if you’re like me and want things to spring perfectly from your head) doesn’t get you to the same places (to say the least) as actually getting things out onto paper does. Sitting around thinking is precisely what happens for me when I try to talk out loud without a person or a recording device listening, I tend to trail off and shift back into just doing a lot of thinking without talking. What's key is to have it feel like someone or something is paying attention. Because of that, the space has been held for me to have a different process unfold.

What's not happening and what's not blocking the talker

For the power of listening to work it's magic, there needs to be things that are not happening. Some things that tend to happen in normal conversation are more innocent, whereas other things that tend to happen are more easily seen as having big drawbacks. In both cases, these habitual ways of talking can be helpful at times, and there can be a place for them when you're not doing Teddy Bear Talk Support.

I'll talk about the latter first by sharing a handout from a training program on Nonviolent Communication that I attended: DeflectiveListeningEmpathyBlockers.pdf

The handout has a list of what are called empathy blockers on it. Being in empathy with someone is getting a sense for what they're going through in a caring way. The person can then feel like you understand and that you "get it." Empathy blockers make it harder to have the ability to be in empathy with someone. They can shut the person down or make it less likely that they'll provide you with the information that can help you to understand.

Many of the examples on the list are natural ways in which we are used to responding and are often well-intentioned. Notice that many of them involve your having an agenda that you are now trying to talk to the person about and that part of the magic of TBTS is to make it so that the talker can use their time for just their agendas.

It's so easy to have agendas. It's so easy for our assumptions, judgments, and advice to get in the way of connecting with someone. In the next section, we'll see what can happen for the teddy bear if these more innocent parts of normal conversation are not coming into play.

The magic that the teddy bear can experience

Here is a piece by David Castro on Learning to Listen. It is called Empathy in 8 Minutes, and it is about how he experienced doing an exercise where you listen quietly for 8 minutes as someone tells you his or her life story.

When my partner started to tell his story, I wanted to ask a truckload of questions directing the conversation. I wanted to follow up on particular details, ask about things he hadn't mentioned, shortcut certain areas and learn more about others that interested me, like someone fast forwarding through a TV show.
After about three minutes, however, something remarkable happened. That incessant voice in my head began to quiet, and for the first time I began to listen at a deeper level. I observed my partner’s body language, soaked in his selected words and stopped trying to control the conversation flow. In the remaining five minutes, I learned something profound about the person speaking. I began to see and understand him for the first time. I was actually listening to him instead of focusing on my bundle of projections about him.

TBTS makes it easier for the experience to be about only one person's agenda at a time. Notice how natural it is to have the both surprising and not so surprising number of agendas that David Castro had as a listener in the first 3 minutes of this exercise.

Same page enough

The beauty of TBTS is that you only have to be on the same page enough with your teddy bear. If you don't have the time or desire to get someone fully up to speed with everything, you can still benefit from their support if the name of the game is to just be on the same page enough.

The teddy bear only has to get the gist of some aspect of what you're talking about to be able to come along for the ride with you. It could be just to see how frustrated you are with what's happening. There are different things like this that you can follow about what's going on with the talker as they go along that allow your presence to be felt by the talker, especially if later the talker stumbles on a solution to what's been frustrating to them and you can then knowledgeably join in the celebration.

Because all that's required is that you're both on the same page enough, this can help the talker get into freely improvising mode.

Here's one example where it didn't take much to get my listener on the same page enough as me. All I had to do was repeatedly say the words "grumble grumble grumble," and this proved to be a very satisfying way to do it. In fact, it definitely felt more satisfying than if I had spelled things out with more words. Saying "grumble grumble grumble" over and over again was a great way to acknowledge, validate, and sit with how I was feeling. The content of the words I would've said instead of "grumble grumble grumble" didn't matter. It was getting to feel the feeling that mattered. So, this made it so the content of the words didn't have undue influence.

Not the other person's page instead of yours

Here's a sentiment that often rings true for me: I don't know what I think until I've heard what I've had to say. I get to find out what comes out of my mouth when I shift into think out loud mode. So, I benefit a lot from getting to talk through things with people. As I talk, if I've found that I've said something particularly helpful or insightful, it helps if I can immediately take the ball and run with it. But, I don't always get to. Often, I find myself feeling like I'm chasing the other person around. They've got their own ideas and their own agendas, and I'm trying to work within the rules of normal social dynamics to steer them back to a place that I want to explore.

What TBTS is not about: Having the teddy bear expound on "If I were the talker, here's how I would go about things.

It's not to have the teddy bear do our work for us or live our lives for us. In fact, when there's a tendency for these things, it's possible that setting up a clear teddy bear setup could allow us to interact with the teddy bear in a way that is more connecting (especially when we have teddy bears who often make lots of suggestions and who tend to have agendas for us).

Exploring content and processes that you tend not to include others in

It might be easy for you to imagine including someone in your process for the following situations: getting help with wording something, asking someone which of two choices they like better, and getting feedback on something that's almost done and that you're almost ready to share with the world.

But, one thing that Teddy Bear Talk Support is about is including someone in your process for things you normally wouldn't include them in, and it's about how both the talker and the teddy bear can benefit from doing this more often.

Solitary work

Getting to connect with other people while working on what's typically done all by yourself, and having the support of others help you be more effective with doing this work.

Including others before you're ready (before the material is anywhere near shareable)

As you read through the following excerpt, see how it also applies if you substitute "think out loud with someone" whenever you see the word "write."


...write before you're ready. Write what you know about the topic, write about how you plan to cover the topic, write about things you need to know - anything to get you going.
Why does it save time to write before you're ready? Because you find out what you need to know. If you do lots of reading before you write, you end up reading lots of stuff that isn't relevant. If, instead, you write first, then you know what information you need for your argument, and you're much more efficient in finding it and reading it. Writing regularly ends up saving you time.
And you'll be more creative. Boice in another experiment found that daily writers produced five times as many new ideas per week as academics who were not writing but who were instructed to note down new ideas when they thought of them.
Experienced, highly productive writers don't wait to be inspired to write - instead, they write to be inspired.

For me, it's often about talking about things that I am far from having worked out and need to do some casting about for a while without worrying about being all that coherent. I often don't know what I think until I've heard what I've had to say. So, I like being able to say, "Hey, let's flip into 'Teddy Bear' mode" when these things arise. Teddy Bear mode needn't last more than a couple minutes. So, I put together this Teddy Bear Talk Support website to explain Teddy Bear mode, so that more people could at least benefit from these brief Teddy Bear interactions if not from the other kinds that I've described on this page.

Nowhere near shareable thoughts include:

  • exploratory
  • not sure what you might say
  • quarter-baked ideas (even less baked than half-baked ideas)

Operating in different modes than usual

Getting something down vs thinking something up mode

With the following excerpt, notice how shifting to thinking out loud with someone can help you make the shift to "getting something down" mode. When I see something I'm writing appear on the piece of paper, I tend to evaluate it much more than if instead I'm hearing what I have to say. Spoken words are just there in that moment and then gone the next, whereas written words are lasting. Because they can be looked at more than once, I get more self-conscious about written words and hold them to higher standards. Also, I feel like people will expect me to go back and fix what I've written, but cut me much more slack with what I've said. So, for me, thinking out loud automatically shifts me into a lower expectations, let's just see what happens mode, similar to the getting something down mode in the following excerpt.

Here is a Julia Cameron quote from her book The Right to Write

One of the simplest and smartest things I ever learned about writing is the importance of a sense of direction. Writing is about getting something down, not thinking something up. Whenever I strive to ‘think something up,’ writing becomes something I must stretch to achieve. It becomes loftier than I am, perhaps even something so lofty, it is beyond my grasp. When I am trying to think something up, I am straining. When, on the other hand, I am focused about just getting something down, I have a sense of attention but not a sense of strain.

When you're the talker, I think the "minimal doing" requirement of TBTS can provide you with more freedom and ease and less strain, helping you discover new thoughts or new ways of saying things or new ways of putting them together as they come out of your mouth.

Teddy bears as well as talkers are likely to get a 3rd party perspective on issues in their own lives

Often teddy bears find that talkers are talking about issues that the teddy bears themselves also face in their own lives. They then get the opportunity to see the issues from a 3rd party perspective of what before they might have only seen from their own first person vantage point.

Talkers can get a 3rd party perspective on things because doing some thinking of what things might look like to the teddy bear as one is talking happens pretty automatically.

Some reasons this is helpful

Purposely talking to yourself by saying your name vs. saying "I" facilitates emotion regulation and self-control. So, if TBTS tends to naturally help you get into the mode of seeing yourself from a 3rd party perspective, or sets things up to get you to refer to yourself in the 3rd person, then you can benefit from the self-distancing that results. So, you're able to make more progress with what you're trying to think through.

The research of Ethan Kross, Ozlem Ayduk, and Jason Moser on 3rd party perspectives

The premise is that "third-person self-talk leads people to think about the self similar to how they think about others, which provides them with the psychological distance needed to facilitate self control." The results suggested that "third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of self-control."[1]

Making Meaning out of Negative Experiences by Self-Distancing by Kross and Ayduk [2]

What might the implications of adopting a self-distanced versus a self-immersed perspective be for facilitating adaptive self-reflection? Drawing from prior research on self-control and psychological distance (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989; Trope & Liberman, 2003), we reasoned that a self-immersed perspective would predispose people to focus narrowly on recounting the concrete details of their experience (i.e., what happened?; what did I feel?) rather than on taking the big picture into account in order to make meaning out of their experience (Kross, Ayduk, & Mischel, 2005). In contrast, we hypothesized that adopting a self-distanced perspective would allow people to focus on the broader context in order to reconstrue their experience in ways that would reduce distress. Thus, we predicted that self distancing would facilitate adaptive self-reflection whereas self-immersion would undermine it.
As these examples illustrate, people who self-distance focus less on recounting their experiences and more on reconstruing them in ways that provide insight and closure.

Examples of kinds of Talkers and Teddy Bears

A kind of talker: Some people get so much out of doing their thinking by talking out loud with someone that the following sentiment rings true for them: "I don't know what I think until I've heard what I've had to say."

Take your teddy bear to work day

Talkers that want to engage more actively in learning that recruit teddy bears as a way to facilitate active learning

Teddy bear pals (like pen pals)

Harnessing the power of listening without needing people to be skilled at being good listeners

I have a friend who often mentions that they find me skilled at listening and that they would really appreciate being able to be a better listener themselves. I wonder if having experiences with being a silent witness teddy bear could help my friend become a better listener.

If the rule is simply that the teddy bear remain silent, that can make things much easier for people not only in the moment but likely in the future as well. This is a way the teddy bear can get to have experiences of what it's like to listen. Seeing how things unfold when all that has been offered is listening will provide experiences of what can be made possible by the power of listening. These experiences can yield a lasting impression that can help the teddy bear to develop a proclivity for making the choice to listen more in the future.

Many easy ways to recruit Teddy Bears

Teddy Bear mode needn't last more than a couple minutes. In general with TBTS, there are a lot of ways to have it so that you're not asking very much of the teddy bear, including it not needing to take up much time.

For me, I’ve had a teddy bear that I’ve sent emails to. What I asked of the teddy bear was to simply respond to the emails with “I read your email." Simply having someone I was sending emails to was a game changer for me.

Whatever the case may be, whether the situation is thinking through a minor or a major life decision, talking through where you’re stuck with something you’re trying to write, or wondering how you might be able to handle a delicate situation gracefully, there are many ways to harness the power of including someone else in your process. The next section lists some examples of support you could request from teddy bears.

Kinds of support

  • whatever is on my mind support
  • feeling stuck support
  • as if talking to an expert support (can help you prepare to talk to an actual expert)
  • taking regular pitstops along the way with you support (for someone working on a long-term project, like a term paper, a book, or a thesis)
  • don't feel like it support (including before you're ready to start support)
  • to get even more support that complements the support you get from a partner or an advisor/mentor

When to recruit a teddy bear

You might consider the following situations and triggers that alert you.

  • becoming aware that you're procrastinating
  • spending more than 5 minutes on one sentence (both if you're reading or writing)

Teddy Bear Talk Support from the Teddy Bear's perspective

Teddy Bears recruiting Talkers

I've talked about TBTS in terms of talkers recruiting teddy bears. But, teddy bears can also recruit talkers. For example, teddy bears that have retired from their careers can be of service to young talkers. One thing this could help with is with finding talkers that they can be normal mentors to or normal friends with.

Doing job shadowing is another reason teddy bears might have for recruiting talkers. If someone is wondering about what it would be like to be in a certain career field, sometimes they arrange to shadow/follow a person around on the job to experience what the job is like. One way to do job shadowing is to have times where you serve as a teddy bear for the person you are shadowing.

Meaningful action

We can all use more meaningful action in our lives. TBTS gives teddy bears a way to have more meaningful action, and to connect with more people, and with more different people. Teddy bears get to develop listening skills by getting to witness the power of listening as they make choices (in the teddy bear setups that have choices to be made) about when to do things like mirror back what they've heard and when to offer questions, and as they learn to ask questions that are more of a listening nature.

Windows into Talkers' Worlds and into Teddy Bears' Own Worlds

Teddy Bears get to have windows into talkers' world and windows into their own worlds. They can get 3rd party perspectives on issues of their own when they are witnessing similar issues for others. They get to see people's insides and hear people's self talk.

For me, I've found it empowering to see how effective it is when we are better able to explore our own ideas for ourselves. I've found it reassuring to watch people say things to themselves that I would've wanted to say to them (if I weren't being a silent witness). When I first tried providing silent support, it did seem a little crazy to me. Really, you don't say anything at all to the talker? But, seeing that what I wanted to tell them would sometimes come out of their mouths helped me trust more in this process that seemed a bit crazy to me. They know, too. They are able to help themselves, too. I found it empowering to see how we have the wisdom to help ourselves.

These experiences remind me that what I want to do is hold the space with compassion and trust for the talker, knowing how empowering giving that kind of support can be (both for me to witness and for the talker to receive) and knowing that getting it is all too rare.