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How do you restore your rationality?

No matter how emotionally intelligent we may think we are, there will be situations that will test us.

6 min read




Recently my college-age son hit a large piece of asphalt while driving our 1997 Toyota Avalon down a country road at night. The impact against the undercarriage caused the airbags to deploy and shatter the car’s windshield.

Thankfully, except for a concussion, my son was not seriously hurt. Days later, when talking with him about the accident in person, my initial feelings of gratitude turned to worry about the cost of fixing the car and disappointment and anger over his lack of judgment. During our conversation, I found myself becoming angrier by the second. In fact, I had to excuse myself from the interaction for fear of saying or doing something that I would regret later.

Being somewhat surprised by my own reaction, I was reminded that no matter how emotionally intelligent we may think we are, there will be situations that will test us.  

Here is a list of tips that you might consider putting into practice when your negative emotions start to seep into your interactions with others.

1. Breathe. When we have an emotional reaction, the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, becomes engaged and starts to shut down more logical thought. We stop breathing normally and the lack of oxygen makes it more difficult for us to respond rationally. Slower and measured breathing oxygenates the brain and helps to restore our rationality.

2. Get physical. Physical activity short-circuits the neural network that is reinforcing the emotional reaction. Try climbing some stairs, doing pushups, taking a brisk walk, tapping on your forehead with your index finger, chopping weeds or hitting a punching bag. The physicality of your actions will shift you out of the protective-reactive state you are in.

3. Visualization. Create a visualization of what typically happens in a certain situation with this person. Once you have envisioned the situation and how it normally occurs, rewind the picture in your head and change how you would typically react. Take the time to change your thinking, feelings, and responses as you imagine and revisit that situation. Practice the same visualization until you begin to respond differently when the situation actually occurs.

4. Finish sentences. Tasking yourself with completing different sentences allows you to surface the thinking often hiding in your subconscious. Try finishing the sentence, “I’m angry because…,” as many times as you can. This is the tip that I used to increase my awareness of why I was so angry with my son for wrecking the car. What I discovered was that I was upset because I would have to spend my time and resources to fix the car because, as a college student, he had neither the resources nor the time, as he had to be at a summer job in a matter of days.   

5. Do a rationality check. Everyone is rational from their own perspective. Unfortunately, we often fail to see the reasoning behind the behavior of others. When others behave in ways that defy your expectations, ask yourself, “What would logically explain his or her behavior?” If appropriate, you can ask them to identify the reasons for their actions.   

6. Identify your contribution. Candidly identify what you did or didn’t do that contributed to your current situation. Rest assured that your action or inaction played a role in the present results. This requires real honesty and a willingness to admit your part in the outcome.

7. Drink a glass of water. This is another interesting way of short-circuiting your emotionally reacting neural networks by forcing yourself to concentrate on a different task. This activity also generally requires you to exit the current situation and go in search of a water source. Sometimes, excusing yourself from a volatile situation is the best course of action.

8. Watch for biased and projective listening. If you find yourself becoming emotional, listen to how you are responding in the situation. We often engage in projective listening as we process information from our own view or perspective. This type of listening says more about us than the person to whom we are responding. Projective listening occurs as we project ourselves into the conversation or take personally whatever the person is doing or saying. You know you are engaging in self-projection when you hear yourself evaluating, defending or offering advice to the individual.

9. Go barefooted in the grass. This is another effective way of activating another group of senses rather than allowing a negative emotional interaction to continue. You might also remove your shoes and socks while sitting at your desk. Interrupting the reaction cycle by forcing our attention to something physical keeps our emotions from hijacking our responses.

10. Give yourself compliments. For at least 60 seconds, give yourself a full round of compliments. You can do this out loud (if alone) or in writing. This forces you out of the negative thinking that is driving your emotional reactions. Consequently, your emotions will dissipate as you identify some reasons that you are a fantastic human being.  

11. Engage empathy. Ask yourself this question, “What would a person have to think and feel in order to say or do that?” Then follow with, “How would I react if I felt that way?” Notice that these questions force you to identify with the other person rather than observing the situation solely from your own perspective. Putting yourself in someone else’s situation fosters understanding.

12. Hire a coach. Sometimes the quickest way to overcome a long learning cycle is to hire someone you respect and trust to provide you with feedback and give you an objective perspective. They can suggest how your behavior may be negatively affecting others and sabotaging your results. If possible, it is good to find someone who has successfully managed emotional-intelligence issues themselves. They will possess greater insight and be able to identify skills that worked for them.

Becoming more emotionally intelligent requires that we understand how our feelings and actions affect our personal and professional relationships. Using tactics such as these, which re-engage our thinking processes and employ the use of our other senses, can quickly help us regain control of our rationality and produce more effective and positive outcomes.   


John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. He has been in organizational development work for over 20 years helping leaders and individual contributors to learn the skills to assist them in achieving superior results. He has experience in the fields of leadership, change management, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked with such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, and AbbVie. Connection with him on FacebookLinkedIn, or Twitter.

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