Marc Brackett, a professor at Yale, dedicated his career to studying emotions. In his recent book, Permission to Feel, he argues how nurturing a high degree of emotional intelligence is perhaps just as important, if not more, than our intellectual intelligence.
And it all starts with understanding our emotions.
Understanding emotions is a journey. Possibly an adventure. When it’s finished, we may find ourselves someplace new, someplace unexpected, somewhere, perhaps, we had no intention of going. And yet there we are, wiser than before — maybe wiser than we wished to be. But there’s no other way forward. — Marc Brackett
An emotional scientist understands; an emotional judge evaluates
You’re probably way too familiar with the ‘whose turn is it to take the garbage’ argument that seems to spark couples and families into an abyss of blame and accusations. But what if I tell you it’s never about the garbage? Even if we had tiny robots neatly tying and disposing our garbage bags all day long, we would still find other reasons to fight over.
Our emotions go deeper than their projections.
An emotional scientist, when faced with the situation above, takes a step back and reflects. They don’t focus on the behaviour at hand. They ask questions about what’s going on, intending to understand what’s harbouring beneath the surface.
An emotional judge, on the other hand, jumps straight away into critical mode. Their focus is to accept or reject the feeling at hand. Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. Guilty. Or not.
Imagine you come home feeling exhausted. You’ve had a long day. Imprisoned in what felt like never-ending meetings that led nowhere, with work piled up that you didn’t get a chance to sort through. Your usual commute was interrupted by yet another series of constructions, which added a twenty-minute detour. When you step inside the front door, you hear the dreaded: “Hey, don’t forget — it’s garbage day!” And that sets you on fire.
Well, if you’re an emotional judge.
An emotional judge validates (or invalidates) their emotions related to the behaviour. They believe they’re in the right! After all, they are exhausted. They had a long day. “Hell, I deserve to act this way.” They let their anger pour out.
On the receiving end, an emotional judge sees this behaviour and resulting outpour, and starts a fight: “You never take the garbage out!” They may even spew out hurtful words — an automatic emotional defence mechanism.
What would an emotional scientist do?
Firstly, an emotional scientist pauses. They ask themselves what’s going on. They know it’s not about the garbage. Heck, they take the garbage out with a big smile on their face. They de-escalate intending to understand.
They ask: “How are you feeling?”
They ask: “What’s going on?”
They get closer instead of running away. They open up instead of armouring.
Five-second rule of silence
I have implemented a five-second rule of silence before reacting to anything. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but five seconds of silence feels like an eternity of thought.
When faced with anything that has the potential to derail my emotional stability, I attempt to put on the emotional scientist hat and try to first understand what is happening in front of me. It could be related to something I’m itching to initiate, or it could be due to a reaction I’m noticing unfolding based on what someone else has done.
I take five seconds to think through what I’m noticing or what I’m about to do.
It doesn’t sound like a lot, but five seconds of silence feels like an eternity of thought.
Take last week’s example. In my apartment, I have a kitchen island separating the appliances area from the living room. With my roommate now working from home, he often sits at the island, directly in front of the appliances counter. Whenever I need to use the kitchen — for example, open cupboards or load the dishwasher — I have to circle him.
It was driving me nuts! I almost screamed out one day: “Can’t you see I’m trying to prepare some food? Can you get out of the way? Can’t you move to the other side?”
But I didn’t. I chose the five-second rule. I stopped and thought about what I was feeling. I reflected on what was going on.
Do you know what my mind defaulted to?
He must not give a damn about me. He must purposefully disrespect me. Does it bring him satisfaction seeing me suffer?
I put on my scientist hat and chose to dig deeper. That couldn’t possibly be it. He doesn’t seem bitter. He cooked for me the other day. He’s always polite and pleasant.
I commented on how he seemed to prefer the stool, as opposed to the chairs on the other side of the island. I was trying to understand.
He paused. “Absolutely. It allows for better posture and lets me focus better.” Plus, the outlet was on his side. He needed the outlet for his laptop.
It made perfect sense. He wasn’t intentionally trying to make me suffer. He was just minding his own business, trying to adjust to his new work environment as best he could.
When I came to this realization, where he was sitting suddenly didn’t irk me anymore. I simply started to use the kitchen whenever he wasn’t at the island, or just circled around if needed. It really wasn’t a big deal! I was now feeling neutral about it. At peace, in fact.
Whenever life throws at you events that wake up your emotional mischiefs, take a five-second pause. Try to understand what’s happening. Reflect on the situation at hand. Ask questions to yourself and the other person.
What would an emotional scientist do?
Always pick up the hat of an emotional scientist. Because it’s the hat that will help you cut through the noise and act with your best version of yourself forward. Every single time.