This One-Second Habit Is the Key to Emotional Intelligence

A man closes his eyes and massages his temples to relieve stress in front of his laptop.
A man closes his eyes and massages his temples to relieve stress in front of his laptop.
Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

OOver the past two decades, I’ve advised Fortune 500 companies and high-growth teams, worked with Middle East leaders and conducted U.S. government-funded research on terrorism — all in the name of helping people find better ways of working together. Along the way, I’ve realized that emotional awareness can make the difference between ongoing conflict and constructive action.

It’s a skill that comes in especially handy right now, as we’re all facing new challenges and disruptions to our daily lives. It’s a tense, anxious time, and the high emotional temperature of the moment makes it easier than usual to get stuck in a tug-of-war of unnecessary conflict.

Luckily, emotional awareness can be learned and improved. Here’s where to begin:

Practice pausing

In times of stress or decision fatigue, a short pause can go a long way. It’s as straightforward as it sounds: Instead of reacting to other people when you’re feeling on edge, take a quick break to reset.

One of my closest friends and colleagues, Wendy, is great at doing this. Every once in a while, when it’s clear she’s feeling tense about whatever question or decision we might be discussing — or if she’s annoyed by my approach — she’ll ask me to hold on. Then she takes a brief, quiet moment to cool down, collect her thoughts, and clearly articulate what’s concerning her.

I am grateful for Wendy’s habit of hitting pause. It probably ends up saving both of us time and frustration. And while she takes her pause, I get one, too. The few seconds of silence provide just enough time for me to do my own calming down, and I can reflect on how I might respond to her concerns.

The greater the intensity of your emotional experience, the more you can benefit from a pause. But there’s a catch: The more upset you are, the harder it is to take that pause. Intense emotions can be overwhelming, which makes you want to narrow in on them instead of taking a step back to consider the bigger picture. I’ve personally experienced this many times, especially when I’m angry. My immediate reaction — that feeling of outrage — seems to replay itself on a feedback loop that can be tough to stop.

After two decades of wrestling with this dilemma right alongside my clients and students, I’ve realized that the best way to counteract the emotional feedback loop is to strengthen my pause reflex. It takes practice: I try to take a moment each day to proactively pause what I’m doing and reflect on how I’m feeling about it — especially in times of crisis or change.

The frequency of that pause practice is more important than its duration. I’ve found it personally helpful to take several one-second pauses throughout my day; every time I switch between computer applications, I glance at the Buddha picture I’ve set as my desktop background and remind myself to reflect. It works.

Let your emotions settle

Sometimes, taking a break isn’t enough to offer clarity or calm. If you find yourself still upset after pausing, that’s totally okay. You can use that moment to acknowledge your emotions.

The more we practice acknowledging how we feel — allowing our emotions to bubble up, be recognized, and then float away — the more control we have even when we’re in their grip. The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers the metaphor of a muddy glass of water when you’re in the desert: You want to drink the water, but it’s clouded with mud. What to do? You let the dirt settle to the bottom, so you can drink the clear water.

It’s the same with emotions, Hanh says. Don’t try to throw away, change, or examine the muddy emotions — just let them settle, and see what happens. Usually, something else more constructive appears in their place.

Ask what your emotions are trying to tell you

It’s not always easy to let your emotions settle, especially if you’re experiencing them with high intensity. One approach that can help is to treat your emotions as if they’re old friends who have come to visit you.

Inside your head, you can say something like, “Hello, fear. What are you trying to tell me?” Then listen for an answer. This may seem silly, but it’s a helpful way of identifying and labeling intense feelings and figuring out what kind of action to take to address them.

Here are some common messages that your emotions may be trying to send you:

Anger: “This is not right. Something needs to change.”

Fear: “Danger ahead!” (Real or perceived.)

Sadness: “A loss has occurred.”

Disgust: “This is not good.”

Joy: “Wow, this is great.”

Being aware of what we’re feeling and why can make it easier to identify how to proceed.

Take constructive action

Once you acknowledge your emotions and listen to what they’re trying to tell you, it’s time to act.

Anger — or any other emotion — is not inherently bad. It can be a catalyst for either constructive change or destruction, depending on what you do with it.

One of the most well-known examples of this is the American civil rights icon, Martin Luther King Jr. Instead of denying his anger at racial injustice and inequity, he used it as a catalyst for social change. He articulated the impact of injustice on his people. And he made a clear request of every American: to treat all people equally.

Though we’re far from arriving at the equal society envisioned by King, his commitment to justice, fueled by his anger, paved the way for much of the civil rights progress in this country over the past 50 years.

In ways big and small, everyone stands to gain from translating emotional awareness into constructive action. It’s up to you to make the leap.

From the book Optimal Outcomes by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler. Copyright © 2020 by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler. Reprinted by permission of Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler is a leading expert on conflict and organizational psychology. You can learn more about her work at jengoldmanwetzler.com

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