Three Minute Wisdom

Knowledge is not enough. True leadership is informed by wisdom. The ideas presented here are intended to arouse your curiosity, provoke your thinking and encourage insightful action to help you achieve the things that matter.  

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Emotional Wisdom

Emotions create positive impact when we understand how to use them correctly, and painful disruption when we don’t. This understanding requires us to work well with both negative and positive emotions. Because emotions are complex bio-chemical/psychological processes, learning how to use them effectively takes more than intelligence, it takes emotional wisdom.

I want to describe three skills that will help you put the power of both negative and positive emotions to good use. They are the skills to:

  • Self-Monitor
  • Self-Regulate
  • Self-Elevate

For each of these skills, I will suggest a practice that will increase your emotional wisdom. These practical tips will help you use the natural dynamics of emotions to create better relationships, navigate your day with less stress, and lead a more fulfilling life.

Self-Monitor    Due to our evolutionary history, all of us have a brain architecture that is hard-wired for both negative and positive emotions. One aspect of this hard-wiring is a highly sensitive and effective threat-detection system. Our limbic system evolved to protect us by constantly scanning the landscape and sending a torrent of hormones and neurotransmitters throughout our bodies at the first hint of danger. Cortisol and adrenaline levels surge and prepare the heart, lungs and large muscle groups for imminent battle.

The dangers we faced as early mammals were potentially fatal, and so our limbic systems learned to sound the alarm with chemical signals that were strong and loud. But today, the “threats” we are likely to face are psychological, not physical. We might be contradicted in a meeting or argue with our spouse. But the limbic system does not know the difference – it uses the same brain architecture it has developed over eons.

Because you can’t manage what you don’t notice, developing self-awareness is the first step to using our emotions wisely. As described by Daniel Goleman and many others, there is an easy handle for developing the skill of self-monitoring: all emotions register in the body.

Practice #1:  Practice paying attention to the physical sensations in your body. You can do this right now. Mentally scan your body and sense what you feel, especially in your head, neck, shoulders, back and stomach. What areas are tight versus relaxed? Heavy versus light? Is energy moving or stagnant? See if you can name the emotion that is underneath the physical feeling. If you do this several times a day, particularly when you feel triggered, you will be developing the skill of self-monitoring, which is key to the skill of self-regulating.

Self-Regulate    Once your limbic system is activated, defending against the perceived threat becomes the urgent priority. Channels within the brain that access the neocortex and its ability to evaluate information and make reasoned decisions are significantly diminished. That’s why we often say things in the heat of the moment that we later regret, saying “what was I thinking?” The answer is that you weren’t thinking – you were acting instinctively to defend yourself.

This can be destructive to your relationships. When you speak out impulsively from hurt or anger, you trigger the limbic system of others, who now perceive you as a threat. Now their cortisol and adrenaline levels are rising and their neocortex abilities are diminished. Fear, anger and distrust are on the rise for everyone involved.



Practice #2:  You can slow or prevent the slide into a vicious cycle by practicing this: when you feel an urgent impulse to speak out, don’t. Simply pause. If you have the presence of mind, check in with the sensations in your body and see if it feels different than normal. Give yourself two slow breaths to weigh the depth of the perceived threat and whether you want to add to the heat of the moment. Having the strength and courage to pause is crucial to self-regulating.

Viktor Frankl said, “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Unless we pause in that space, we are at the mercy of our old reactions and conditioned habits of mind, and we have lost our freedom to consciously choose a better path.

Self-Elevate   In the sections above on self-monitoring and self-regulating, I have focused on negative emotions like fear, anger and distrust. But our brain’s hard-wiring also has a system for positive emotions that allows us to feel awe, wonder, joy, humor and love. These positive emotions evolved alongside our negative emotions and were every bit as important to our survival as a species. Positive emotions have their own set of hormones, such as dopamine and oxytocin, that allow us to bond as social creatures and provide the stimulation to learn and grow.

Barbara Fredrickson, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has demonstrated the lasting effects that positive emotions can have to improve the quality of our lives. Dr. Fredrickson has shown that experiencing positive emotions more often than negative emotions improves our health, relationships and sense of well-being. Her experiments support a positivity ratio of 3:1 as producing lasting benefits. That is, experiencing three positive emotions for every negative emotion. This does not necessarily mean seeking out more positive experiences, it means placing our attention more consciously on the positive events already happening to us that we tend to dismiss.

Practice #3:  One way to increase your positivity ratio is savoring, a practice suggested by Rick Hanson. The next time something positive happens to you (seeing a sunset, watching your child play, receiving a compliment, tasting delicious food) stop for 20 seconds, relax, and direct your attention to appreciating the moment. Allow good feelings about the moment to sink into your body.

If you accept this challenge, I am willing to bet that 20 seconds will seem like a long time to dwell on the good feelings of a positive moment. But think about it, how long do you ruminate on the one bad thing that happened yesterday? Minutes, hours, even years? When you realize how much of your life is spent on over-worrying the negative, you may be motivated to build the skill of self-elevating by savoring the positive more often.

I urge you to take this first small step in reversing the perverse habit we all have of exaggerating bad experiences and dismissing the good. Unlock the wisdom of your emotions and you will flourish in your work, your relationships and your life.



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