“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret,’ Ambrose Bierce, an American journalist who lived a century ago, once wrote.
Did it ever happen to you? That you lose it, unable to control yourself?
Suddenly you feel kidnapped by your own emotions. You get into a reacting mode and external circumstances take over and now control you. Your emotions swing between anger and frustration, between rage and sadness.
This happened to me the time when I felt betrayed by a friend I had fully trusted and with whom I was dreaming of setting up a great project. Then, one morning, I discovered that, unknown to me, he had partnered with someone else and had just used me to pick my brain. I was in stunned and in shock.
Soon, feelings of anger and vengeance took over my mind. And not just for a few minutes or hours, but actually for weeks. And I acted on those feelings, writing letters of outrage and placing calls to lawyers. I became those feelings. I embodied them.
Until I realized that I was poisoning myself. As long as I remained in that state of mind, I wasn’t strong but weak. I wasn’t winning, I was losing.
I remembered what Gandhi once observed and that so well represented what I was experiencing:
Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it stands than to anything on which it is poured.
This realization eventually helped me to forgive myself and my friend and to let go of that uncomfortable situation. That experience helped me to understand the importance of self-mastery and self-control; of not being hostage of my emotions, but to remain free.
Self-mastery of emotions, then, is a fundamental skill in winning the game of life.
Of course, anger is not the only negative emotion we should keep in check. Also feeling sadness, frustration, sorrow, or being greedy, antagonistic, hopeless, arrogant, anxious, insecure, impulsive, and so on… doesn’t help us to be in a resourceful state of mind.
How can we learn to win the game of life with emotional intelligence?
Not long ago, I had dinner with two masters in the art of negotiation, who made history by mediating very difficult and violent conflicts: Senator George Mitchell, who brought peace to Northern Ireland, and Alvaro de Soto, who successfully mediated the conflict in El Salvador. When I asked them what they thought was the most important skill to have in order to be great negotiators, they both told me that it was keeping your emotions in check.
William Ury, author of best-sellers and a worldwide renown negotiator, highlights that “we sabotage ourselves by reacting in ways that do not serve our true interests.”
[Interested in knowing different skills to win the game of life? You can download my infograph here about the 8 Secrets of Successful Negotiators].
In his writings, like in his latest book, Getting to Yes With Yourself, Ury emphasizes the importance of influencing yourself, before you influence others. You need to come to agreements with yourself, before you make agreements with others. And mastering your emotions is one fundamental way to influence yourself to better influence others.
Ury uses the expression “Going to the balcony” to signal the best attitude you can assume to master your emotions. That means that by developing the capacity to become a student of your own emotions and reactions, by becoming an observer of yourself, you acquire the ability to detach yourself from yourself, as if sitting in a movie theatre and watching at what is projected on the screen.
Let me give you an example from my own experience.
A few years ago, while facilitating ceasefire talks in a foreign country, I met with a senior government official, who had launched a denigratory campaign against me. He was quite manipulative and vicious in his methods, and as a result I had received frightening threats.
When I entered the room and sat in front of him, I would have liked to unleash my anger at his methods. In our meeting, as he was talking to me, he tried to get under my skin and to make me react. I knew that if I did, I would lose.
But to express my perception of him was not the aim of the meeting and it would have not served the interest of our meeting. Instead, the focus was helping the talks to move along, and thus to be effective in my work I needed to build rapport with this particular senior government official.
To control myself in that trying situation, I started to observe my own reactions. I became aware of how I was clinging my teeth, of how my left leg had an urge to tremble, of my inner thoughts. For example, I was asking myself, “Isn’t it interesting to notice how my frustration makes my chest tight?” or “Isn’t it interesting that I tend to scratch the skin around my right thumb when I am anxious?”
These observations helped me to detach myself from my own emotions. I was so able to keep my calm and to listen. That meeting signed a turning point in the relationship with that particular government official.
By modeling the skills that high-end negotiators are using to resolve though problems, you too can get better results in your life and even transform your relations. Learning how not to be hostage of your own emotions, by increasing your self-awareness through self-observation, will help you to make a leap in winning the game of life.