How to harness the power of your emotions – and play each of your 34,000 emotional states to your advantage

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Controlling your breathing doesn't just mean taking deep breaths (Source: Getty)

Scientists have known for years that emotions impair our decision-making ability. But it is only recently that they have begun to prove that the opposite is also true. Namely that, if we effectively manage our emotions, we make better decisions and can create real competitive advantage.

Think about a time when you’ve been under pressure to make a decision. You might be aware of your heart racing slightly, your breathing becomes a little erratic, your palms a tad sweaty and there’s some tension in your stomach. All this chaotic biology means your emotions are uncontrolled, and this impairs your brain function and your ability to make good decisions.

So how do you regulate your emotions?

Step one: Take Control

First, recognise that, rather than it being someone else who has made us feel bad, we have done it to ourselves. We have created that negative emotion within our own body. The increased muscle tension and racing heart was created by us. Owning the fact that you did it and you can change it is vital if you want to alter how you feel.

Step two: Breathing

To regulate your emotions, you need to become aware of your own physiological state and, in particular, your heart rate variability signal. You can learn to control this using rhythmic (not deep) breathing. This will alter your physiology from a chaotic to a much more coherent state. With more stable physiology, you can begin to control your emotions rather than letting them control you.

Step three: Emotion

Controlling your breathing and heart rate variability is only the start of the process. You also need to be able to choose the right emotional state for all situations and recognise what emotional state you are in right now.

Most people can only identify about a dozen different emotional states on a regular basis. Many of them are negative such as anxiety, anger, frustration, tiredness, boredom, confusion or disappointment. But there are not just a dozen distinguishable emotional states, there are 34,000.

Step four: Real-time awareness

Having become aware that there are many different emotions and that you may not be entirely sure what emotion you are actually experiencing, you can now start to develop better emotional literacy, allowing you to differentiate at least 50 different emotions on a regular basis. The purpose of an emotion is to drive action. If you are not sure whether you are angry or anxious, then you are liable to choose the wrong action and, therefore, the wrong behaviour.

Step five: Change

Once you are more aware of your emotions and you can accurately identify them, the real game changer for performance is to actually change how you feel. Being able to move from frustration to determination, for example, will help you perform better and increase your chances of success.

And if you change your emotional state to excitement or enthusiasm, for instance, you may be able to infect others with that feeling. This will have the added effect of drawing them towards you, improving your chances of influencing people, while also improving their performance.

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