I’ve mentioned before that my views have changed dramatically over the years. But thinking about that the other day, it occurred to me that most of that change happened in a fairly narrow period. At the beginning of 2004, I was still a nominal Catholic, often voted Republican, was suspicious of gays and other non-traditional groups, and generally considered the United States to be on the cutting edge of democratic and economic innovation.
By the end of 2005, I was a liberal progressive and committed Democrat, was painfully aware of the undemocratic aspects of my country, along with the fact that many other developed countries had been doing things with social safety nets for generations that were considered hopelessly experimental and academic in the US, and my religious beliefs were more or less history.
What happened? Well, I read a book in the summer of 2004. It was not a book on politics, economics, religion, or philosophy. It was a self-help book on emotional intelligence. Well, sort of. The term “emotional intelligence” didn’t show up anywhere in it, but I had already read a couple of other books on that subject and been irritated by how theoretical, how disconnected they were from practical solutions.
But Sheenah Hankin’s ‘Complete Confidence: A Handbook‘ ended up being pretty much what I was looking for. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a confidence boost (although it certainly wouldn’t have hurt) but a practical guide on keeping my emotions reigned in and making better decisions. I’m not sure what called my attention to this book, but it would eventually have a profound effect on my thinking.
Hankin’s chief thesis was to push back on the idea that there is something virtuous or enlightening with following our feelings, of giving precedence to our emotions. As I’ve discussed before, we are emotional beings. Reason is a tool of emotion. But we have a wide variety of emotions, many of which are often in conflict with each other. Notably, short term emotional needs are often in conflict with longer term emotional needs.
Reason is a tool to allow us to choose which emotional impulses we should indulge in. That capability has become increasingly crucial in a world radically different from the one we evolved in. Our emotions are often tuned for life on the African savanna, not for surviving workplace politics or succeeding in online discussions.
Of course, this is often much easier said than done. Emotions are powerful things. Often anger, fear, and sorrow overwhelm the small voice of reason pointing out what the better course of action may be. Hankin provides a relatively simple framework to deal with this, which she refers to as “The Winning Hand of Comfort”, mainly because she counts off the steps on the fingers of one hand: calm, clarify, challenge, comfort, confidence.
This is the first and most crucial stage. It’s also the most difficult, particularly when you’re emotionally upset. The trick is to recognize when you’re in that state, realize that you need to calmly assess the situation, and take steps to do so. Hankin talks about taking deep breathes, which of course is almost a cliche at this point. But I think the key thing is to recognize that you’re not calm, and take steps to reach a calmer place. It may involve separating yourself from the situation, which depending on that situation, could be difficult. But in most cases (immediate life safety emergencies aside) it’s worth the effort.
Often, when you do attempt to do this, there may be people who don’t want to give you that opportunity. They may have an agenda and are hoping to pressure you into a decision that benefits them. Pushy salespeople come to mind, but as a manager I’ve often had this come from customers, colleagues, employees, and from many other directions. In most cases (again life and death emergencies aside), little or nothing is lost taking a break to calm down, and often there is much to be gained.
The good news, is that this gets much easier over time and with practice, easier to recognize when you need to do it, and easier to actually do it. I’ve reached the point where it’s more or less a reflex now. If I’m upset, I reflexively try to calm down. Of course, I’m human and it doesn’t always work, but compared to early 2004, I’m practically a zen master now.
Once you’ve managed to calm down, the next step to to assess the situation. Why are you upset? It’s crucial to be honest with yourself at this stage. If you’re getting upset over something minor and trivial, it’s still something that you need to understand. We can’t control our immediate emotions, we can only control our reaction to them. There’s nothing dishonorable with having emotions we may not be proud of, although there might be something dishonorable in giving in to them.
One thing I was surprised to discover when I started doing this, was how often there wasn’t really anything major I was getting upset about. Often it was because I was jacked on caffeine. (I drank about ten cups of coffee a day back in 2004.) Eventually this realization led me to drastically cut back on my caffeine intake.
Once you’re in a calm state and understand why you were upset, the next step is to challenge that notion. How upset should I really be over that guy cutting me off in traffic? Did that person in the meeting really mean to insult me? Is my significant other mad at me or just in a bad mood? More often than not, the resulting conclusion will be that there is nothing there, that really there isn’t any real reason to be upset.
Of course, sometimes the conclusion will go the other way. The good news is, by the time you reach this point, you’ll be in a much better state of mind to deal with it rationally, rather than simply meeting what will often be an emotional display with another emotional display.
Hankin talks about the importance of self coaching, of comforting ourselves. I thought this was pretty strange when I first read it, but all of my reading about the mind and brain since then has convinced me that there is a lot of insight here. We are not one unified whole, but rather a loose collection of impulses and desires. Often, the more primal aspects of our minds can be soothed and comforted by the conscious rationalist aspect of ourselves, in a way that simply doesn’t seem to happen by just holding that comforting knowledge.
Hankin recommends having a ready phrase to use, such as “It’s no big deal,” or “Don’t overreact,” but I personally find coming up with a tailored phrase for the situation more helpful, but it does require more thought in the moment than having a ready phrase.
This is the final phase in Hankin’s framework. It’s really more of a desired result than a phase you work on. I’m not sure how much personal confidence this sequence really provides, except perhaps the confidence of feeling like you’re making a more considered and careful decision. Still, I have to say that I’m often in a much better state of mind at this stage than I was before the Calm stage.
Is this sequence the end all be all? Will it solve every personal issue? Not at all. But it did help me in my professional interactions in the summer of 2004. And then it began to have more far ranging effects. It inspired me to calm down, clarify, and challenge my intuitive position on many matters, personal, professional, and philosophical, leading to the changes I mentioned above. (As well as many other personal and professional changes I haven’t mentioned.)
It may be that Hankin’s book just happened to catch me at a particular point in my life where I was already subconsciously questioning many things, and using her framework allowed me to bring it up into my consciousness.
But it was a significant enough influence on me that it’s one of three books I often recommend when a discussion comes up about books on leadership or career management. It’s the third, after Dale Carnegie’s classic ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, and Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’. But only Hankin’s book led to wholesale changes in my worldview.
What about you? Are there any books that had effects on your thinking far beyond their initial scope?