Some insights on emotional self-control

By Elisabeth Goodman, 1st July 2018

I’m picking my way, as the mood takes me, through Daniel Goleman et al’s twelve “Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence”.  My latest read is “2. Emotional Self-Control”.

Emotional self-control

Each of these little booklets (or primers) has little nuggets of insights which I frequently find helpful for myself, as well as for generating ideas to weave into my RiverRhee courses for managers and individual team members*.

Why self-control is important

As Goleman points out, emotional self-control is not about denying our emotions, rather it’s about choosing when and how we express them so that they don’t get in the way of, and actively support the results we want to achieve.

We will all have experienced situations where one person’s mood (whether negative or positive) has affected our own, or that of other people’s in the room – whether that person .  Or situations where we’ve had to work hard to keep our own equilibrium when the person we’ve been with has been angry or upset.  Moods can be contagious and, without self-control, we will ‘catch’ each others.

So Goleman reminds us that it is a leader’s responsibility to be aware of and to regulate their mood, so that they can ensure that the one they bring to their team’s day, and to individual situations is as conducive to positive and constructive interactions and results as possible.

Similarly, any individual wanting to influence a situation or another person, will want to regulate their mood so as to be able to interact and perform in the best way they can.

Vanessa Druskat talks more about the importance of self-control at a team level, and how certain team norms as well as leadership behaviours will be conducive to that.

Team norms
Illustration summarising key points from the Teamworking primer in “Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence”.

A lot of this rests on ensuring that team members feel included (social belonging), understood and valued.  I’ve written more about these team norms in my review of the Teamworking primer.

Interestingly, I’ve just read Kristie Rogers’ very good article “Do your employees feel respected” (pages 63-70) in the July-August 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review, where she shows how respect is the key to ensuring that team members feel included, understood and valued.

The neurological basis of self-control (or the absence of it!)

Richard J. Davidson has a chapter in the primer devoted to this topic.  He reminds us that the amygdala is the part of the brain that is very involved with emotion; whilst the prefrontal cortex is associated with rational thought.

There is a major pathway between the emotional and rational thinking part of the brain which is the uncinate fasciculus.  The trick, with emotional self-control, is to be aware of what is happening (in the amygdala), to prevent the amygdala “hijacking” our logical thinking (in the prefrontal cortex), and to then actively influence the amygdala to get the result we want!  All of this emotional and logical sensory flow will be going on via the uncinate fasciculus.

Uncinate fasciculus

Apparently, the more we work on this, the more we will strengthen our neurological capability for self-control.

Some strategies for generating self-control

Emotional self-control relies first on being aware of our emotions, and then on developing strategies to help us regulate them.

George Kohlrieser encourages us to start engaging in an inner dialogue to recognise and label our emotions – and to work out what they are connected to: what has triggered them.  Building this awareness will be instrumental in helping us develop the strategies for regulation.  He suggests that we can also enlist trusted colleagues, family members and friends to help to alert us when we are displaying emotions that we want to be aware of.

Emotions will also affect how we feel physically – so we can mitigate the stressful effects of nervousness, anxiety, anger, depression by physical means such as breathing techniques, how we stand or hold ourselves, by going for a walk, by looking at the things around us.

As Davidson reminds us, mindfulness or meditation can help us to acknowledge how we are thinking and feeling, and then to just ‘let these thoughts and feelings go’.

He also describes how we can ‘re-programme’ our minds, for example as in cognitive therapy, so that our intellectual responses to the context that triggers our emotions changes.  We might do this by realising that something that happens is not personally directed at us – it’s just something that has happened and we can choose how we respond to it.  We can put it into a larger or different perspective.


*The RiverRhee courses this primer is going to be most helpful for are:

Click here for information on RiverRhee’s training, workshops and coaching for managers and teams

About the author. Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals). Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.