How to Control Your Emotions at Work: Know When to Act or Ignore

Brady Dale
Brady Dale / Published May 29, 2014

It turns out that you can train yourself to better understand your own emotions, control them and make other people want to work with you more.

This sort of training creates more successful employees and managers. So much so that Google sponsored a program to help increase the emotional intelligence of their workers. The person behind that program, Chade-Meng Tan, eventually turned his teachings into a book, Search Inside Yourself, which he presented as part of the “Authors at Google” series in 2012.

A Zen Parable

Meng, an early Google engineer himself (employee No. 107), opens his talk by sharing a famous zen parable about a man riding on a horse. When a man walking on the road asks him where he is going, the rider replies, “Why are you asking me? You should ask the horse.” Meng says the horse is a metaphor for our emotional lives. He employs the parable to show that we often allow the horse to take us where the horse wants to take us.

“We don’t think we have any control […] the horse is dragging us, especially if we are experiencing emotions like fear, nervousness,” he says, showing a picture cowboy being dragged by a horse.

But we do have control, Meng says. His book spells out a seven-week course to master your emotions.

“The first level of improvement is going from that (dragging cowboy) to this: looking cool,” he says, showing a photo of John Wayne atop a horse.

Mastery of your emotions—exemplified by Meng with a man standing on a horse—doesn’t just make you look cool, you begin to have influence on where you want your horse to go. The horse, Meng says, still has its own mind in the same way that our emotional processes have their “own mind,” but to a certain degree, you’re able to control the animal.

Standing on top of a horse.

Understand Emotional Intelligence

“The question then is, what does emotional mastery look like in the context of work?” Meng asks. “Emotional mastery manifests itself in the kind of statements we make about ourselves, in relation to our emotional skills and success.”

Meng says, people tell themselves that they “will be so successful” if they can:

  • Have strong self-awareness
  • Remain calm in crisis
  • Create optimism and resilience
  • Understand people better and instinctively like people, so that they are more likely to like me

All of these qualities, such as confidence, awareness and optimism, Meng says, come under the umbrella of emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence: The ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions." - Salovey and Mayer, 1990

Meng says he has good news for people who feel like they don’t have emotional aptitude.

“These qualities are skills, and like all other skills, these skills are trainable,” he says. “The better news, we found, writing Search Inside Yourself, that those skills are trainable in as little as seven weeks.”

Learn Emotional Intelligence

You can learn about emotional intelligence from a book, but you can’t get it without training. Meng says it’s just like exercise in that way—you can learn moves in a manual, but you have to do them to become physically fit.

So for emotional intelligence: what are we training? You train the brain. Thanks to neuroplasticity—"what you do, what you think and what you pay attention to changes the structure of the brain," Meng explains—it is possible to change how your brain works.

He underscores this point by saying, “This is a very important insight: Even adults and even engineers can train their brains.”

Three Easy Steps to Emotional Intelligence

Three Easy Steps

1. Attention Training

Attention training helps a person see their emotions as they happen. The first step to getting control over them is perceiving them clearly. “The attention we are talking about is to basically create a quality of mind which allows you to be calm and clear, at the same time, on demand,” Meng says.

This is the ability to be in stressful situations (deadlines, angry customers, difficult bosses, etc.) and to make yourself calm down and focus, no matter how stressful the stimuli might appear. Meng calls this the foundation of emotional intelligence. Training attention comes through a technique called mindfulness.

“Mindfulness: Paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” - Kabat-Zinn, 1994

Ten-Second Practice: Attention to Breath

Meng invites the room to do a ten-second exercise, where everyone simply pays attention to their breath for ten seconds.

Pause here and try this yourself.

If you find your mind wanders, he says, gently bring it back to your breath. This simple practice will give anyone a greater sense of calm. This is the kind of calm that mindfulness can help a person attain in an instant.

The ten-second practice is the very easy part, he says. The hard part is being able to deepen the mind, bringing this calm up whenever you want and staying in it as long as you need to.

Mental Strength

Meng says that if you do enough mindfulness practice, you develop strength in mindfulness that allows you to do things you couldn’t do before. To make an analogy with exercise, he says ten seconds of mindfulness practice is like one curl of the dumbbell. If you curl a dumbbell one time, you don’t really get anything out of it, but if you do it a lot, your arm gets strong. Mindfulness practice is the same way.

With practice, you can develop strength. “Practice over a long stretch of time changes you. That is the power of mindfulness,” Meng says.

The first change: “You find the perception changes. Specifically, the quality of perception changes.” You understand your own emotions with more clarity. The second change: “It calms the mind,” he says. Things can still bother you, but you can calm yourself on demand.


Monks with 10,000 to 50,000 hours of training in mindfulness have shown demonstrable differences in the activity of their amygdala, which is the part of the brain that takes over when a threat is perceived (that is, stress). When the amygdala takes over, “you almost literally stop thinking, you just react,” Meng says.

It’s no accident that people sometimes describe indiscretions by saying, “I wasn’t thinking,” Meng says. In fact, from a neurological perspective, he says, they probably weren’t. This trigger worked well for humans when they saw a sabertooth tiger, but it’s not helpful in a difficult meeting with your boss.

Highly practiced monks have been able to verify with FMRI imagery that they are able to regulate the activity of amygdala, the part of the brain that has been a key part of human survival for millions of years. However, Meng goes on to say that the latest research shows that people can measurably improve control over their amygdala at the point of about 100 minutes of practice.

Mindfulness flag

“Your mind is like a flag, fluttering in the wind—in motion or distress—and mindfulness is like a flagpole that, in this case, literally grounds the mind,” Meng says. “This is how you can remain under stress and yet stable at the same time.”

2. Self-Knowledge and Self-Mastery

To illustrate what this second step looks like, he uses the example of a digital image. If you take a blurry digital photo and are able to increase its resolution and vividness, you find that your perceive information that was hidden from you before.

Digital photo example

With mindfulness, your attention becomes sharp. In other words, you are better at perceiving the process of emotion. This sort of perception he describes as “resolution” which has both a spatial dimension and temporal dimension.

Spatial Emotional Resolution

“You are able to perceive changes in the emotional process that you never noticed before,” Meng says.

Temporal Emotional Resolution

“The ability to see an emotion the moment it is arising, and to see the emotion the moment it is seizing and all the tiny changes in between,” he says. Another way of saying this is small emotional changes over time. Tiny fluctuations.

Emotional Vividness

When you increase the signal to noise ratio. In other words, you are getting internal emotional information that had been previously hidden from you.

Put together, it allows a person to see how others perceive them objectively.

The Insular Cortex

The insular cortex is the part of the brain that governs awareness of bodily sensations (especially visually), emotional awareness and empathy.

“It turns out the insular can be trained—it’s very easy. All you have to do is bring attention to the body,” Meng says. People with strong insulars have good emotional vividness and they also have strong empathy.

Useful results of a strong insular cortex include:

  • If you can perceive an emotion as it arises, you have the power to turn the emotion off (if you want to).
  • You know yourself better if you have good emotional awareness. You know your strengths and weaknesses better. Which enables you to know what opportunities to look out for.
  • You move from an existential understanding of emotion to an experiential understanding. As Meng puts it, “Going from ‘I am angry’ to ‘I am experiencing anger.’” In other words, your emotions are no longer you.
existential vs physiological

He illustrates the idea of yourself and your emotions as separate with a metaphor of the sky.

“My mind is like the sky, and emotions are like clouds. They pass through the sky but they are not the sky,” Meng says. The pragmatic realization here is that emotions are physiological. Emotions are something that occurs in the body. In fact, painful emotions are not that much different than pains in the body.

“There are things I can do because this experience is not me. It’s just an experience in my body,” Meng says.

3. Create Useful Mental Habits

In the third step, Meng begins to take his audience outward, describing practices that help people to generate more positive emotions in others by practicing a more pleasant emotional posture toward other people. He describes social mental habits, “specifically, habits that are conducive of social skillfulness.”

Intentional Kindness

The first habit is the practice of kindness. Looking at every person and saying to yourself, “I want this person to be happy. I want everyone to be happy.” You can go into a meeting and look at everyone there and say that you want all of them to be happy. If you are thinking that, you will unconsciously show it with your manner, which transmits unconscious messages to everyone you work with that pleasantly disposes them toward you. It could mean they want to work with you or cooperate with you and you will find you are more successful.

Human Similarity

The second useful habit: the habit of human similarity. Seeing other people as people. This is especially useful in a situation of conflict. The three things you Meng says you need to see are:

  1. This is a human being, just like me.
  2. This person wants to be happy, just like me.
  3. This person wants to be free from suffering, just like me.

A Ten-Second Practice: Random Intention of Happiness

He offers another ten-second practice: look at any person at random and think, “I want this person to be happy.” He asks everyone in the room at Google to pick two people, look at them and think, “I want this person to be happy.”

If you’re nearby others, take time to try this yourself.

“You may find that the intention of wanting the other person to be happy is intrinsically rewarding,” Meng says.

This is the second of two practices he gives the audience. Deeper practices, he says, are described in his book. For a preview of some of those deeper practices, read “OK, Google, take a deep breath,” in the New York Times. It walks through one of Tan’s two hour long classes in detail.

Emotional Intelligence is Important for Managers

The best managers have a high level of emotional intelligence. People like them and they like people, so there teams get more done.

Being loved is good for your career

"[Researchers] found one, and only one, factor significantly differentiated the top quartile of managers from the bottom quartile…the single factor was high scores in affection—both expressed and wanted." - Kouzes and Barry, 2003

“If people love you, they work harder for you,” Meng says. “It turns out that being loved is good for your career, especially if you’re the boss.”

He cites a study that compared the bottom and top managers in one company, and the only difference between the top and bottom was that the top managers “love people, and they want to be loved,” in Tan’s account.

This even works in the U.S. Navy.

"The most effective [US Navy commanders] were more positive, outgoing, more emotionally expressive and dramatic, warmer and more sociable […], more appreciative and trustful, and even gentler than those who were merely average." - Bachman, 1988

The title of the study of Navy officers was, “Nice guys finish first.”

What is Emotional Intelligence Good For?

Tan’s hope is that when you learn emotional intelligence you become more successful and are a better leader. It also creates the conditions for happiness. Tan shares a definition of happiness:

Happiness definition

The definition is from Matthieu Ricard, who’s known as the happiest man in the world.

The skills taught in Search Inside Yourself, Meng says, from having self awareness to mastery over self, ultimately creates a condition for happiness for everybody.

“I want to create a happy world, so that’s what I do,” he says.

The Practice at Google

At the time of the talk, the ideas in Search Inside Yourself had been taught at Google for five years (it started in 2007), and many people reported to Meng that practicing the class changed their lives.

Changed my life

People who had thought about leaving their jobs stayed, others earned promotions or found more happiness in their marriages. This after just seven weeks of taking Tan’s course.

Inspiration for 'Search Inside Yourself': World Peace

In his early days at Google, Meng was allowed to work on whatever he wanted for 20 percent of his time, so he became interested in the question of world peace. Meng saw two problems as necessary and sufficient for world peace.

The two conditions:

  1. The end of global poverty
  2. Inner-peace, inner-happiness and compassion on a global scale

“The way to increase inner peace and inner happiness worldwide was to align it with the success of businesses and individuals,” Meng says. If people were more successful from practicing self-knowledge, then it would spread. If people were able to learn a good thing, attain promotions and make their companies money, then that would get institutional interest going in encouraging workers to develop their emotional intelligence.

In this way, world peace would be the unavoidable side effect of teaching happiness, Meng says.

“How do I do that? (After) a couple of months of thinking, I figured it out," he says. "I figured out the way to do that is to create a curriculum for emotional intelligence adults." That is how Search Inside Yourself started.

To find information about Meng’s book and course, visit the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute website.

You might also enjoy this article: “How to Ease the Pain of Hearing Critical Feedback

Credits: Chade-Meng Tan photo, slide screenshots and Search Inside Yourself illustrations by Colin Guh from Meng’s "Authors at Google” presentation on YouTube"

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