If You Want to Succeed in Life, Don’t Ignore Emotions – Train Them

February 21, 2016
Todd Hall

A manager I’ll call Ellen recently shared with me this all-too-common scenario. Over a period of several weeks, a colleague repeatedly did things that sabotaged the goal of the project on which they were working. Ellen got angry. She had a strong emotional reaction. On one conference call, she got so mad that she had to get off the call. She told me she just wanted to figure out how to set the emotions aside (get rid of them) so she could think about the situation and resolve it. Ellen didn’t view her emotional responses as potentially part of the solution – only as part of the problem.

Like Ellen, we typically think of emotions (particularly negative ones) as a disruptive force and the best we can do is ignore them and hope they disappear. “He’ll get over it,” we say. In the back of our minds, we think there’s not much you can do about emotional responses other than let them run their course. We often fail to realize or remember that: 1) emotions carry knowledge within them and, 2) they have the potential to become more attuned, resonant, intelligent, and competent. So, while we spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money training our analytical skills, we spend comparatively little time and energy training our emotions.

Emotions are what give life meaning and connect us to ourselves and others, but they need to be trained for wisdom, which is expertise in living a life of meaning. Expertise is a complex combination of two basic types of knowledge—implicit and explicit.

Lie to Me and the Training of Emotions

The show “Lie to Me” (which aired from 2009 to 2011 on Fox) illustrates the contrast between explicit knowledge and implicit knowledge and how they work together in the training of emotions. The show’s main character, Dr. Cal Lightman, is an expert in detecting deception. He analyzes facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice to determine when people are lying and why. He uses these skills to help law enforcement and government agencies uncover the truth in cases.

Lightman’s character was loosely based on a real psychologist named Paul Ekman. [1] Dr. Ekman is a pioneer in identifying distinct emotions from facial expressions that cut across cultures. He became so good at identifying facial expressions that he began consulting with authorities to help them detect lies.

Lightman demonstrated both kinds of knowledge in the show. He had extensive explicit knowledge of “micro expressions” and the Facial Action Coding System that Paul Ekman developed. He would often explain to his clients how he knew someone was lying. For example, when accusing someone of a crime, the person would respond seemingly calmly but would exhibit a micro expression of anger. This is a facial expression displayed too rapidly to clearly see, but your emotions detect it. Lightman would often show his clients the facial expression in slow motion and explain why people respond this way when they feel caught or trapped in a lie. The explanation is explicit knowledge—conceptual understanding of how to detect lies and how people tend to respond when they lie.

In a real life example of this, Paul Ekman shows a slow motion replay of Kato Kaelin responding to a question by District Attorney Margaret Clark in the infamous OJ Simpson case. At one point in the interrogation, Clark asks Kaelin: “Mr. Kaelin, you got a lot of money for your appearance on Current Affair, didn’t you?” Kaelin calmly answers, “yes,” and you don’t see any clear facial expression. However, when you slow the tape down you see Kaelin make a micro expression that Ekman calls scorn—a combination of anger and disgust—in which Kaelin wrinkles his nose and tightens his upper lip. [2] It looks somewhat like an animal growling.

While Lightman can explain the micro expressions associated with lying (explicit knowledge), he can also masterfully read people’s emotions in real time, without the benefit of slow motion replay. He can go out in the field and interrogate someone and discern whether that person is lying by his own emotional responses. This quick judgment is what Malcolm Gladwell calls “thin slicing,” [3]–more generally known as implicit knowledge–which uses information carried in our emotions. Lightman—and Ekman—have trained their emotions to be a finely tuned instrument that reflects the feelings of others. So when someone exhibits a micro expression of scorn, Lightman senses its meaning in his own emotional responses. This, first and foremost, is how he “knows” someone is lying. Thin slicing is a form of knowledge; it’s emotional or relational knowledge that is implicit and subjective in nature. Emotion is the way you evaluate the meaning of an event with respect to your wellbeing. While your emotional responses contain knowledge in a certain sense—subjective knowledge about what something means to you—they can be more or less healthy because they are deeply formed by your past history of relationships.

Thin slicing, or implicit knowledge, can be trained. Expertise in emotions and relationships falls under the rubric of emotional and relational intelligence. You can also think of this as emotional and relational competence. If you’re going to develop expertise in living and leading, you need to train your emotions so you respond emotionally to situations in a way that promotes the wellbeing of others and yourself.

How to Train Your Emotions: 2 Principles

So then, how do you train your emotions for wisdom and relational expertise? Here are a few general principles that will inform specific practices that will help.

First, your emotional responses are shaped most deeply by your relationships (and vice versa). It follows, then, that training your emotions will involve certain kinds of relational experiences. More specifically, you need relational experiences that provide unconditional support and also challenge you in the right way at the right time.

Second, both kinds of knowledge are important for developing relational expertise. They work together in a knowledge spiral. In general, the knowledge spiral is captured in the concept of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice, a concept developed by Anders Ericsson in studying world-class performers, involves an appropriate level of challenge and immediate feedback. He defines deliberate practice as: “activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” [4] Deliberate practice inherently involves deliberate reflection.

How to Train Your Emotions: 5 Practices

Here are five practices to help you train your emotions for a life of wisdom and meaning.

  1. Develop a reflective stance toward your life.At a macro level, you need to listen to your life. Annie McKee, Richard Boyatzis, and Frances Johnston define mindfulness broadly as using life’s laboratory to keep yourself awake, aware, and learning. [5] This is what I mean by a reflective stance toward your life. Reflect on what brings you meaning and what drains you. Take note and engage in small steps to move toward meaning. Engage in a regular practice of reflecting on your current feelings. What might be contributing to them—both positive and negative emotions? What can you do today to foster connection to the people in your life and a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment? In addition, pay attention to signs of burnout or what Mckee and colleagues call the “sacrifice syndrome.” The three types of symptoms to be on the lookout for are:
  • emotional exhaustion;
  • alienation from and cynicism toward job-related activities;
  • reduced performance
  1. Foster a mindful stance toward your experience.A recent study by Paul Ekman and his colleagues shows that contemplative and emotion regulation training led to positive prosocial responses. [6] Here are some general elements of this type of training.
  • Practice tuning into and labeling your feelings.
  • Practice engaging in nonjudgmental awareness of your experience. Daniel Siegel uses the acronym COAL: try taking a stance toward your experience characterized by: Compassion, Openness, Acceptance, and Love.
  • Practice recognizing emotions in others in order to promote empathy.
  • Reflect on your emotional patterns. For example, what types of situations tend to trigger anger? Helplessness? What formative experiences may play into this?
  1. Engage in deliberate practice.Seek out experiences and exercises that stretch you emotionally and relationally. Maybe it’s taking on a supervisory or mentoring role. Or maybe it’s joining an enterprise wide project team that will stretch you to work with a variety of personalities. They key here is to figure out what is stretching for you in your emotional and relational capacities and then seek out opportunities to practice those capacities.
  2. Engage in deliberate reflection.Seek out honest, real-time (if possible) feedback, and then reflect on that feedback. This is how grand master chess players differ from those players who plateau at the intermediate level. They spend five times as many hours in serious study in which they receive immediate feedback from their coach. [7] They reflect on this feedback and their experience of practice, whereby they are using explicit knowledge to shape their implicit knowledge. Deliberate reflection will help you “see” things differently the next time you encounter a similar situation. By this I mean your emotions will produce a different evaluation in real time, leading to a more wise and resonant response.
  3. Seek out developmental relationships.Just as you need people to give you specific feedback, you also need coaches, mentors, and friends who provide encouragement and feedback designed to help you grow as a person. These are the people who know you well and can see the big picture of your life, often times better than you can. They hold a mirror up so you can see yourself more clearly because they want you to be the best you can be. While painful to look at areas needing growth, these mentors create a safe space to do just that. They provide a secure base to explore your internal world. Be intentional about developing and investing in these relationships.

I hope these principles and practices help you train your emotions to live a life full of wisdom and meaning.


[1] See http://www.paulekman.com/lie-to-me/. Accessed February 8, 2016.

[2] Micro expression Kato Kaelin – Prof. Paul Ekman. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ojT2k6Cwss, accessed February 10, 2016.

[3]. Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink. New York: Little Brown & Co.

[4]. Ericsson, K. A., R. Th. Krampe, and C. Tesch-Römer, 1993, ‘The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.’ Psychological Review, 100: 363-406.

[5]. McKee, A., Boyatzis, R, & Johnston, F. (2008). Becoming a Resonant Leader. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

[6] Kemeny, M.E., et al. (2012). Contemplative/Emotion Training Reduces Negative Emotional Behavior and Promotes Prosocial Responses. Emotion, (12), 2, 3398-350.

[7]. Newport, C. (2012). So Good They Can’t Ignore You. New York: Business Plus.

More From Dr. Todd Hall

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To Promote Positive Change, Start With Grief

3 Ways to Promote Psychological Safety in Your Team

Todd Hall, Ph.D. is Chief Scientist and cofounder of Connection Culture Group. Dr. Hall is a psychologist, author, and consultant focused on helping people live and lead with connection. He is a co-developer of the MCORE motivation assessment, and a contributor for the Human Capital Institute. You can learn more about Dr. Hall's work at drtoddhall.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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