Keep your nerves under control


‘Keep it together!’  or ‘Calm down!’ sound familiar to most of us. Although most people know that it’s important to keep your nerves under control, not many people truly embrace this princpiple to its fullest and only a few keep it cool the way Ulysses S. Grant did it under true duress. In fact, being told to keep it together will make most people flip out even more!

Hardcore photobombing

Ulysses S. Grant, a well respected US Civil War general, was invited by Matthew Brady, a famous photographer of the time, to have his picture taken. The Civil War general was patiently waiting in the studio for the photo to be taken but Brady wasn’t pleased with the lighting in the studio, so he sent his assistant to the roof to see if he could adjust the lighting in some way. 

When the assistant was standing on the roof however, he lost his footing, slipped and broke the glass. Spectators watched in horror when huge shards of glass fell down into the studio, next to General Grant. Matthew Brady looked at Grant, but noticed he hadn’t moved a muscle even when the glass fell directly next to him. After the final shard hit the ground, the Civil War general watched up to the ceiling before looking back into the camera unscathed and undisturbed. Now that’s what is meant when we are talking about maintaining a pokerface…

Ulysses Grant
Ulysses S. Grant

An emotional reaction

So how does this story about General Grant help us in our everyday lives? Most of us aren’t wartime generals that are used to dangers like grenades going off in their immediate surroundings (thank god). The lesson we take from this, is the fact that most people react on instinct, which is an emotional one. This emotional reaction is tens of thousands years old to protect us from all kinds of danger. However, most of the things that threatened us in the past do not apply anymore. New threats have emerged, sure but a lot of them do not warrant a direct, emotional response. We have more time to assess whether our emotional reaction is indeed suggesting the right course of action.

So how can we learn to be more in control, more composed? An important element in this, is to understand that there will always be things in life that you cannot plan ahead. The question then is, with the acceptance that something negative can always happen without you having a direct influence on it – can you deal with these events by suppressing your (initial) emotional response with a rational one, to find a suitable solution?

Steps you can take to gain total control

Model: controlling your emotions
'Controlling your emotions', model by Margarat Beaton

Step 1: You have to recognize that you’re actually having an emotional response. For example, when someone is giving you (negative) feedback, instead of immediately reacting to the feedback with a defense, take a moment to understand why you are feeling ‘attacked’ or why do you feel the need to defend yourself?

Step 2: Assess the situation, the stakeholders, their goals and the information. Ask yourself, why is this person giving me feedback? Is it because he/she wants to attack or help me? What is this person’s gain? Additionally, look into the values you live by. If you say that you value personal growth, then don’t be offended when someone gives you feedback. Stick to your values, but try to always consider the viewpoint of the other stakeholders in a situation. This is called being aware of the playing field. Your viewpoint is necessarily limited.

Step 3: Reflect on the possible outcomes. What if you act on your initial emotional response – how will this affect how this person sees you, or interacts with you in the future. Take a moment to think about the outcome you want from the situation. After you’ve done this, react in a way that deliberately leads to the outcome you actually want to achieve.





“Be a boxer, not a gladiator, in the way you act on your principles. The gladiator takes up his sword only to put it down again, but the boxer is never without his fist and has only to clench it.”

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

Becoming a better person

Hopefully you’ve realised by reading this article how powerful your emotions are and that they have a strong influence in your personal, as well as professional career. The way you handle challenging situations in business  greatly influences your own personal growth, as well as the way team members or clients perceive your qualities. Just think of the following situations that may occur during work where you might lose control of your emotions:

  • You are working with new team members that lack experience and confidence. Do you shout at them and get angry, or do you try to help them improve because you value learning?  
  • A direct colleague of yours is trying to prove himself to gain a promotion and takes credit for your work in the process. Do you get angry and try to take him down, or do you confront him with your thoughts and talk about a possible solution?  
  • An employee suddenly quits his job just before an important deadline. Do you panic, or accept reality and find a way to make the best out of it?  

Nobody said it’s going to be easy. Dealing with emotional impulses can be a pain in the ass, but nowadays, at least we have a choice to make the right decision. Of course, when a furious elephant runs towards you, just follow your instincts, and get the hell out its way (just like our ancestors).

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