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My newest client David told me that he wanted to work on his impulse control. His low impulse control is costing him his relationships especially at work. In his words, his colleagues say that he is a ‘hot head’ or like the red character in the movie Inside Out.

In the book The EQ Edge, Doctors Steven J. Stein and Howard E. Book define impulse control as the ability to resist or delay an impulse, drive, or temptation to act. Impulse control entails avoiding rash behaviors and decision making, being composed, and able to put the brakes on angry, aggressive, hostile, and irresponsible behavior.

If you can answer never or almost never to these statements, you have high impulse control.

  • I make rash decisions when I am emotional.
  • I interrupt when others are speaking.
  • My impulsiveness creates problems for me.
  • I am impulsive.
  • When I start talking, it is hard to stop.
  • I tend to react hastily.
  • It is difficult for me to control my impulses.
  • It is hard for me to resist temptation.

Thankfully, impulse control, like other aspects of emotional intelligence can be learned and developed similar to other skills like empathy, listening, and providing effective feedback to name a few.

People with effective impulse control have the mental space to think first instead of immediately reacting to the situation or person in front of them.

Each of us has a gap, buffer, or impulse gate between the emotions we feel and our reaction.

For some, this buffer is more than enough to allow the emotion to pass and choose the appropriate response to the situation.

For others, there is no buffer or the gate is defective and wide open all the time resulting in no space between the emotion and the reaction. Luckily, we can all learn how to fix the gate or create the buffer.

How can we develop a more effective impulse control – increase the buffer or fix the gate? I invite you to experiment with these five steps. I would love to hear the results.

1) Name the feeling

For better or for worse, many of us are not very fluent in the vocabulary of feelings or emotions. Like learning to speak a new language, we can start with the basic words to identify what we are experiencing. Am I sad, angry, scared, or happy? As we learn more, we may get to more specific emotions like disappointment, joy, anxiety, etc.

Let us imagine that we connect to work in the morning and feelings of anger, fear, frustration, and disappointment arise. We may start to frantically compose an email, punch a wall, cry in frustration, or any other behavior associated with these emotions.

2) Identify the activating event

When we experience any type of strong emotion, there is usually an activating event. Something happened that resulted in us feeling sad, happy, scared, etc.

One of our high potential, star team members, Alex, did not complete an important assignment timely. We were expecting to have the final document in our inbox, and it was not there.

This is the activating event that made us feel angry, scared, frustrated, and disappointed resulting in less than productive behaviors.

3) Capture your beliefs

In this context the beliefs are the messages we tell ourselves or the interpretation we have about the activating event, which result in the emotions we identified in the first step.

Alex should have told me that the document would not be ready. I bet Alex got a position at a different company and that is why this job is no longer important to Alex. This is what happens when you put your faith in people. I can’t stand being this impotent.

4) Lawyer up

In this step, actively debate, dispute, and discard each belief that gave way to the emotions we identified in the first step.

Where is the proof – objective, verifiable evidence that supports each belief in step 3? What alternative, more logical reasons are there to explain the activating event? If a friend or colleague asked me for advice, what would I say to change their perspective?

Alex and I have an excellent relationship and we communicate frequently. I wonder if something happened and that is why I do not have any messages from Alex. Alex has not been absent at all in the last few weeks. I have not noticed any changes in behavior or performance. Maybe the power at home is out after the storm and has not been re-established.

5) Write down the effects

What are the effects of debating, disputing, and/or discarding each belief? How has the perception about the activating event changed?

One potential effect in our example with Alex is that we may reach out and see if everything is okay. This allows us to show our humanity to someone who may be equally or more stressed out for not sending the final document. We would not damage the relationship since we created the buffer or impulse gate and chose how to respond to the situation. We may be in a much better position to see which choices we have available to obtain the final document we need.

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” –  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

These five steps may seem to take a long time especially when we want to control our impulses. When I first tried this technique, it took a while to complete each step. With practice I noticed that I could go through the process fairly quickly. Another important consideration is to apply this methodology as soon as we sense a feeling or emotion arise.

Controlling our impulses is not the same as suppressing our emotions. The objective is to create a space between the emotion we are feeling and the behavior that the emotion could drive. After all, emotions are temporary and will pass.

Like many things in life, the more we do it, the easier and more natural it gets and feels. The ripple effect is expansive. Our colleagues, family members, friends, and community will feel the anabolic energy we will bring to them.

How do you increase your buffer or fix your impulse gate? How did this experiment work out for you? What did you learn about yourself? What would you do differently? Please, let us know in the comments. You can write in English, Spanish, Portuguese, or French.

My mission is to help women transition from mid to senior level leadership by creating awareness, increasing emotional intelligence, and unveiling the tools and choices available to them so they can confidently realize and fulfill their potential.

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