This entry is part 41 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


Your emotional state has a dramatic impact on how you perceive and respond to a situation. By increasing our emotional intelligence, we can improve our lives and our Magic game.


Emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions. You aren’t born with it, and it’s a skill that must be developed. As we grow into adults, we start to gain control over how much our emotions affect us and how we express those emotions. Control is the relationship we want to have with our emotions, because control allows us to apply emotions strategically to enhance the effectiveness of our communications or our response to a situation. We can deliver a passionate speech or display genuine concern and empathy to people we connect with. When your emotions are under control, you won’t say things you don’t mean, you won’t vandalize your significant other’s car, and you won’t get into fist fights about your favorite sports team.


Today, I’m going to discuss the basics of emotional control, as well as some tips for applying emotional intelligence to improve your game.


The Rider Problem

Emotions are simply chemical impulses that your unconscious brain uses to influence the behavior of your conscious brain. The brain reviews the sensory data that your body collects, makes an assessment of the situation, and then passes chemical signals back to the body. In a healthy, rational individual, these chemical signals are reviewed as part of a larger package of data, but do not dominate that process. Without practicing the skill of emotional intelligence, though, it can often feel like our emotions control us, not the other way around.


In the book “Switch,” authors Chip and Dan Heath create an extended metaphor that illustrates this scenario perfectly. Imagine your subconscious as a huge elephant and your conscious mind as a rider who sits atop said elephant. The rider cannot physically control the elephant. If the elephant really wants to move a certain way, there’s little the rider could do to stop it. If the elephant is poorly trained, it won’t be able to correctly interpret the guidance of the rider. A scared elephant will buck his load, and a hungry elephant may stray off to chase a morsel of food. These responses will interfere with the rider’s plan and the team won’t be able to get where it’s supposed to go until both parties are on the same page.


Elephants (and people) that get riled up are going to be hard to control and won’t perform correctly. It’s easy to blame this poor performance on the elephant’s outbursts, but we need to consider the nature of the rider-elephant relationship more deeply to find the solution. In reality, it is the rider’s job to control the elephant’s outbursts; that’s why it has a rider in the first place. When our emotions cause problems, it isn’t because the emotions did something wrong, but rather what went wrong was our ability to assert control over that emotion. Our riders weren’t up to the task. When our elephant veers off track, it’s really our rider that has the problem.


Make no mistake, you’re going to have emotions and sometimes they will be powerful. There’s no avoiding it. Our goal is for our rider to be able to meet these challenges head on and still maintain control over the elephant during a turbulent emotional outburst. Now, we aren’t going to achieve this overnight. It takes time and practice, but the rewards for doing so aren’t all hidden away at the end; you receive the fruits of your labor every time you make a good decision under emotional pressure. Over time, you’ll get your elephant and your rider in sync and essentially flip the power dynamic in this relationship. The rider will give clear direction and assert constant control. The elephant will be an unselfish team player that looks to the rider for guidance and follows his lead, rather than trying to drag him along behind.


This kind of harmony isn’t effortless; in fact, it’s just the opposite. You can’t just use Force of Will to stow your emotions below the surface; that isn’t a sustainable or healthy response. Instead, I use a standard framework to process emotions and determine the best response: observe, feel, express.



When we feel a strong emotion coming on, rather than immediately expressing our gut reaction, we need to compose an appropriate response. Before you let things get out of hand, stop and think for a moment. You often only get one chance to decide how to respond before that response flies out into the world, so you have to make it count. This is the first step of processing your emotions: Observing. You need to give yourself time to identify how you are feeling and what’s making you feel that way. Pay particular attention these details so that your response is appropriate to the situation and aimed at the right people.


It isn’t always easy to stop yourself in the middle of a tense situation, but luckily that single moment of thinking time is really all you needed in the first place. If you’re considering your own emotions and how they can help or hurt the situation, you’re halfway home. To make sure I get the time I need to think rationally, I usually just ask the other party flat out to “give me a second.” Saying this ensures I’m not saying anything else and I’ve trained myself to do so when I start to get wound up about something. You can do any number of things that’ll fulfill the same purpose: take a deep breath, take two steps backwards, roll your shoulders, or the classic: count to ten. Sometimes, the old ways work best.  


The second step is to feel. Feeling is letting your emotions run their proper course. Let the feeling enter your mind, consider what your mind and body are trying to communicate to you with that feeling, and then let it go. Recall that these impulses are just a chemical message. It’s meant to focus the attention of your conscious mind on key bits of information and they’re remarkably effective at doing so. However, the problem is that the information your unconscious mind fixates on may not be the salient issue and often it can grow into a distraction that disables your problem solving capabilities.


This is the most difficult step to master because, for many people, granting some credence to an emotion means that they will get swept away with that feeling. Like opening the floodgates, once they start to feel the emotion, there’s no stopping it. This is particularly problematic for negative emotions like anger, sadness, or anxiety, where ruminating on an emotion can become a destructive fixation that’s both destabilizing and an enormous misuse of your energy. If you struggle with issues like this, the best solution I have found is cognitive behavioral therapy. I’m not a doctor, and your milage may vary, but for me, the skills I learned in CBT were incredibly valuable.


Step three is expression. This is the action of communicating how you feel to others and the way in which you choose to do this can impact both the conflict at hand and your ongoing relationship with the people whom your expression reaches. It’s critically important to remain cognizant of the fact that emotions don’t always translate perfectly. Other people won’t always be able to readily identify how you feel and this can be frustrating, but uncontrolled outbursts are not an effective means of communication. The imperfect nature of human communication and our inability to objectively value our own emotions can be frustrating, especially when you have to bare the consequences for what you did while you were emotionally charged.


When we talk about assigning value to or judging emotions, what we really mean to say is that we’re evaluating the expression of that emotion. Effective expression is all about shaping your outward emotions in such a way that they accurately display your feelings while simultaneously helping to resolve them. Emotions are not good or bad and you should never be ashamed for feeling or displaying them, but the consequences of your expressions are real and must be considered before choosing to display a certain response.


Even though our emotions can’t be judged objectively, in many cases their effects can be. This is output orientation; instead of focusing inward on how we feel, focus instead on how to transmit that to others properly. Learning to own the responsibility for your emotions and to judge their consequences impartially is central to developing your emotional intelligence. So when you find that you’re becoming overwhelmed, remember: your emotions are not the situation, they’re merely a part of your response to that situation. You’re not judged based on how you feel, but how you perform.



Calibration is the art of scaling our emotional responses so that our feelings are being expressed in proportion to the situation. We do this by adding a healthy dose of Careful Consideration to our thought process during that brief moment we buy ourselves during the Observe-Feel-Express framework. Calibrating is a dynamic act and requires evaluating different variables in every situation, but there is rule of thumb that we can apply to remove the complexity: “move one notch.”


The mantra of “move one notch” means to just make a tiny calibration before you respond. If you’re feeling a negative emotion like anger, instead of yelling out something personally insulting, just say something generically insulting instead. If you’re experiencing a positive emotion like a pleasant surprise, instead of saying some generically boilerplate like “this is the best gift ever,” make it personal by saying, “I’m thankful to have a friend that understands me the way you do.”


Before I tried it, I was skeptical that such a small tweak in my behavior could create any positive benefits in my interactions and I initially resisted it. That was a huge mistake. Over time, the effects snowball into a massive accumulation. When people are angry with you, they’re just less angry. When you’re having a pleasant event, it can turn into a celebration. It helps to Restore balance to the highs and lows of that emotional rollercoaster we call life. Honestly, I use this 10-15 times a day and it’s improved literally all of my relationships. Moving one notch is essentially a freeroll that makes all those tense moments throughout your work week just a little bit smoother.


Calibration starts with our behavior, but it’s the gateway to developing real empathy with others. It helps you keep your biases in check, stay rational, and confine your emotional responses to the normal range where they can be better understood by others. People have a tough time finding the meaning in a communication that’s mostly incoherent screaming, but taking things down from 11 somehow instantly demystifies the process. Any undertaking is made immeasurably easier when you can establish a connection with the people involved.


Improve Your Emotions, Improve Your Game

Before I sign off, I want to give you five rapid-fire tips that you can use the next time you play to give you immediate results and substantially improve your enjoyment of the game. That positive feedback will help tip the needle and get you thinking about how to develop emotional intelligence in other parts of your life.


1) Don’t Play Hungry

The “Hungry? Grab a Snickers” slogan resonates so well because we understand it intuitively. It may have taken us thousands of years to come up with the word “hangry,” but it’s been a part of the human experience since that whole Garden of Eden fiasco. Bring a drink and a snack everywhere you go. Keeping your blood sugar stable and your body well-hydrated prevents fatigue, headaches, regular aches, and improves attention. It’s easier to be pleasant and relaxed when you don’t have to deal with these irritations. And when you offer to share your cocoa-powdered almonds with someone, you make friends.


2) Leave it on the field

I’ve talked about this on “In General” before, but it bears repeating. Don’t bring emotions from one event to the next. If you have work stress, leave it at work. If you hate how that last game went, then great! That game is over. It’s time to focus on a new game. Cross-pollinating your stressors just lets them multiply; isolating them gives you safe places you can retreat to.


3) Judge You Own Performance

Take time to assess things after a stressful situation goes down. Ask yourself if you handled it well or if you could have done something differently to defuse things before they came to a head. Are you in control or are your emotions?


4) Ask The Audience

Are you ready to feel a little bit awkward? Ask other people to give you feedback on how you handled your emotions. Do you need to apologize to someone or compliment them? What would they have done in your shoes? Bonus points if you can remember to ask a friend before you do something that you’ll regret. You’re going to get some strange looks when you ask somebody, “if I get angry and yell at this guy, will it help things or make them worse?”


The truth is, most of the time people are going to tell you to cool your jets and that whatever has got you heated, probably isn’t worth the stress. Even if other people can’t seem to follow their own advice, you can leverage the fact that they aren’t intimately involved with what’s making you emotional, so their response will be impartial.


5) Remember Why You Came

To have fun. For many of us, playing games is a way to vent stress. If it isn’t working, we know we have a problem. Maybe we need some calibration, maybe the mental effort of playing Magic is only making things worse and we need to take a break. Whatever the case, remember to keep things in perspective. It’s a game and you’re supposed to have fun playing.


Have your emotions compromised your ability to play well? What are your strategies for dealing with them so you can get back to your best? Share your answers in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support on Patreon.



“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.



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