Management Articles


Demand the Why, Don’t Settle for Just the How-To

By: Susan Dunn

Susan Dunn, The EQ Coach, coaches individuals and executives in emotional intelligence, and offers workshops, presentations, trainings, Internet courses and ebooks.  She is a regular presenter for the Royal Caribbean and Costa cruiselines.  Visit her on the web at and for FREE ezine.

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I’m with the childhood development scientists who recently authored “Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us about the Mind.” Their rationale – “while popular books about science speak to intelligent, perceptive adults who simply want to learn, books about babies typically just give advice, heavy on the how-to and light on the why.”

I find this true of books and courses about emotional intelligence, as well. They give instruction in how-to manage your emotions and those of others (which is the lowest level of learning), and they don’t tell you how it all works, in other words the why.

Clients have told me that in courses and previous coaching, they've learned “when you’re angry, take a deep breath and count to 10.”

Well, that’s fine, and, yes, it may work, if you can remember it when you need it. But I’ve found that when you rote-memorize something, and then are under pressure, if you don't understand the reason why, you forget and revert.

In this case, if you understand where anger comes from, and why breathing and counting to 10 make a difference, you will be able to apply this knowledge to new situations, and new emotions, and – equally importantly – when under stress. And let’s face it, anger is stress.

When we become angry – which is an automatic knee-jerk thing coming from the brainstem (or reptilian brain), our body goes on full-alert for fight-or-flight, and this takes our breath away.

Attractive members of the opposite sex can do this to us, too, as that’s a reptilian response – sexual attraction. This “fight or flight” reaction is also affectionately called “The 3 Fs” and I’ll let you connect the dots on that one.

When “fight or flight” takes over, our cardiovascular system gets ready to hit, run, conserve blood in case of an injury, shut down our digestive system to conserve energy, and and our brain gets ready not to think, because thinking would slow you down. Your self-preservation instincts, which will always take precedence (why emotions take precedence over reason), ‘know’ that if you stop and say, “Oh, that bull is a bos Iberius and appears to be ...” you will be impaled on the horns of more than an intellectual dilemma.

When you force yourself to breathe deeply, you’re sending oxygen back to your starved brain, and also allowing enough time to move from the brainstem to the neocortex, where you can think before you act – words being “actions”, as well as hitting people or throwing things.

The more you can respond instead of react, the more likely the outcome will be beneficial to you and all concerned.

Now you know why you count to ten, and can apply this to other circumstances where it’s best you send oxygen to your brain and take your time to think it through before you act.

For optimal personal and professional development, ask why. Don’t accept a simple how-to list.

© copyright, Susan Dunn, 2003

Other Articles by Susan Dunn

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