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Thinking about Thinking

Thoughts on thinking about thinking from the Raising Thinkers Series


Filtering by Tag: Coaching

Don't Tell Me To Calm Down - The Worst Advice To Give When Someone Is Angry

Tremaine du Preez

Don't Say - Don't Let Your Emotions Get In The Way

In the movie The Judge, Robert Downey Jnr is a high profile New York lawyer of ill repute. Back in his hometown he finds himself in a bar brawl and narrowly avoids having his teeth relocated by the local degenerate - thanks to his quick thinking and very smart observations of the said degenerate's parole status. Downey's character is perfectly calm, logical and confident throughout. Hostage negotiators, lawyers and actors are trained and rehearsed in this superhuman trait of not showing emotion in stressful situations. But what about the rest of us?

Why we say things we later regret

When our brain senses that we are being threatened by a word, a gesture or even a micro expression on someone's face, something incredible happens that is completely outside of your control. Activity in the frontal parts of the brain where rational thought occurs is suppressed. Can you see why we say things we later regret, or don't say things we should have said? It's our cognitive conditioning working against us.

At the same time, blood flow increases to our emotional circuitry and our instinctual hindbrain. This is the moment we become a warrior. It's also the moment we literally lose our ability to think clearly. It's physically impossible not to experience emotion at this point, but it is possible to manage the emotions that arise. Understanding this is the key to staying cool when agitated.

Tell tale signs in your body warn you when this is about to happen. You heat up, especially your face or neck, your heart rate speeds up a little or a lot. Your palms may get sweaty and you feel a burst of adrenaline, like a kick of energy flowing through you.

I had a coaching client who told me that once he felt this burst of energy during a conversation, there was no going back. He could not back down. It was as if the only thing that mattered from there on was the need to settle the conversation on his terms.

2. Don't Say - If She'd Said That To Me I'd Be Angry Too

Have you ever blamed someone else for making you angry? That idiot that cut you off in the traffic this morning, your teenage son who thinks curfew is only a suggestion or the incompetent salesperson at the end of an unhelpful helpline? Do I even need to mention your boss?

For most people getting angry feels good, the hormones that are released when we rage make us feel powerful. People stop and pay attention to us when we yell - unless we're the crazy on the street corner who yells all day at imaginary evils. More dangerously, stress hormones increase our risk tolerance. Making us more likely to do or say something foolish that we'll regret later - cue crimes of passion or football hooliganism.

Emotions are gone in 90 seconds

This initial bout of stress hormone (a chemical) burns up in 90 seconds. That's it. After that you have to choose to be angry to continue to be so. Thinking angry thoughts such as, how dare you say or do that? who does she think she is? will tell your brain to continue being angry and it will oblige with producing more stress hormone. If someone else ticks you off, you can blame them for how you feel in the first 90 seconds but how you respond to these feelings in your body is your choice alone.

Don't get me wrong, this is as easy to do as eating jelly with chopsticks. Take a breath, use a filler phrase that you can say in different situations such as, that's an interesting point of view or, I appreciate you sharing this with me, I hear what you're saying, do you really think that's appropriate behaviour? This tells your brain that you are not under physical threat and gives a you few precious seconds to think about how to respond as the first wave of stress hormone passes. Us coaches call this increasing your stimulus-response gap - and that's a good thing.

3. Don't say - Think Like A Hostage Negotiator And You'll Win Every Argument

This is popular advice from corporate trainers and bloggers. It's simply not possible that an 8 hour Sniper Mentality or Hostage Negotiator training program will turn anyone into a poker-faced boardroom negotiator. A hostage negotiator trains for years in the science of influence, mental agility and tactical combat. Even so, they don't win every argument.

There are two ideas from hostage negotiations that we are able to implement rather easily. The first is never to ever tell someone to calm down, that's like putting a fire out with gasoline. Instead, let them go on, for as long as possible, let them rant and rage. Fuming is hard work and requires a tremendous amount of physical resources. It won't be long till they stop and this is when you implement your strategy. What strategy?

Ask open questions such as Why do you think this has happened? This will get them thinking about your questions. Thinking forces blood back into their prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) helping them overcome fear and think a bit more logically.

4. Don't say - No-one Really Wins An Argument

Someone always wins an argument. Every argument will leave you changed. You can decide to brush it off as a bad experience or debrief it like you would an important client meeting.

I'm betting that the person who sits down and truly thinks about why they argue, what makes them angry, what they say and how they can be more constructive about it, is the winner. If neither one does this then my money is on the big guy.

Tremaine du Preez is a behavioural economist, author of Think Smart, Work Smarter, and lecturer in Critical Thinking. She blogs at The Huffington Post and Her next book Raising Thinkers - Preparing Your Child For The Journey Of a Lifetime, will be out in 2016.

How to Survive An Emotionally Unintelligent Boss

Tremaine du Preez

My boss has the emotional intelligence of a wrecking ball. This was the opening line in a recent coaching conversation I had with Pat (not his real name, of course). Divisive, two-timing, self centred, political, insert your own adjective here, bosses and colleagues are very familiar to coaches. It's not a new topic.

Pat works in a pretty entrepreneurial environment where wrecking ball bosses are found in abundance. In fact, empathy is the quality that entrepreneurs* have been found to lack the most. Why would they need soft skills when their job is to solve problems, launch product and make money out of it all? I think you already know the answer. For a company to grow beyond the start up phase, its leaders must be able to make good decisions and keep their best people motivated and engaged. Lack of emotional intelligence affects both of these - especially the ability to make good decisions. More about that later.

Stop wishing for others to change

So what would I recommend to Pat? Firstly, you can't change another person, only yourself, so stop wishing and waiting for your boss or colleague to change. Unlike a marriage, your boss may not have enough invested in your relationship to want to change for you. She may not even know she needs to change. Secondly, she won't be your boss for ever, you can either focus on her shortcomings and spend your time complaining about them or work on improving yours.

Finally, (and this is the hardest one) can you see this unpleasant person as a gift on your career path? By working with someone with low EI you are able to feel the impact of it first hand and, perhaps, this will encourage you to turn inward and examine your own emotional intelligence towards your colleagues, friends and family. Without this difficult person in your life, you may never have done this and so not lived up to your own leadership potential. They truly are a gift, if only with hindsight.

Emotional intelligence consists of four domains as coined by Daniel Goleman, namely self awareness, self regulation, motivation, and social skill. Of course, the theory is easier than the practice but the benefits outweigh the effort many times. Let's look at the first two aspects of gaining greater emotional smarts.

Do you know yourself as well as you think?

Self awareness is the first and most influential aspect of EI: the few who are gifted with true self awareness have a realistic understanding of how what they feel affects what they do. They also understand which situations trigger certain emotional responses in themselves and others.

Has your boss ever claimed your idea as his own in a board meeting? How did that make you feel? How did you respond? Do you ever take time after a difficult meeting to think about your behaviour and responses in that meeting? What did you do well and what would you do differently if you could do it all over? As you spend time examining your responses to others you will notice a pattern. Certain things will continuously trigger more emotive responses from you than others. This is when your heart rate picks up, your jaw stiffens or palms get sweaty.

I can keep a lid on my emotions in a meeting but I have a pale complexion and when I feel unduly challenged my neck turns bright red and betrays me. Even though I can keep a poker face, my body still generates stress hormones when I feel threatened, belittled or undervalued (my emotional triggers). So I have had to work out a way to stifle my response to these triggers - or wear a neck scarf, which isn't always possible in sunny Singapore.

Are you always in control?

This is where self regulation comes in. Once you are able to recognise your emotional triggers the next step is to contain your physical response to them such as getting angry, disengaging or other more subtle changes in your body. The first step here is to resist responding instantly when in a difficult conversation.

In the bestseller, Crucial Conversations (McGraw Hill 2011), the authors explain the physiological complexity of a heated conversation. When we feel challenged, or even when someone simply disagrees with us, adrenaline pumps through our body and blood flows away from the brain to the limbs to meet our natural instinct to fight or flee. Leaving a half-starved brain to come up with a coherent argument with sensible facts, whilst processing the torrent of incoming information! This is why low EI affects our ability to make good decisions. You simply cannot evaluate an argument and say the right thing when your brain is in crisis mode - even if you look calm on the outside.

What's your filler phrase?

Take a breath, use a filler phrase that you can say in different situations such as that's an interesting point of view or I appreciate you sharing this with me. This will help you in several ways. It tells your brain that you are not under physical threat even though the hormones it generates are the same as it would if you were. It then gives your brain a few precious seconds to think about what has been said and how to respond. Us coaches call this increasing your stimulus response gap - and that's a good thing.

Take a tour of your self awareness over a week. On your way home from work review your day; where there any situations where you acted impulsively? What emotion was behind that? Did you get any criticism? How did you respond to it? Did you say yes to a request that you really should have said no to because you felt pressured into doing it or didn't give yourself time to think about it first? Do this exercise everyday this week and a mental map of your emotional drivers as well as your ability to self regulate will emerge. If, like Pat, your boss has low EI, take heart that he or she probably won't advance very much further up the corporate ladder than they already are.

* Harvard Business Review, April 1, 2013. The Skills Entrepreneurs Lack, by Bill J. Bonnstetter @ HBR.Org

Tremaine du Preez is the author of Think Smart, Work Smarter, and coach and lecturer in Critical Thinking based in Singapore. She blogs for the Huffington Post where this article first appeared and at Her next book Raising Thinkers - Preparing Your Child For The Journey Of a Lifetime, will be out in 2016.

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Let It Go - The Past Is In The Past

Tremaine du Preez

Regret and self judgement often cast long shadows over our lives. By understanding how we form these self judgements and keep regrets alive, we can begin to free ourselves of old hurts and unhelpful beliefs about who we are.

As we settle into January the hype, hangovers and happy new years that flooded our holidays disappear and we are, again, on the same path that we were on before.There's no new page, no clean sweep over an old chapter that we can leave behind at the stroke of midnight on the 31st of December. We bring everything with us into this new year. Everything. Old happiness and love, old hurts, regrets, judgements, opinions and pain. Some of these make long shadows that grow longer with every passing year. What if it doesn't have to be this way? What if we could go into this new year, loving every bit of ourself and our story - the good and not so good bits, dark and light?

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside

At 18, I couldn't afford to go to university, so I got a job as a secretary at a mutual fund company and promised myself that I would study part time to fulfil my dream of being a psychologist. When the firm I worked for offered to pay my tuition, I was overjoyed. But there was a catch; I had to study a business or finance related degree. When you are 18 and broke and someone offers to fund a fortune in university fees and give you time off to study for exams as well - you don't say no. So I studied economics. I spent 8 years finishing my undergrad degree and the next 10 years regretting it. Every single day. Now, I could never be a psychologist. I had blown it. I was stuck in finance and would never fulfil the one clear calling I had since I was in junior school. I dragged this regret around with me for so long that it just became part of who I was. The girl who sold herself out, who will never live her dream. What a waste. I had no-one to blame but myself, my 18 year old self.

Many of my coaching clients have similar baggage that goes everywhere with them and it sounds like this, "I'm still fat, I still don't have that promotion, I'm still single, I made a bad decision years ago and can't forgive myself." "Of course," they say, "I count my blessings: I have a wonderful daughter, son, wife, husband, dog, job. But if I could just be a little more of this or a little less of that then I'd be so much happier." 

Couldn't keep it in, Heaven knows I've tried

The years passed and 40 appeared on my horizon. Would I allow myself to go into my 4th decade with this shadow of regret still looming large?  By now I knew that regret and self judgement were tricks of memory and I knew how to change their effects, too.
It was time to release these unhelpful stories and memories that I had allowed to define who I was - or believed I was.

Neuroscience teaches us that memories that fire together, wire together. Like a smell that takes you back to a place or person because the memory of the smell and that place or person were created together, and so are recalled together.

When you think of yourself does another thought jump in there and remind you of what you are or don't have? Perhaps you always remember that you just aren't confident, knowledgeable or experienced enough to (insert what you really want here). Self image is the memory that we recall every time we think of ourselves. And every time we think about ourselves and recall that memory, we strengthen it. Until one day it becomes a belief. An unconscious knowing about ourself that we no longer challenge.

Conceal, don't feel

If you truly want to release yourself from a hurtful self image or regret, then try changing the thoughts you have every time you think about yourself. This will create a new neural pathway with different information in the section of your long-term memory labelled 'self'. But there's a catch here, too. You actually have to truly believe these new thoughts. If you believe you are overweight or lacking in self confidence, then standing in front of your mirror and telling yourself otherwise - "Oh, look how thin I am," or, "Boy, I'm so confident I could take on toastmasters," is not going to help you. In fact, the cognitive dissonance this creates can lead to all sorts of other unhelpful ailments. 

Instead, when you think of yourself or someone calls attention to you, purposefully remember positive qualities that you truly believe about yourself. "I'm a good mother or father. I'm resilient. I'm faithful. I'm kind. I'm a great dresser. I have gorgeous eyes." Slowly, the previous unhelpful memory will fade as you no longer strengthen it through recall. And you might just find yourself actually losing weight, loving yourself more or being more confident. I've seen how these small quirks of memory change lives in wonderful ways.

I'm never going back, the past is in the past

You are not defined by what you are or have achieved but by what you believe of yourself over time. Others can only define you if you allow their opinions to influence the memories (thoughts) that you constantly make and recall about yourself. 

The fears that once controlled me, can't get to me at all

So I knew how to release this persistent regret of mine but was I ready to do that? Would I know myself without it? Oh gosh. Was I ready to move on? What would my new story be?

As I went through this process, Disney's <em>Frozen</em> was released. I'm trying not to read too much into it, but I think there are reasons other than a catchy tune that make it such a popular song, loved by old and young. You know what I mean?

So as the new year blows in; let the storm rage on, regret never controlled us anyway. 

Tremaine du Preez is the author of Think Smart, Work Smarter, executive coach and lecturer in Critical Thinking based in Singapore. This blog series is from her upcoming book, Raising Thinkers - preparing your child for the journey of a lifetime. She also blogs at the Huffington Post

The 7 Habits of Good Decision Makers

Tremaine du Preez

If you are a professional of any kind from a banker to an HR executive, a COO or a dentist – you are continuously weighing up options and deciding on the best trade, payoff, treatment or even the best thing to say in a presentation or to a customer. You are a professional decision maker and I’m betting that your success depends largely on the quality of your decisions – both large and small. A good quality decision isn’t always the one with the best outcome. What’s far more important than hitting the bull’s eye every time is to foster a good decision process that ultimately results in incrementally better decisions and hence gains from those decisions over time. So what are the consistent habits or behaviours of professionals who make more good than bad decisions?

Decision Science

1. Be very clear on what is fact, judgement and opinion 

At a dinner party this week, a friend and well respected fund manager said quite boldly that everyone is selling China. Everybody? Selling? If everybody is selling than who is buying it? Stock markets only function effectively because of an asymmetry of beliefs – where someone wants to get rid of a position and someone wants to own that same position – so they trade. His statement could not possibly have been a fact or a judgement based on fact but an opinion formed around a trend or what this person had observed in his own limited sphere. It’s fine to believe in our own opinion (self deception is one of the oldest survival techniques and a fascinating topic of decision science) but let’s be very careful when making important decision using opinion as our raw data and not the facts that those opinions interpret. 

2. Understand the quality of your information

The internet is now our main font of knowledge; easy, convenient and omnipotent. Google is the McDonalds of information – serving up super-sized helpings of data that have been processed and flavoured by those that have gathered and interpreted this information. You choose the quality of the information that you consume in much the same way that you decide between McDonalds or Subway for lunch on a Tuesday. If you base your thinking, and hence decisions, on quick to access and widely available information (accepted without verification of its underlying data), then your decisions will disappoint on average. Quality information takes time and effort to gather just like a healthy, well balanced meal - there is no quick way around it. Test conclusions, verify interpretations and go to the source of data whenever you can. Actually, go to the data source always. You’ll be glad you did. 

3. Distrust how information is packaged and presented  

It was Socrates who first proposed that all information occurs within points of view and frames of reference and that all reasoning proceeds from some goal or objective. The poor man was executed for his outrageous thinking. Today this reasoning separates good decision makers from the rest. Without fail, every piece of information that is presented to you is done so through someone else’s frames and hence has been structured in a way that furthers their own cause. Always ask yourself what motivation the journalist, stock broker, surgeon, CEO or any other has when transmitting information. If you have sourced data yourself then beware, that data is filtered through your own mental frames as well.

4. Develop a habit of deciding how to decide first

Do you know what a metadecision is? No?  It is the simple act of deciding how you will decide before you jump in and make a decision. It begins by checking that you are, in fact, solving the right problem then asks you to decide how you will solve the problem with what tools, data and resources. It sounds like a mini project plan because it is. The metadecision forms the very first step in a good decision process because it anticipates challenges, ensures that you are using the best possible tools, ensures that your team members are all on the same page and actually speeds up the decision process. Einstein is said to have said that;  If I had only had one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding the solution. Even if it wasn’t the great man himself who said this, every great decision maker knows this. 

5. Control for the impact of emotions on your thinking 

Did you know that the hormones that make you feel sad also promote thinking and the hormones that make you feel so happy you could sing increase your appetite for risk in much the same way that red hot anger does. Emotions result from a cocktail of various hormones generated in response to information we receive (and interpret) through our own 5 senses. We can’t stop or remove the effect of emotions on our thinking but we can identify them and ensure that, when making important decisions, we control for the effects of our mental state – whether that be tiredness, frustration, disappointment, confidence after a successful deal or irritation at our boss. Everyone of these impact how we process and frame information. 

6. Tell convincing stories to understand risk

All decisions involve risk – the bigger the decision the larger the risk but also the reward for getting it right. Risk assessment and management tools are only as useful as the skills of those who program and use them. Housing bubbles from ill thought out economic policy, stock market crashes, bank runs and corporate failures are part and parcel of our complex and risky political, financial and business environment. The risks that cause these things are usually the ones that no-one paid attention to or could have foreseen when making the decision or setting policy. Whilst it’s very hard to know what you don’t know the ability to imagine alternative futures is becoming more important around the board room table. In trying to understand the risks to your project allow team members to create narratives of future scenarios from the most likely to the most implausible. To be communicated as stories with characters of fact or fiction. History has shown us that the most unlikely scenarios at the beginning are the ones that do the most damage at the end. 

7. Judge decisions by their process not their outcome 

This is the fundamental premise of decision science - that good decisions are never random inspirations hastened by a moment of genius or lucidity - a process is used (consciously or subconsciously) by anyone who makes consistently good decisions because no-one is consistently lucky. 

Do you have a decision making process that allows you to reflect on and refine your approach to problem solving? I won’t dictate a decision process as it’s as personal as your belief system but sound processes usually make space for 

- A metadecision

- An understanding of how information is framed

- Checking for motives, mental mistakes and biases in all stakeholders

- Counteracting the effect of strong emotions

- Thorough scenario analysis

Good decision making is a science of skill and knowledge the more you practice it, the luckier you’ll become.  

About the author: Tremaine is a behavioural economist and lecturer in Critical Thinking, based in Asia. Follow Tremaine on Facebook for weekly thoughts on thinking and raising your children as critical thinkers at or her blog at 

Her latest book, Raising Thinkers - Preparing your Child for the Journey of a Lifetime will be out soon.

Are you the parent you want to be?

Tremaine du Preez

Mentor, lecturer or coach?  

Executive coaching is solving some of the toughest corporate people challenges, can it do the same for parenting?

Parent Coaching.JPG

Are you an enabler; someone who helps others shine? Or a mentor; someone who gives great advice when asked? Or maybe a lecturer who tells colleagues how to doing things. Do you hog the limelight or step aside for your team at the awards dinner? Whatever you are, I’m betting it reflects your parenting style too. Of course, you probably love your kids more than you love your co-workers and your motives to succeed at work and at parenting will vary. But how you get things done and get big and little people to do things for you, is just that, your way.  Go on, join the dots, you’ll see what I mean.

Are you expected to coach your colleagues? 

Almost everywhere I work team leaders are expected to make the shift from lecturer to coach, or at the very least, to mentor subordinates. Companies are training leaders as coaches because it’s proving to be a lucrative strategy. It works, engages staff and helps them solve their own problems, faster. What if we could parent like coaches? Would we get the same results? 

Isn’t parenting coaching anyway?

No. A leader, executive coach or a sports coach will train in the art of coaching. Just as a teacher must learn how to teach effectively because being a subject matter expert doesn’t guarantee that you can impart knowledge. A good coach will get you thinking in new and interesting ways about your behaviour, your thinking and your potential. You won’t learn anything from an executive coach but will have to answer uncomfortable, probing questions and face some hard truths. Coaching will teach you more about yourself than you knew before.  

As a parent you can decide to act as a lecturer, a mentor or a coach. There will be plenty of lecturers in your child’s life, lots of mentors too but there will be very few true coaches. Of course, at times your knowledge is invaluable and mentoring is the right thing to do. But mentoring does not need to define the relationship you have with your child. It can be a beautiful fluid mix between supporting your child as a coach and leading them as a mentor.

Verbal bullying and putting parent coaching to the test

How do we coach a child? My son is physically small when compared to most boys his age. He’s not particularly sporty or physical on the playground either. So when he wants to join in the rougher games he sometimes gets pushed around. Bullying is not tolerated at his school so it takes different forms that are far more subtle than a shove or a punch. Verbal bullying, exclusion from games and other pursuits of emotional cruelty are dished out by children who don’t yet understand the impact of their behaviour. From about 6 years old, there would be days when my son came home in tears. Crying about the hurtful things some boys (and sometimes girls) had said to him. 

I couldn’t complain to the teacher every time a nasty name was flung at him. I also had no doubt that he was doing some name calling himself. Reacting to this and trying to solve it for him every single time was not going to help him. I also couldn’t mentor him because I had no experience with this. But I did know that I needed to build up my little boy’s internal resilience. Lecturing him not to react to the name calling was silly. What he needed was a system for dealing with this. Both during and afterwards. A way of making him feel OK about it that also didn’t deplete his ego. So the coach in me got to work.

A coaching conversation 

As he sat on the rocking chair in my study on a day that he was in a reasonable mood, I brought up the last incident of verbal bullying on the school bus. No lecturing, no mentoring just questioning to helping him find his own solution.

Me:   How did you feel about what the boy said to you? 

Him: Very angry.

Me:   So he called you a baby (insert any other here)? Is it true, are you a baby? 

Him:  No.

Me:   Why did it make you angry then, if you know it’s not true? 

Him:  Because everyone else heard him say it.

Me:   Could you have stopped him from saying it?

Him:  No.

Me:   Do you think you reacted in the right way?

(He had sworn at the kid and got into trouble too.)

Him:  No, but I didn’t know what else to say. I was so cross.

Me:   What would you have liked to do differently?

Him: To say something that makes me sound cool instead. And that won’t get me into trouble.

Me:  OK, would you like to have something that you can say again and again that sounds really cool?

Him: Yes. Oh yes. What can I say?

Me:   Well, you tell me! What can you say every time someone calls you a name? A few words that sound smart and don’t get you into trouble?

I asked him to go away and think about what he can say next time he is in this position. He wanted to come up with something that sounds calm but will also let the ‘bully’ know that he can’t hurt him with words. So he came up with a brilliant suggestion that he still uses today. He says: “You may think that I’m a …(nerd/baby) etc., but that doesn’t make me one.” And if he’s really angry or doesn’t have time to think or centre himself, he simply takes a deep breath and says; “Well, it’s a good thing that I don’t care what you think about me.” It takes real courage for a small boy to say this to anyone who is overpowering them with words. So we practiced this, out loud, several times at home.  Now he can say it without thinking about it. When he feels himself getting angry, this phrase comes to mind. 

As he gets older our tactics will have to evolve to meet more mature challenges. But he knows I will always look to him to think about how he wants to handle situations, before I mentor him in how I would do it. I’m proud to be a parent coach. I coach my little boy with the exact same skills that I use with CEO’s of multinational companies wrestling with multimillion dollar problems. It works. Mostly because my son is learning that through our dialogue, he can think of ways to solve his own problems. Soon he’ll be able to self coach on the simpler issues. He is already encouraging his friends to stop and think before they get angry!

Next week: Dealing with difficult school reports the critical thinking way.

Follow Tremaine on Facebook for weekly thoughts on thinking and raising your children as critical thinkers.


Note on coaching vs mentoring

A mentor is someone who knows more about what you do than you do. Someone with experience in your job. A good mentor is invaluable when one needs advice, opinions or insights into specific subjects. A coach generally knows very little about what you do and should not be in a position to tell you what to do or give you advice but rather guide you to discover your own strategy.