What’s Your Emotional Style?

Who among us has not gotten upset by an argument, an unsettling talk with our boss, or a bad grade?

And have you noticed that some of us get over these troubling encounters quickly, while others sulk or fume for a long time?

Just why people some people are better at recovery than others, and what that says about their brain function, was explained to me by Richard Davidson, the director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. Richie, as I’ve known him for years, was a graduate student with me long ago, and I’ve often written about his groundbreaking neuroscience research in my books. This time I chatted with him for an audio CD, “Training the Brain: Cultivating Emotional Skills.”

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with being upset by life’s setbacks or troubles; we’re wired for that. But some of us flip out at the smallest provocation, or hang on to the distress long after. And those differences, Davidson believes, represent underlying brain function.

When it comes to having a hair trigger or to staying preoccupied by an upset long afterward, the circuits around the amygdala, the brain’s alarm for threat, danger and fear, are at play. As Davidson told me, when his lab use brain imaging with such people, he finds a distinctive pattern in the mechanisms that release cortisol, a key stress hormone.

As I’ve described in Social Intelligence cortisol can be helpful at loswer levels; it’s crucial for mobilizing us to meet the demands of the day. But when cortisol surges through the body at high levels and stays there, we get stuck in emotional overdrive. This, Davidson tells me, impacts our health.  David Spiegel at Stanford Medical School found that among women with metastatic breast cancer, those whose cortisol failed to go down at the end of the day ended up dying of cancer sooner.

People with phobias, Davidson finds, don’t have the problem of a prolonged stress response. Instead they have a super-quick amygdala response to what frightens them. That response trips with a wide range of innocuous things, too.  It doesn’t take people phobic of spiders, say, any longer to recover than it does other people. But their initial surge of fear is so great that are apprehensive of that response itself – and go to great lengths to avoid whatever might trigger it (hence the phobia).

Then there are people who have very strong emotional responses, but who may or may not recover quickly or have a hair trigger.  Davidson says that a strong response with a quick recovery may be quite adaptive emotionally.

Davidson’s intuition, he told me, is that people may gravitate to mates who have similar emotional styles – or perhaps drop partners whose style does not fit with their own. On the other hand, he conjectures, it would probably do well for someone prone to fits of anxiety to find an unflappable partner who might help them calm down.

And, he adds, whatever our emotional style, the very circuitry of the brain that determines it also happens to be the most plastic – that is, able to change with experience.

In our conversation he describes the good news: how mindfulness practice can help us modify these brain styles for the better.

17 thoughts on “What’s Your Emotional Style?

  1. Often when reseaching and consulting with organizations we speak of the opposite manager / learder hiring style. We see that with high functioning leadership teams they complement each others conflict or stress style. One is highly passionate and the other is calm and rational. If we can learn to leverage this opposition as power (throuhg EI or SI) happier effective workplaces will follow

  2. Dear Dr. Goleman,
    Giant is accessible!
    Icon of EI so notable!
    Emotion! How to handle?
    Incredible! It’s innermost.
    Your viewpoints reach my soul.
    Your notions are full of marrow.
    My advisor/beacon, so convincible.
    My universal teacher, so respectable.
    My salute to you, so heartily grateful.
    When coming near, doubts become solvable.
    When doing research, your info is valuable.
    When getting mad in quarrel, I would approach.
    From a little humble fan~

  3. A very timely and insightful post.
    Is it possible that someone who was usually quite quick to recover from a surge, after suffering depression, now takes arguments a lot more seriously?

    If so, how can one go back to recovering quickly? Does it have something to do with a consistent nervous system overload?

  4. I am wondering how the emotional brain health is impacted by Alzheimer’s? I have a parent who may be facing this diagnosis. Your blog entries are fascinating. Thank you!

  5. It is heartening to note that the brain circuitry can be changed. You have referred it in your book ‘Emotional Intelligence’ as well.
    I will like to add that people with strong emotional reactions and who take longer to recover are the worst sufferers and most in need of help. ‘Help’ in the sense that they need to be convinced that they CAN do something to change themselves.
    The mindfulness practice referred by you is worth exploring by anyone who wants to live a healthy emotional life.
    Thanks for the great information, as always.

  6. Hi Daniel, I am genuinely fascinated by your material and have read a number of your books. I am anxious to know how I can study it at a professional level. Are you aware of courses in the UK that offer training in Emotional Intelligence? I am a Director of a fairly sizable company and see huge application in being able to transfer such information into company messages, best practice and so forth. Plus, it is hugely beneficial for myself and everyone I work with. I think you would have a field day with our business model!

  7. I have a question for the group: in dentistry, practice management consultants are using the DISC behavioral profile and I have been told that this personality assessment tool measures emotional intelligence. I have also been told that it does not. How do I find out the truth here? Can someone please send me some references that will clarify my confusion? Thanks so much. Lynne

  8. Interesting in many ways. Another intuitive thought would be the impact of the full range of your emotional and physical baggage. I lost my wife from Huntingtons. She went from laid back to an emotional mess as a result. I worry about things, but tend to not react on my worries until they slide by. I’m either a procrastinator or have learned to be patient. I’m dating a wonderful lady who is far more emotional than I, well not more emotional, but hangs on to her emotional response as you refer to in your post. Although this relationship is far different than previous, I’m probably experiencing a role change as the ‘calmer’ of the two. It’s as if the degrees of your observations come in to play along a emotional response curve in some way. Great post. If you don’t mind, I’ll lurk from time to time.

  9. Hi, Ben,
    I just finished an EQ peer to peer meeting in San Jose,US.I will be back to London tomorrow. My mentor gave me a whole book list which includes Daniel Goleman’s publishings.I would like to share information with you if you are interested in. my email is nancyliu8@msn.com

  10. I continue to be thrilled with your insights! I just attended a conference in which we used the tools of Social Intelligence to enhance the paractice of mediation. I have used my EQ skills, but am thrilled to now gravitate to another facet. Thanks for your broadminded thinking!
    A practioner that has felt the value!

  11. Hello Daniel and contributors,

    i am a high performance business & life coach and i curently use a profiling technology based on attitude and it is a system that works which is brillant and accurate. I want to learn more about EI so where can i become an accredited EI profiler and can i use the EI assessment tool by Daniel Goleman?

    thanks i will await your answer Cheers Sheron

  12. Dear mr. Goleman
    I,m an English teacher and have MA in ELT.I am going to do a research on the relationship between the emotional intelligence of Irainian students and their acheivement at school.would you please help me knowing the emotional intelligence and the ways of improving it?I will wait for your kind answers.Thank you very much.

  13. I’m completely fascinated with Social Intelligence and I’m about half way through the book. Your comments about how quickly we recover from an emotionally unsettling event don’t take into account a person’s explanatory style (from Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism). Is there any evidence that the changes in cortisol are the reason for the slow recovery from an emotional event, or just another effect?

  14. Hi there!

    I’ve been dong a lot of reading (and listening to talks by) on Dan Goleman and his work on emotional and social intelligence and find it completely inspiring! The essence of this work for me is key to true and positive change in the world through improving people’s relationships with one another whether through work, home or family and people generally that we come in contact with in life. It’s just beautiful and I know for myself that the work I’ve done in my personal journey over the years has improved my life in an invaluable way. My question then for you is in regards to groups or organisations that are directly involved in helping this change come about through training and research. I am aware that many training organisations have altered their own training programs and included them under the banner of Dan’s coined phrase ‘EI’ without actually going through and formulating effective courses in this area so I realise that I need to be discerning.

    I have a bachelors degree in Natural Medicine and have a background and radiography and have also done a unit in psychology. I am therefore wanting to know if you have a list of groups or organisations that are doing this so that I can get in contact with them to find out how I can get involved and make a transition in my career into this wonderful area…and whether or not that necessitates a degree in psychology for instance. If you could offer any assistance in this area whatsoever it would be immensely appreciated.

    Kindest Regards,


  15. As I understand it, folks that are on a hair trigger have what is referred to as “kindled” brains. They are “kindled” due to trauma. Through traumatic experiences the brain learns that it’s best to react this way to avoid harm.

    However, what’s really interesting is that these same “kindled” brains can be “quenched”. The brain can be reset to a lower buzzing rate (for the lack of a better word.)

    I use body psychotherapy all the time which does just that.

  16. I thought the blog entry was very interesting and i do get upset over the tiniest little things. Sometimes it does take someone to calm me down, I believe for anyone the comfort of having someone there makes them feel better , so they know that there not alone. While others at time really don’t want company, they just want to be alone.

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