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Improve Emotional Intelligence by Understanding the Brain’s Four Thinking Conditions

Do you ever wonder why people (including you) are cool, calm, and collected in some situations, but come unglued in others? If so, here’s a quick guide to what’s happening in the brain to drive these varied reactions, as well as some tips for remaining aware and effectively handling your own and other people’s reactions and behavior when things get intense.


What are the Four Thinking Conditions?



The four Thinking Conditions are modes of consciousness—states of mind—that essentially govern our clarity of thinking, how we process inputs, and the overall tone of our reactions. Most people, most of the time, move from one Thinking Condition to another spontaneously depending on the situation, but it is possible to develop skill in regulating one’s own Thinking Condition, as well as to set aside time and create the right circumstances to “persuade” your brain to adopt one condition or another. Meditation and other “quiet time” or mindfulness practices are widespread examples.


These Thinking Conditions are at the heart of Emotional Intelligence. Most of us have a personality-based propensity for functioning in one or two of them. The idea of the “hot-head” versus the “strong, silent type” amounts to a popular way of describing this. Learning to understand how you behave and communicate in each Thinking Condition, as well as to assess the Thinking Conditions of yourself and those around you in the moment, is a prime example of Emotional Intelligence in action. 


Thinking Condition I: Relating

When we are in the Relating Thinking Condition, we’re interacting with others in a safe and positive context. There are no deadlines, pressure, or conflict, and we’re alert and in control of our thoughts and emotions. This is usually when we have the clearest thinking, and our brain is operating at the highest “resolution.” If you think of your brain like a computer screen, just as higher resolution images are much clearer on a screen, your thinking has greater clarity when you’re in this “high-resolution” state. The Relating Thinking Condition is deliberate thinking, where we’re energized by the interaction and perspectives of those we are interacting with. When it comes to people, sometimes 1 + 1 can equal 3 or 4 due to the energy and momentum that people create together. The problem is that we’re typically in this thinking mode less than 15% of our day. We are so busy these days, pulled in many different directions with work, family, and just life in general, that we don’t take the time to just connect, catch up, and spend time with people, enjoying the company and conversation.

Thinking Condition II: Reflecting

When we are in this Thinking Condition, we are by ourselves and we have somewhat lower resolution in the brain compared to the Relating Thinking Condition. Because of this lower resolution, we may not be as energized and aware of certain things without the perspectives and energy of people around us. This is also deliberate thinking, and we are only in this thinking mode for less than 15% of our day. Reflective thinking is the thinking mode we want to get to when we need to “cool down” and get our emotions in check. This is also the thinking mode I encourage executives to spend more time in, since it helps facilitate strategic thinking and clarity on the vision of their teams and/or companies.


Thinking Condition III: Responding

When we are in this Thinking Condition, we’re simply responding to and processing things that crop up throughout the day (e.g. emails, phone calls, people popping in our office, daily events and interactions, etc.). When we are in this thinking mode, we have even lower resolution in the brain compared to the Relating and Reflecting Thinking Conditions. This is automatic thinking and it’s how we naturally go about our day and interactions. This thinking mode is where we spend most of our time (80% - 85% of the day).

Thinking Condition IV: Reacting

When we are in this Thinking Condition, we are reacting in the moment to people, events, and interactions as they happen. When we are in this thinking mode our brains are operating at the lowest resolution point (low clarity) and we become prone to mistakes that damage trust and relationships. So this way of thinking can ultimately work against us. We can get thrown into the Reacting Thinking Condition in an instant, often out of the blue. Typical behaviors usually involve people responding in one of two ways. Either they get more direct, blunt, defensive, aggressive, and even insensitive in their communication, words, and actions, or they shut down and won’t communicate or interact at all. The latter is purposeful avoidance of the other person or people to get the point across that they are upset and/or unhappy.


As the context changes, we move to different thinking conditions, which is why behavior changes based on the situation. For example, if your kids are out in the backyard playing with their friends and there isn’t any adult supervision, they might not play nice or always get along.  However, if a parent walks outside to supervise they start to play nicer and get along because if they don’t, they know playtime could be over. If the context changes, the behavior will change—guaranteed.


How you can Help Improve your Emotional Intelligence using the Four Thinking Conditions:

  1. Make more time for Relating mode. Focus on communicating and interacting more, not less.

  2. Make more time for Reflecting mode. Take time to shut off noise, unplug, and spend time alone on strategic/visionary and big-picture items rather than always being in the weeds. Review this article for more guidance.

  3. Talk with others and ask questions about how and when you move into the Responding Thinking Condition, which is where we are most of the time. We gain self-awareness by asking questions and getting feedback about how we behave in various situations. Also, don’t shoot the messenger when you receive this feedback.

  4. Repeat tip 3 regarding how you and when you move into Reacting mode and try to discover what percentage of the time people see you there. Identify the triggers for this reactive behavior, and then when you feel yourself getting frustrated and upset, try and remove yourself from the conversation. If possible, try and get to the Reflective Thinking Condition to give your emotions a chance to calm down. Also, if you are communicating with someone and they move into the Reactive Thinking Condition, you might as well stop talking because now they aren’t listening to understand you, they are listening to defend their position.


I hope this brings some awareness of how context and situation can change behavior for better or worse. Hopefully you can begin to implement these tips to help you better control emotions and improve interactions, trust, and relationships—ultimately improving your emotional intelligence.


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