How to Build Self Control?

Napoleon and Talleyrand
Napoleon and Talleyrand (far-left)

The Power of Silence

If you have ever experienced regret after an encounter with someone, where you may have said too much then you understand how easily your emotions can get the better of you. The truth is that no matter how rational you think you are, your emotions are much more powerful. When a certain screw has been twisted, you will enter into a frenzied state, where all calmness and rationality has left you.

In fact, losing your cool is such a common phenomenon that people have happily exploited it for ages. If you personally want to find out what someone else is hiding from you, driving them to their emotional breaking point is a very effective way of doing so. Assume that this person harbors hidden feelings of resentment towards you, assume this person is someone you consider a close friend. Because of your history, you will not normally suspect any malicious thoughts from their side and behave accordingly, never provoking them or pressing them. But if one day, you have an argument, and you push them towards the edge, their true emotions will shine through. It is almost impossible for them to remain in control of their words. The more room you give them to maneuver, the more rope you are giving them to hang themselves with.

If you suspect your girlfriend or boyfriend is cheating on you, do not stupidly accuse them of anything explicitly, but patiently prod them until they make an error. They will give you contradictory responses. Women are excellent at doing this, it is almost a natural tendency for them. It is the indirect pursuit of truth, and for the simple minded and naive, it is an inconceivable tactic, yet it is the most effective.

You must train yourself to never say more than necessary. There’s a saying in arabic that translates to: “Say less words, make fewer mistakes.” If you are unpracticed in the art of concealing knowledge and you are the type of person who doesn’t know how to meticulously craft the right words for every occasion, then the best defensive tactic you can use is to keep quiet.

Train yourself to listen. It is a truly underrated skill to be silent.

“Shape clay into a vessel; It is the space within that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows for a room; it is the holes which make it useful. Therefore benefit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there.” – Lao Tzu

In the same way, think of a conversation as a physical object like a vessel. How useful and fruitful a conversation is depends on the pauses of silence that both parties are charitable enough to give each other. You do not only want to train yourself to listen so that you can extract hidden truths from the other person but because you want to know what they really think. You want to know what they really think because if lies persist into the future, then resentment will build up, and you will experience much more damaging manifestations of their built up resentment in surprising and undesirable ways.

The remedy is simple: silence. Pay attention to what they have to say, listen to every word. Do not interrupt them. Do not continue their sentences – that is your ego getting in the way, that is just you trying to still feel relevant to the conversation. It is you saying ‘I’m here, don’t forget about me, I have opinions too’! Don’t fall for your own childish compulsions. Instead, focus on what the other person has to say and do not respond until you have formed in your mind a coherent thought. Do not rush.

The other thing you must train yourself to do is to prepare yourself mentally before the conversation. If there is someone who knows how to push your buttons and provoke you, it is only because you trust their opinion. But this is highly irrational. Why take their opinion seriously? Think about how many people there are in the world, think about how many highly intelligent and knowledgeable people fail to agree on even the most fundamental issues. If you take your friend’s opinion seriously, it is not because they are a superior judge of character, but because you have an emotional connection to them. What they think matters to you. But once you acknowledge that your trust in them is purely emotional, then you are now better prepared than before.

Whereas you used to ruminate on what words were said, now you have a more reasonable estimate of their incompetence, you can take them less seriously, and this will allow you to be more calm and rational when speaking to them.

The Prepared Mind

People often get frustrated when the other person is too clam, and this I find very amusing. The irritated and the out of control hate it when they encounter someone who can keep their emotions in check. Talleyrand, the French politician, endlessly amused himself and his colleagues by provoking Napoleon. And he eventually succeeded in getting Napoleon to self-destruct.

The frustrated and the emotional are unprepared, they are untrained. Do not make the same mistake. Alfred Hitchcock used to make sure that every single detail in the film he was shooting was studied thoroughly beforehand. He did this because he hated having to endure the endless squabbles among the people he was working with. So he quietly did his job and once he was confident in the end result, he paid no attention to the bickering and the petty fights that happened around him. He was unfazed because he was experienced enough to expect these emotional outbursts to occur, and he knew that he was getting what he wanted – his own vision implemented.

Don’t allow the Talleyrands of the world to get the better of you. Always be cooler than they are. And like Hitchcock, never leave things to chance. Do not get involved in petty politics, it will only distract you and cloud your judgement. Make the tendency to become emotional, to say more than necessary, to lose your temper a fault that you can exploit in others, rather than a personal vulnerability. This can happen through repeated exposure and a changed mindset.

A novice poker player can’t help but react to his hands. He will sit relaxed with a joyful attitude through many rounds, leaning back on his chair and stretching his legs out nonchalantly. But once two aces show up, he shoots straight up, his hands automatically fold on each other, the smile on his face is immediately replaced with a somber look, and he suddenly becomes very quiet, making as little conversation as possible. He means business!

In life, you start out as a novice poker player, revealing everything that you think and feel. Children are notorious for spilling the family secrets because they are untrained. Yet many adults are no better, and worse, the secrets they know about are more dangerous. But they cannot contain themselves, they have not practiced enough. Don’t make the same mistake.