Lesson 7

Managing emotions in difficult conversations

Lesson 7

Managing emotions in difficult conversations


Learn a practical framework based on cognitive behavioral therapy to be more in control of your emotions in difficult conversations, rather than being controlled by them. Practice reframing dichotomous thinking and other common mental traps.

Our Picks

Recommended Essay:

  • How to control your emotions during a difficult conversation by Amy Gallo (2017). This article explains how our brain tends to respond to disagreements, and how this makes it difficult for us to think rationally – right when we need our rationality the most! Fortunately, mindfulness experts can offer us some techniques we can apply to get our emotions under control and think clearly in the heat of an argument.

Recommended Video:

  • David Burns, Feeling good, TEDxTalks (17:57). Dr. David Burns explains the power of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a psychotherapeutic method based on the idea that our thoughts determine how we feel. CBT has helped thousands of people to conquer severe depression and anxiety, by teaching them how to replace distorted and unrealistic negative thoughts with more accurate and more helpful thoughts. Anyone can incorporate these techniques into their daily life to gain more control over their feelings.
  • Why are we so easily ‘triggered’?, The School of Life (6:08). This video explains how our personal history shapes our emotional responses: We “feel and respond based on precedent, rather than on a dispassionate evaluation of the present.” It emphasizes that our emotions are based on interpretations of what we’re experiencing, and outlines how our interpretations are informed by our past experiences – often without us realizing their influence.

  • Thought Emotion Action Cycle CBT, Heather Doidge-Sithu (6:15). This video outlines a key concept of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: the “thoughts, feelings, actions cycle.” It shows us how our automatic thoughts can set off a vicious spiral of negativity – but we can replace unhelpful and inaccurate thoughts with more reasonable ones if we take the time to check whether our thoughts line up with the evidence we have.

  • Lisa Feldman Barrett, You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions — your brain creates them, TED Talk (18:28). In this entertaining talk, Dr. Barrett, a neuroscientist, explains that our emotions aren’t inevitable. Her research has led to a surprising finding: your emotions are “guesses that your brain constructs in the moment where billions of brain cells are working together, and you have more control over those guesses than you might imagine that you do.” She leads us through the science behind the empowering idea that we can gain command over the emotions we feel.

  • This is why you feel the way you feel, Freedom in Thought (5:22). This animated video dives into the details of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s theory of “constructed emotions”: the idea that our brains create our feelings based on interpretations of what we’re experiencing. It illustrates how we can feel differently about a situation we’re in depending on how we think about what’s happening to us.

  • I’m offended, The School of Life (3:17). This short video is packed with useful historical and psychological insights into why we tend to be easily offended and how we can respond more effectively.

Essays and Articles
  • How to control your emotions so your emotions don’t control you by Amy Morin (2018). It’s important to acknowledge your feelings while also recognizing that your emotions don’t have to control you,” says Morin, who offers a few simple steps we can take to regulate our emotions effectively. Practicing these skills can help us develop the mental strength we need to master difficult conversations.
  • Finding goldilocks: A solution for black-and-white thinking by Jeremy Shapiro  (2020). This article takes a close look at a particular mental trap that goes by several names, like “all or nothing thinking,” “black and white thinking,” and “dichotomous thinking.” Shapiro shows us that thinkers across eras and cultures have recognized the value of finding balance and moderation in our thinking and actions. In modern times, this idea has been incorporated into some psychotherapy methods that aim to help people adopt a “cognitive style” that allows them to acknowledge nuance and grey area.
  • 8 ways to catch all-or-nothing thinking by Andrea Bonoir (2018). This article helps us recognize some key words that signal that we may have fallen into the mental trap of “all or nothing thinking.”
  • Breaking out of black and white thinking by John Tsilimparis (2011). A psychotherapist explains the harm caused by simple either-or, “dualistic” thinking. It gives us a calming sense of clarity in the short term, but in the long run it prevents us from recognizing the complexities and contradictions of the world we inhabit.
  • Jumping to conclusions by Effectivology (n.d.). This comprehensive explainer covers why we often jump to conclusions and why this is often described as a “logical fallacy” – an error in reasoning. It offers helpful advice on what we can do to avoid jumping to conclusions, and how we can respond when other people have jumped to conclusions.


  • Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence by Aaron T. Beck (2000). In this powerful book, Dr. Aaron Beck (who popularized Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) explains the psychological origins of interpersonal conflict. Beck explains how outbursts of anger and violence often stem from adopting a frame of mind where another person becomes “the Enemy.” Fortunately, Beck shows us that helping people break out of this destructive mindset can free them from “the prison of hate.”
  • Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David M. Burns (1980). Dr. Burns, a clinical psychiatrist and researcher, reveals anyone can overcome depression and anxiety through the powerful tools of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
  • The Enchiridiron (The Handbook) by Epictetus (135 ACE). This classic text in the Stoic tradition is like an ancient self-help book. Epictetus – a freed slave turned philosopher – makes the case for why we can and should take control of our feelings. He explains that negative feelings aren’t caused by events, but rather how we interpret those events. That means each of us has the power to find happiness in any circumstances, by gaining command over our own minds.
  • Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think, by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky (2016). This helpful guide offers tools to help anyone develop the ability to recognize unhelpful patterns of thinking and replace them with more productive thoughts and ideas. Importantly, it provides guidance on how to make lasting changes to our thought patterns by challenging the fundamental assumptions and “core beliefs” that shape our automatic reactions.
  • How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett (2017). This fascinating book overturns our typical way of thinking about our emotions. According to neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, the evidence accumulated over the past few decades supports a counterintuitive theory: that our emotions are predictions our brain makes about how we ought to respond to events in order to accomplish our goals. Since our emotions are constructed instead of hard-wired, we actually have more influence over how we feel than we might expect.



Academic Articles
Other Sources
  • Patterns of cognitive distortions, adapted from The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns (1989). This handout summarizes some of the most common “cognitive distortions” (a.k.a. mental traps) found in our automatic thinking. The more familiar we are with these patterns, the easier it is for us to detect them in our own thinking.