Sophists were ancient Greek teachers who taught the art of persuading people. This could be for personal use, such as convincing someone to help you with something, or to influence a large group of people, such as in politics. The art of finding the best way to persuade someone is known as rhetoric.
It is interesting to see that the art of persuasion has always been an important skill for human beings since ancient times. We are social creatures with psychological biases, so knowing how to influence other people to help push your agenda forward can be critical in putting yourself one step ahead.
The famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle, wrote a clear, defining treatise of rhetoric in his book, simply titled Rhetoric, or Ars Rhetorica in Latin. In this book, he summarised the core of rhetoric as three principles: logos, pathos and ethos. Any good orator should be able to rely on all three of these to persuade their audience.
Logos is the appeal to logical reasoning. It is the rational, factual facet of your argument. Pathos is the appeal to your audience’s emotion. It is the passionate, heartfelt way you present your argument. Ethos is the appeal to your character. It is an establishment of why people should believe what you have to say, based on your moral character and history.
Out of all of these, which is most important? Some say logos is most important, because cold, hard facts should be used to determine the resolution of a debate. Some feel pathos is most important, because people are more likely to be swayed by emotion and passion as we have a tendency to be influenced too much by our monkey brain.
However, Aristotle claimed that the most important principle is ethos. You can make up facts and you can put on a performance to abuse the power of emotions. But ethos is hard to obtain: you have to live life nobly and honourably, guided by a moral compass. People have a tendency to trust the words of a virtuous person much more than someone who has a history of lying, cheating and in general, morally bankrupt.
Simply put, the secret to being persuasive is not the words you speak or the impassioned way that you deliver them, but your credibility.
The world functions on a cause-and-effect basis, where actions result in reactions. A relevant example for us is how a stimulus will prompt us to respond with an emotion. The stimulus could be physical, such as a hug making us feel loved or pain making us sad, or situational, such as feeling frustrated and angry when things do not go as planned. Our monkey brains are wired to rely on emotional reactions to guide our behaviour.
Emotional reactions can be useful as they are very fast and powerful. Fear activates the fight-or-flight response, letting us flee from danger or prepare us to fight. Disgust teaches us to avoid things that cause us to become unwell. Happiness and love give us energy to carry on through hard times.
However, as powerful as they can be, emotional reactions can also be deleterious. Being overly reactive makes us slaves to our emotions or can result in unhealthy behaviours. For example, reacting with rage, frustration and hysteria builds stress and makes us toxic to people around us. Our monkey brains were crucial to our survival as a species in prehistoric times, but in the modern world, it can cause more harm than good.
The problem with being reactive is that we are not acting, but being acted upon. When we are reactive, we cannot control our response or use rational thinking to solve problems. Instead, we are controlled by circumstances and conditions.
So how can we combat our tendencies to be reactive? The answer is to be proactive instead of reactive. Viktor Frankl wrote in his book, Man’s Search For Meaning:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”
The secret to being proactive is understanding that between the stimulus and our response, we have the freedom to choose how we react.
Being proactive is an effective strategy in many aspects of life. Proactivity allows us to plan ahead and prepare for stress and challenges, letting us cope better when hardships strike. In sports and competitive games (or war), the concept of “offence is the best defence” is a fundamental tactic. One of the key concepts of resuscitation is having a plan and preparing for the worst, so that you are not caught off guard when the unexpected happens. This kind of preparedness and flexibility allow us to navigate through this uncertain, ever-changing world.
In a world full of hot takes where we are expected to respond immediately to everything from messages to tweets to headlines, pausing to think in that little space between stimulus and response allows us to access the power of higher order thinking, while letting us be calmer in anxiety-provoking situations. Overall, it helps reduce the stress and frustrations that build up in the background as we constantly encounter unpredictable changes that affect our lives, letting us be more present and content.
There are many ways to train ourselves in utilising this space to take back control of how we respond.
The first step, as mentioned above, is being aware and mindful. What emotion are you starting to feel, why might you be feeling it and do you think your reaction is justified?
Next, determine whether you have the power to change the situation, to remove or weaken the stimulus. Can you remove yourself from the situation? Can you break the vicious cycle by taking a time-out, or change your approach or perspective? Remember that our brains can easily magnify the perception of a threat, distorting our objective view of reality. If possible, take action to modulate the stimulus or your perception of it, so you don’t react as strongly.
If not, then shift your focus to how you can optimise and de-escalate the situation. Think of the consequences of your reaction, if there are any alternate ways to defuse your reaction, if you can think of a positive side or a silver lining, or if there is anything else you can do to help yourself. Instead of thinking “why is this happening to me?“, try to reframe it as “how can I solve this situation?“.
If you find that the fiery emotional reaction is still building despite this, then draw from the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer and accept that there are things outside of your control. Focussing on what you have control over and accepting that you cannot control everything empowers you to take charge of the situation. This lets you be the agent of your own response and story. Meditation is another powerful tool that helps train this approach to facing a problem.
Failing all of that, it is okay to respond with emotion. After all, we are only human and emotions are part of what makes us human. The important part is that you took action and you chose to feel that emotion, instead of being acted upon by the emotion. Indulge in catharsis and let your emotions out. Sometimes, the drunk elephant that is your emotional side just needs to vent and that is a perfectly healthy thing to do (in moderate amounts).
In dire times such as wars, natural disasters and pandemics, we hear news of healthcare professionals setting rules to limit medical treatment provided to certain groups of people. This can come across as shocking to people as it seems unfathomable that a hospital would not do everything within its power to save a life. However, this is a well-known and commonly practised principle in medicine known as triage.
Fundamentally, triage is a system used to prioritise who should receive what level of medical care when. The word triage comes from the French verb trier, which means “to sort“. Modern triage was first designed by a French surgeon named Dominique Jean Larrey, who served in the Napoleonic Wars. Larrey categorised wounded soldiers into one of three groups:
Those who would likely die no matter what treatment they received
Those who would likely live no matter what treatment they received
Those whose quality of life may benefit from immediate treatment
He advised battlefield medics to quickly assess what group a wounded patient would fall under and to focus on the last group. For example, if a soldier had superficial cuts and not heavily bleeding, they would be able to transport themselves back to base. A soldier who is not breathing or lost two or more limbs would be unlikely to survive despite acute surgery (especially with where medicine was at in those times). In other words, medical care would be focussed on those who would likely survive and benefit from urgent medical care, such as the patient who is needing an amputation to stop life-threatening bleeding from an injured limb.
This may sound cruel, but it is the unfortunate reality of healthcare. Ideally, we would like to give the best care to every patient, but we live in a world of scarcity, where resources are finite and limited.
Therefore, we rely on utilitarianism, where we ask “what is the most amount of good we can do with these finite resources?”.
Modern triage is more complicated than Napoleonic times, especially in the emergency department. However, in the case of emergency situations involving mass casualty, triage returns to its simple, original form.
Let us imagine a city struck by a massive earthquake. There are tens of thousands of people with varying severity of injuries. How do we prioritise who will be taken to hospital, need on-site treatment, or left to die or find their own way to hospital?
Physicians and nurses will quickly assess a patient and their vital signs to categorise them using coloured tags, such as red for needing emergency treatment, green for does not need treatment, or black for deceased or likely to die. This is because without triage and prioritisation, the available medical resources will quickly be exhausted and no further care will be deliverable.
If multiple doctors and nurses stop triaging and focus on one patient needing complex surgery, tens or even hundreds of potentially salvageable lives could be lost. If non-urgent injuries are all taken to hospital, the hospital will be overwhelmed and will not be able to provide care to those who are critically ill. If a patient with a non-survivable injury is operated on and taken to the intensive care unit (ICU), they will have lost the opportunity to use those resources on a patient with a better chance of survival.
Triage is a classic example of when the rational solution to a problem such as scarcity challenges ethics and emotions. It may sound as if doctors are playing god when they are declining ICU level of care for an elderly patient, but we must also consider that they have a duty to provide the most effective care for all of society, not just the one patient. These kind of ethical dilemmas are an everyday occurrence in the medical field and can cause significant guilt, anger, pressure and resentment for the healthcare provider.
To simulate the weight of triage, consider the following scenario. Following an explosion in your neighbourhood, you respond to a scene with four patients:
Your 28-year old co-worker with heavy bleeding from a laceration of their leg
Your 83-year old mother who is bleeding from their head and unresponsive, breathing very irregularly and poorly
Your neighbour’s 8-year old child who is not breathing despite straightening their airway and applying rescue breaths
Your 45-year old who is screaming in pain from a broken arm but not bleeding and able to walk
You have the capability to treat and transport one patient. Who do you choose?
As much as we would like the save the life of our loved ones or a young child first, the principles of triage dictate that the first patient demands the most immediate response.
Triage does not account for emotional connections, personal biases or even justice necessarily. It is a cold, hard rule system that we use so that we can separate our emotions and instincts out amongst a horrific situation.
It is the human condition to be our own worst enemies. Yes, life can get hard and it will throw various obstacles and challenges at us, creating all kinds of stress and distress. However, much of our anguish will come from the stories we tell ourselves.
We often think that we feel emotions as a reaction to a stimulus or a change in our environment. This makes us feel powerless and as if we are slaves to our emotions. In reality though, our emotions are usually reactions to our thoughts.
For example, when a relative or someone close to us dies, we feel sad. This may seem like an automatic response, but we first process the information with our rational mind and tell ourselves the story that we will miss them, or that we will never see them again. Our sadness is a reaction to the thought process rather than a direct result of the event.
In this case, the emotional reaction is highly appropriate. The problem is that it is extremely common for us to tell ourselves the wrong story.
A good example would be insecurities. If you ever notice yourself feeling inexplicably anxious, sad or angry, ask yourself the question: what am I telling myself?
You may find that the reason that you are angry every time your colleague talks to you is because you are telling yourself that they are lazy. You may be frustrated whenever a friend doesn’t reply back to your messages because you think they are avoiding you. You may feel sad whenever you look in the mirror because you tell yourself that you are not physically attractive enough. You may be telling yourself that your partner does not love you whenever they go quiet and withdrawn suddenly.
The importance of understanding this concept is that it lets you be more in control of your emotions and lets you diagnose the problems affecting your mental health. Once you know what story is causing the emotion, you can examine the story. When we run the story through a rational filter, we may find that our reaction was completely irrational.
The “lazy” co-worker may be going through a rough time making it difficult for them to work efficiently. Your friend may be busy at work, hence not able to reply. You may be objectively attractive and in good physical health, but your poor self-confidence may be creating a false story. It could be that withdrawing themselves is your partner’s normal coping mechanism when they are dealing with their own problem and it may have nothing to do with you.
This is also useful in a relationship setting, as you can ask your partner how your actions make them feel and what they are telling themselves in that situation to better break down what the true issue is. This lets you both resolve the issue in a more constructive, peaceful manner.
The bottom line is, to improve our mental health, we must examine and alter the stories we tell ourselves. If you tell yourself the worst stories, it will become reality. So ask yourself: what kind of stories am I telling myself and how is it affecting my life? You may be surprised to see how different life can be when you get your stories straight.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt described the relationship between our rational and emotional minds as that of a person riding an elephant. The rational person can guide the elephant using reins, but if the elephant really wants to go a certain way, it will easily overpower the rider. Fighting against the elephant risks it throwing you off or going on a destructive rampage.
This analogy is helpful in making us understand that emotions are natural and powerful. Fighting against emotions (particularly strong, negative emotions) can be pointless and harmful. The best thing is to let yourself feel the emotion, so that it can resolve rather than build up.
This may sound defeatist, because it feels as if we cannot ever control our emotions and we are slaves to it. However, as the analogy points out, our thoughts are the riders atop our elephants of emotions.
Thoughts and perception lead to emotions, as emotions are typically a reaction to an internal or external stimulus. For example, if someone is rude to us, then we feel angry. If we have doubts or insecurities about ourselves, we feel anxious and sad. If we perceive ourselves to be loved, then we feel happy.
And there we have the secret to controlling our emotions. We cannot choose what we feel, but we can choose what to think. By changing the way we think about or perceive something, we can directly influence how often or how intensely we feel certain emotions.
Take road rage as a common example. It is so easy and automatic to think that someone cut in front of us, or going too slow, or too distracted because they are terrible people or stupid. This thought and perception makes us enraged and frustrated, creating stress and sometimes even making us engage in risky behaviour such as tailgating or aggressively overtaking. But if we try to think of it from their perspective, they may be an inexperienced driver, in a rush or having a horrible day. At the very least, we can think of the times we have done the same thing to other people unintentionally. This change of perspective helps us suffer less from our emotional outbursts and overall reduces our stresses.
Take anxiety as another case, where if we stop and think rationally, many of our worries and doubts can be settled. The problem is that because we give less attention to our thoughts, our emotions take over and drag us down into a negative spiral. When that happens, our emotions override our thoughts and we powerless, feeling that we have no control over either our emotions or thoughts.
To counteract this, we need to have a paradigm shift where we know that we have the power to think freely. When we feel an emotion that we do not like, then we can approach it with mindfulness by recognising that we are feeling the emotion, then trying to diagnose the problem. To do this, ask yourself the following questions.
What am I thinking?
Why am I choosing to think this?
How does this thought make me feel?
The point of these questions is to figure out what thought is making you feel that way so you can fix the thought rather than the emotion. Even if you can’t, it puts you in the habit of forming a link between thought and emotion, leading to a healthier connection to your feelings and giving you back some control over them.
When the camera was first invented, it revolutionised the practise of capturing the moment. In the past, people would have to write or draw descriptively to portray something that happened. Nowadays, we can capture the essence of a moment with the click of a button.
But of course, photos are not a perfect representation of reality. What you see on a photo depends on numerous settings (such as the exposure, aperture, shutter speed), the photographer’s artistic direction (composition, lighting) and also the use of technology for post-processing. By tweaking these elements, a photographer can exert some creative license over how the photo represents its subject.
For instance, a photographer may decide to crop a photo to make a scene look more chaotic by removing negative space. They may choose to reduce the exposure to make the atmosphere seem more moody and grim. The shutter speed may be slowed to better represent movement and the passage of time. In short, a photo can easily be “manipulated” to distort the reality it is attempting to capture.
However, another interpretation would be that photos show the reality that the photographer really experienced. Reality is not purely objective because we all experience the world differently. Our perception of reality is affected by our emotions, our other senses and our past experiences, such as nostalgia and trauma.
The person with whom we are in love with appear brighter and more radiant than in reality, because our emotions affect our senses. Food may appear more colourful and richer when they smell amazing. Pain and suffering can make it feel as if the colours in the world are more washed out.
To better represent how we felt at that moment, we could increase the exposure to give the subject a “glow”, we can adjust the contrast to make the food look more appetising and we can reduce the saturation to make a picture seem more faded and sombre.
Photography is more than just a recording, but a way to capture intangible moments that we see with our minds and our hearts.
So look back on photos that you have taken and photos that have been taken of you: what emotional filterhas been applied to those photos?
Emotion is a funny thing, in that we all feel emotions, but we each express them in different ways. Some people are great at verbalising how they are feeling about something, while others will be reluctant to share their emotional state with others. There are many factors involved, such as the individual’s upbringing, cultural background, personality type and past experiences.
In general, society seems to encourage people to hide their emotions. People who cry in front of others are seen as weak and fragile. People who smile and laugh a lot are seen as untrustworthy or foolish. Because of these stigmas, people learn to hide their emotions more and more as they grow up. We try our best to appear rational, calm and professional in the eyes of others.
But emotion is not a tame horse that can be controlled so easily. It is like a wild elephant that will behave irrationally and impulsively, and as the rider, we can only try to steer it on the right path. Because the elephant is so much more powerful than the rider, it is foolish to resist against it and try to force it to go a certain way.
This means that when people try to stop their emotions, it finds another way to be expressed. When you suppress your anger and worries, it manifests as cranky behaviour, causing you to lash out at the blameless people around you. When you try to hold back your tears, it will build up and up until it causes subconscious trauma. Worst of all, if you continue to suppress your emotions, your emotional intelligence will dim, and your ability to recognise and interpret your emotions will atrophy away. This will make you even more vulnerable to extreme swings in emotions, giving you even less control.
The solution to all of this is simple – express yourself. It is okay to cry. It is okay to laugh. It is okay to feel. Watch a sappy movie or a hilarious show to explore the breadth of your emotional range. Practise laughing out loud often. Make it a habit to be mindful of how you are feeling currently, and be comfortable in expressing that to another human being.
Emotions are a natural part of our identityand others have no right to strip that away from you to make you a lesser person. Of course, you need to be able to read the room and be able to compose yourself if the situation calls for it, but for the most part, little harm can come from you being able to show others how you are feeling.
More importantly, it is difficult for your loved ones to truly understand who you are if you do not communicate your emotions to them. If you didn’t share that you were stressed at work today, they may think your sullen mood and solemnity were due to their wrongdoing. Emotion drives us in so many different ways, so it is impossible for your partner to understand the intent behind your actions and words if they don’t know how you are feeling. Communication helps clear up the misunderstandings, letting you build a deeper connection.
Embrace the emotional elephant within you and learn to become friends with it. It will make the journey of life much smoother and less rocky.
A common trait seen among children is their sense of wonder. Whether it is a magic trick, an exotic animal or a breathtaking view, children will not hold back in expressing how amazed they are and how excited they are to see it. When they learn or experience something new and amazing, children will be ecstatic that their horizons are now broader. This is because the young, curious mind is always hungry for new information and experiences, and children care little about being judged for being passionate about something.
As we grow older, we lose our sense of wonder. We become weary from the stress of life and our hearts become dulled to experiencing joy and excitement. Instead of relying on our ability to feel amazement as a source of happiness, we rely on external factors such as the attention of other people, chemicals such as alcohol or cigarettes, or passive entertainment such as watching television. As we use it less and less, our sense of wonder wilts away.
This is unfortunate because this sense of wonder is exactly what we need to counteract the stress and misery that adult life brings. Even though we have grown up to become cynical and – sadly – boring, there is still so much in the world to be amazed by.
Travelling exposes us to new horizons to pursue, new perspectives to see from and new experiences to have. The people around us have countless stories to tell us of their own experiences, if we stop to listen. Even during your ordinary day, you can stop and look up to enjoy the clear blue sky, the colourful sunset and the star-strewn night sky. We are surrounded by amazing things, but we fail to notice them.
The lesson we can learn from children is that it is okay to feel positive emotions and to express them. Because of tradition and societal pressures, we learn to hide or even deny our own emotions because it is seen as a sign of weakness. But we are still creatures ruled by waves of internal emotions, and if we don’t learn how to ride the waves, then the waves will overwhelm us.
Next time you feel miserable, take a minute and look around you: what might a child be amazed by in your surroundings, or in your current life? Consider that the old building you pass on your commute has a rich history spanning centuries. Consider that your “boring” elderly neighbour would have led a life full of excitement, sadness and joy, just like you. Consider the vastness of the universe and how little we know about it, and how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things.
Be curious. Be amazed. Be excited. You will find it adds so much colour to your life.
We now live in the Digital Age. We take photos with our digital cameras, letting us take thousands of photos as we can easily delete photos that did not turn out well. We write emails on our computers, where we often type and retype, proofreading and editing until we have perfectly sculpted our message. We bombard each other with messages that package complex words and feelings into neat little abbreviations and emoticons.
Going digital has, without a doubt, made our lives easier. Digital is exact and fast, while being easily editable thanks to existing only in virtual space. But what is the price of convenience? Did we lose something in the process?
Before the Digital Age, we used film cameras that required careful photography as we had a limited number of shots per roll of film. We wrote handwritten letters, where we had to give considerable thought to what we were going to write before even picking up the pen, lest we waste another sheet of paper. If we wanted to say something important to someone we cared about, we would do it face to face, or at least over a phone call, where our body language and voice gave off subtle nuances about how we truly felt.
As cumbersome as this sounds, the value of analog is that it focusses on quality, not quantity. We no longer have photo albums that summarise a whole year (or even childhood) in just dozens of carefully curated photos. Instead, we have albums full of hundreds of pictures per day, which we rarely review because there are too many to go through.
The worst consequence of going digital is that our words have lost weight and substance. We throw words at each other like paper planes because we feel compelled to reply in some way. We think less about our choice of words because they are a dime a dozen, yet we overanalyse the meaning of what others say in a message because we have no other cues such as body language. We become hurt by hollow words and emoticons devoid of feeling and personality.
We are still analog. We cannot treat each other like photos that can be taken en masse then culled, or a word document that can be freely edited. We should put more care into the things we say to each other – with more thought, feeling and personality – to avoid hurting each other so much.
Out of all the traits and skills we value, admire and teach to our children, one of the most neglected seems to be that of emotional intelligence. Most people are not even aware what emotional intelligence really means.
Emotional intelligence can be summarised as the ability to recognise, analyse and control the emotions of yourself and others around you. It begins with recognising the presence of an emotion, either through mindfulnessor empathy. Once the emotion has been identified, analyse that emotion: where it came from, what effect it is having on the current situation and what the subtext may be. Lastly, use this information to prevent yourself from overreacting, or to understand why someone may be reacting so defensively or aggressively and how to defuse the situation.
Harnessing the power of emotions is a very useful skill. We like to think of ourselves as highly advanced, intelligent beings, but we are still ruled by basic instincts and emotions embedded deep in our brains. Emotional intelligence works to give us more control over our behaviour and unlocking the power to live a happier life. More importantly, it lets us improve the lives of those around us as we are less likely to do or say hurtful things, while being a more kind, supportive human being.
Let us take an example. You are frustrated at your partner because she has not texted back for over a day. Using emotional intelligence, you recognise that you are feeling angry, but also disappointment and rejection. Further analysis shows that these stem from a subconscious expectation that if she cared about you, she would have texted you. The real reason that you are angry at your partner stems from your insecurities, possibly even past trust or abandonment issues. You also remember that she has been very stressed with a project recently, so she may not be in the mood to talk. The end result is that instead of sending passive-aggressive signals at your partner and creating a rift in your relationship, you bring some chocolate ice cream to cheer your partner up.
Like any other kind of intelligence, emotional intelligence must be learned through education and practice. We cannot rein in our emotions if we have never thought about how our past affects us or what motivates or scares us. We cannot possibly understand why the other person is reacting a certain way, if we never trained the ability to see things from their perspective. We cannot help others process emotions such as depression and anxiety, if we cannot understand our own emotions.
We can teach ourselves to be more emotionally intelligent. Meditation and self-reflection allows us to catalogue and interpret your range of emotions. Reading books helps us understand that other people may have a different way of seeing the world. Having deep and meaningful conversations with your loved ones lets you clear up misunderstandings and better learn why people react a certain way in given situations.
We can then apply this knowledge to constantly hone our skills. It may sound exhausting, but every time you feel a strong emotion – whether it is negative or positive – try to analyse it with your rational mind. The more you practise, the more you will be in touch with your own emotions.
Emotional intelligence is an invaluable tool on the journey of life. With increasing levels of emotional intelligence, you quickly realise why things are the way they are. We are all scared little children in the playground, pulling someone’s hair because we cannot tell them that we love them, or punching someone in the face because we cannot withstand the inexplicable surges of insecurity and self-doubt.
Now look back on yourself: how have emotions affected your life and your relationships? What fights and sufferings could have been avoided had you stopped to interpret the emotions and simply talked things out?
The emotional side of you is an integral part of your identity. Why make it your worst enemy when it can be your best ally?