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Use the Wiser Model to Handle Strong Emotions

Don’t let the emotions hijack our actions. Slow down and choose better with the Wiser model.

We can read a million articles and books on making better decisions, avoiding bias, and raising our EQ, but they’ll do us no good if our emotions regularly swamp our ability to think through problems constructively.

CEOs or founders can read about the value of intellectual humility. But if we can’t get over our need to prove we’re the smartest in the room, we’ll never be able to see how we might be wrong. Strategic quitting is sometimes the smartest move. But if employees are worried about saving face, they’ll carry on too long. No matter who we are, difficult conversations go better if we lead with respect, experts insist. Kneejerk outrage at those who disagree with us gets in the way.

All of which is a long way of saying that good decision making, healthy relationships, and all-around success in life depend on getting our emotions under control. What’s the best way to do that? An 80-year Harvard study offers a straightforward model anyone can follow.
80 years of wisdom on managing strong emotions

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the world’s longest running longitudinal studies: It has followed more than 700 men since 1938. Its most famous conclusion is that, when it comes to living a long and happy life, the quality of our relationships matters most. Less discussed is what the study has uncovered about exactly how to keep those relationships strong.

In their recent book The Good Life, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, the current director and associate director of the study, explain that the most emotionally intelligent people don’t ignore their emotions or allow them to unthinkingly drive their actions. Instead, they employ the Wiser model to process their feelings and actively choose a wise course of action. A recent Big Think article by Kevin Dickinson helpfully lays out what each letter of Wiser stands for.


If we want to respond well to an emotion, we first need to take a pause, name it, and understand what triggered it.

“In some cases, this period may only last a moment or two; in others, it may require that we set aside an hour or evening. During that time, let’s try to bring our curiosity to the entire situation. What was the environment? Was the situation unusual? Who were we interacting with, and what do we know about these people? What may we have missed that may prove important?”

explains Dickinson.


OK, now that we have some basic observations, it’s time to interpret them. Have we made any assumptions about the other parties involved in the situation? Might those assumptions be flawed? Are there other factors–from earlier frustration to exhaustion–contributing to our emotional response?

“Many situations are ambiguous and unclear, and it is on this canvas of ambiguity that we can project all sorts of ideas. If we’ve only done a quick-and-dirty job of observing in the watch stage, we probably don’t have all the information we could have about what’s really going on, which leads to hasty conclusions,”

Waldinger and Schulz write in the book.


Once we have a full picture of what’s actually going on, we’ll be better placed to actively select a course of action that will get the results we want. If we realize our frustration at our confused new employees is driven more by our insane schedule than their incompetence, we can skip snapping at them and instead look to clear some time to help them get up to speed.

“The key is to try to slow things down where we can, zoom in, and move from a fully automatic response to a more considered and purposeful response that aligns with who we are and what we are seeking to accomplish,”

explain Waldinger and Schulz.


We have a plan. Now is the time to put it into action. The options here are as variable and diverse as the emotional situations we find ourselves in, but whatever we’re dealing with, considered action is better than just letting our feelings carry us along (or sticking our heads in the sand).


How did our plan turn out? Did we get the response we hoped for both from others and in terms of our own emotions? By making us think about what went well and what went less well, the reflection stage provides important information we can use to improve our response next time. If we skip this step, we let a key opportunity to learn go to waste.

Is the Wiser model easily implemented when one is shaking with rage or burning with embarrassment? Certainly not. Many individuals require years of therapy to achieve proficiency in this regard–and there’s zero shame in that. However, simply being familiar with the Wiser acronym can assist us in taking a breath and thinking through everyday conflicts and emotional upheavals in a manner that will enhance our EQ, improve our relationships, and hopefully contribute to our happiness and success.