by Jan 17, 2019

In the heat of the moment, it’s hard to stay calm and challenge your ingrained thought patterns but try asking these centering questions to cool down your emotions, get back in balance and engage in that conversation,

“The temptation to quit will be greatest just before you are about to succeed.”

– Chinese Proverb

Since my last post Roadmap to Navigating the Holidays Without Conflict I’ve been getting lots of emails asking for more strategies to help you maintain your cool during difficult conversations. Although there are many strategies I can suggest, asking yourself a centering question will help you challenge your thoughts, calm your emotions and get your balance back when tensions are running high. I share below some of my favorite questions and a guide to help you create your own.


What Are Centering Questions and How Do They Work?

When we are triggered during a difficult conversation, our rational brain shuts down and we become quite disoriented. Complex thinking and decision-making disappear, our memory becomes compromised (we hardly remember anything good about the other person) and we narrow our perspective to “I’m right and you’re wrong!” However, we can learn to override our nervous system, regulate our emotions and stay present.

Centering questions are questions we ask ourselves that help us focus our attention on something other than the tension and calm our minds in highly emotional conversations. They stop our emotions in their tracks so we can return to clear thinking and communication.

All information we receive from our five senses passes through our emotional brain creating emotional linked memories. A song, a smell, a taste, an image will immediately remind us of a place, a person, a moment along with a feeling attached to it: happiness, surprise, excitement, elation, sadness, anger, frustration, and so on.

Over the course of our lives, we accumulate thousands of emotional memories that invoke automatic emotional responses whenever we encounter situations similar to our stored memories. With time, our emotional brain refers to those stored memories and determines our behavior before our rational brain even knows what’s happening. This is why, under certain circumstances, we react (without even thinking) in a way we later regret. We’ve been emotionally hijacked!

Thinking before speaking prevents the emotional hijacking. Centering questions help us stay cool and collected, think and communicate what we feel and think instead of arguing or walking away. When you notice yourself being triggered by what someone has said or done, take a deep breath (or two!) and ask yourself a centering question.


Examples of Centering Questions:


  • It’s real, but is it true (or past memory)? – By telling myself “it’s real” I acknowledge that my feelings are genuine and real to me. When I ask “Is it true (or past memory)?” I question whether my feelings are based on what’s happening right now or on past experience. People change. Situations change. You will have a more positive exchange if you take every conversation for what it is at that very moment rather than bringing past memories back to life.
  • What else could this be? – If you are feeling annoyed it’s probably because you took their comments/actions too personally and are feeling attacked somehow. Believe me, the other person is not out to get you. It’s probably something else. Asking “What else could this be?” sparks compassion as helps you switch your attention from yourself to the other person and realize that they may be just having a bad day. We never know what battles others are fighting.
  • Will this matter tomorrow (or in 10 years or when I am 80)? – What would your future self tell you about this exchange? This question encourages you to decide whether this argument is worth continuing or whether it’s just bickering.


Why Does This Work?


Questions are an effective way to stop emotional reactions because they trigger our rational brain which was ambushed by our emotions. Our brain loves a good question so much that it can’t think of anything else but the question. If the brain is answering a question, it can’t engage in an argument at the same time.

Create Your Own Centering Questions


These are some examples but you can certainly create your own centering questions. Here are some of my clients’ creations:

Turn a quote into a question: (A day without a smile is a day wasted“)

Am I wasting my smile and my day right now, in this argument?

What would your favorite character or personality do if they were in your shoes?

“What would Michael Scott (The Office) do right now? or

What would Oprah do right now?“

Be creative. Have fun and don’t overthink this. Pick one question, put it to the test, then adjust as needed. The important thing is to ask a question that will make you stop and think and take control of your emotions so that your emotions don’t control you.





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