Understanding Display Rules in Emotional Intelligence

This week I am continuing on from my previous blog exploring the first branch of Salovey,
Mayer and Caruso’s model of Emotional Intelligence; Perceiving Emotions. The main focus today will be expressing emotions.

Although it is considered that emotions are universal, the expression of emotions varies from culture to culture. We call the different expressions of emotion display rules.

A culture can be one nation compared to another but it can also be smaller cultures such as those found within a family, community or an organisation. Salovey et al report on
one study based on US business organisations where anger was displayed far more
often than emotions such as happiness. Anger was in fact more culturally acceptable than happiness.

Warning! I am about to stereo type UK culture! There will be many people for whom the following is not true. These examples are intended as illustrations.

In the UK we have sayings such as “big boys don’t cry”. Our display rules discourage
men from expressing upset and distress. As a result some men display anger when
they are experiencing distress. Last week I mentioned the Transactional Analysis
term “rackets”, this is another example.

Lin Cheung commented on my blog last week reminding me that rackets are formed when the substitute feeling is “stroked”. So in this case what we mean is that a boy who is given attention for displaying anger instead of upset will repeat the behaviour. A stroke is described as a “unit of human interaction”.

We will experience a whole range of strokes some will feel positive, others negative. A stroke can be conditional in that it relates to performance of some kind or unconditional when it is connected to existence.

The stroking pattern we experience in early childhood will help set the mould for how we perceive the world. There are several other Transactional Analysis models we could look at here including mini-scripts. For today I will leave these to one side.

(For a good introduction book on Transactional Analysis I recommend “Working it out at work” by Julie Hay. I like this book so much that we sell it on our website http://www.gwiztraining.com/ProductsTA.htm )

For young women in the UK the opposite (to the example above) is often true. Anger is discouraged and upset is “stroked”. There are many women I work with who cry when they are angry. For many this is very frustrating and in the work place can be seriously unhelpful.

I used to experience this myself and developed my own strategy for overcoming it which I now teach to other women. Read on if you want to know how!

In the work place, in the UK at least, if a woman starts to cry at work there are a number of
responses she might get. The other person may show concern and go into “comfort mode”. That might sound kind however it can increase the sense of disempowerment the woman is feeling.

Others might respond by ignoring the crying or getting annoyed. In the UK people used to be told to “leave your emotions at home”. That was before Emotional Intelligence was fashionable!

Most responses end with the same result, the focus of the encounter moves from what is really important to the substitute feeling. For the woman, this may turn into feelings of embaressment.

So here’s the tip! From NLP we know that if you shift your physiology it will help to shift our emotional state. So the first thing to do is change your posture, ground yourself, pull yourself up and look the other person in the eye. Then you say:

“Yes, I’m crying, it’s just an expression of my anger and I want to continue talking
about (insert topic under discussion)!”

In some cultures this statement would not be particularly revolutionary, however in the UK it tends to have a big impact! In  the UK we don’t talk about our feelings, we have the stiff upper lip! When someone we don’t know well does express their feelings it shocks us.

As I mentioned earlier I am stereo typing however in terms of display rules this example is
very common. The first time I tried this technique my voice still trembled and it felt less than easy to do. I persisted and over a very short period of time I noticed a change. The tears were less common and eventually disappeared. I now just say if I feel angry.

In NLP terms we would call this an anchor collapse. The trigger for an old pattern of behaving becomes weak and the new trigger leading to the more useful replacement
behaviour takes over.

If I had known then what I now know about NLP I would probably have used a SWISH process with this too. When I coach other women this is exactly what I do. (see my earlier blogs on self-esteem for more information about the SWISH technique).

If you are interested in learning more about NLP you can join us in Bedfordshire, UK for our next NLP Practitioner course in September. Follow the link below for more details:


I am curious to hear your stories about display rules. If you are in the UK what have you noticed? Those of you from other nations, how do the display rules of your countries differ or match those in the UK? What other interventions do you know to help people express themselves better?

Next week we will stay with the first branch of the model this time focusing on our ability to perceive emotions in others.

About Melody @ GWizlearning

Melody spent fourteen years gathering experience of the business world working in banking, telecommunications and the public sector before co-founding The GWiz Learning Partnership in 1993. Melody has a Masters Degree in Applied Positive Psychology, a degree in Psychology and a diploma in Psychotherapy. She is an NLP Master Trainer which allows her to run NLP Practitioner, NLP Master Practitioner and NLP Trainer Training courses certified by the Positive School of Intrinsic Neuro-Linguistc Psychology. She is also a qualified Myers Briggs practitioner and EI practitioner and added to all this is five years Transactional Analysis training, meaning she is able to help organisations access the hidden potential in their staff. She is also in demand for her work in transforming average or even troubled teams into high performers. Melody is a visiting lecturer at University of East London, teaching "Wellbeing and Positive Psychology" to undergraduates. Additionally, she is a member of the CIPD and is ILM accredited. Melody's interests are many and varied. She has a keen interest in personal development, canine and wolf psychology, conservation, movies and running. She also enjoys western horse riding, walking the GWiz dogs, nature watching and stage combat (particularly sword fighting).
This entry was posted in Emotional Awareness, Emotional Intelligence, NLP, Perception, Personal Development, Self Esteem and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Understanding Display Rules in Emotional Intelligence

  1. Pingback: A Simple Guide To Using Triggers To Change Behaviour | FitChutney

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