How Emotionally Intelligent People Use the “Chess Player’s Rule” to Strengthen Relationships and Perform Under Pressure

When I lived in New York, one of my favorite things to do was to walk through Washington Square Park, where I would head to the chess tables. There, a few of us novice players gathered, watching the older gentlemen hone their skills and talk rubbish.

But each time, the same thing inevitably happened:

Every time a player made a big mistake, the rest of us recoiled in horror. We let out great cries of exasperation, to say:

How could they make this gesture?

Of course, the funny thing is that we were all amazed that a talented player could make such a rash mistake…

We often made the same mistakes ourselves, when we were in the player’s chair.

There is a simple explanation for this: it is easier to see potential errors when we are not in the hot seat. We’re not emotionally attached to the game. Our heartbeat doesn’t race when we see a potential good shot. And you don’t feel the stress once the pressure is on.

I like to call this “the chess player’s rule”.

The Chess Player‘s Rule is based on the principles of emotional intelligence, and it can help you not only in chess, but also in business…and in life.

What is the chess player’s rule? And how can it help you build better relationships and habits?

(If you find value in the “chess player’s rule”, you might be interested in my complete course on emotional intelligence – which includes 20 additional rules that help you develop your emotional intelligence. Check out the full course here.)

What is the “chess player’s rule”?

The Chess Player’s Rule simply states:

When you are in an emotionally intense situation, your perspective will be dramatically different than when you are not in that situation.

The Chess Player’s Rule is based on a psychological principle known as the Perspective Gap, which states that we often misjudge how we would react (or even how we reacted) to an intense set of circumstances.

Sounds simple enough, right? But recognizing this rule is only the first step. You can then use it to do two very important things.

Show more empathy.
Because of the perspective gap, often when we see someone make a big mistake, we tend to judge what they could have done differently. We may even think to ourselves, “Well, that’s what they get.” Or, we might underestimate how painful the experience is, thinking, “I’ve been there before. This will help them toughen up.

But these reactions do not help. They do nothing for the person who is suffering, nor do they help your relationship with them. That’s because even if you don’t voice your thoughts, it will naturally come out in the way you treat them, likely creating (or deepening) a wedge between you and them.

In contrast, the Chess Player’s Rule helps you realize that in similar circumstances, your thoughts and emotions could cause you (and have caused you) to make big mistakes. By doing so, your view turns into something more like the following:

Oh yeah, it’s hard. Let me think… How can I help you?

When your default behavior changes from “critical” to “helpful,” you build a bridge instead of a breakup, which emotionally impacts your teammate and strengthens your relationship.

But in addition to strengthening your bonds with others, the Chess Player’s Rule can also help you in other ways.

Perform under pressure.

Do you know what distinguishes great chess players from average players?

Chess masters and grandmasters have played more games than they can count. They play real games, against real opponents. But they also practice in their heads, imagining scenarios they might encounter and how they would handle them.

By practicing the same moves over and over again, these players develop habits and processes that they can repeat almost effortlessly. This allows them to speed up the game in their minds, to the point that they can think several moves ahead. They rarely encounter situations for which they are not prepared, and when they do, they rely on fundamental principles to help them determine the best way forward.

You can do the same with your emotions.

Like a master chess player repeatedly practicing the same moves, you must train your feelings and emotional responses. When you repeatedly practice emotionally healthy routines and habits, you rely on those habits when you’re under pressure. You can also fast forward a situation and see the results of specific actions, allowing you to see “multiple moves” into the future.

And when you’re under emotional stress, you’ll avoid panicking and get back to your basics, which will help you make good decisions.

So whether you’re looking for better relationships or looking to improve, remember the chess player’s rule.

It’s a great reminder that everyone makes mistakes – and it’ll teach you how to reduce yours.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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