Humble thoughts on Emotional intelligence for Friday afternoon

Alison Best




Emotional intelligence is a simple enough concept in theory. It, by definition, is not the sort of intelligence that requires intellectual or academic smarts. Basically it’s about recognising the emotions you are feeling, owning them and then, if necessary, choosing a response or behaviour which will work well for you and others in the particular situation.

So - a car cuts you up, you feel fear and, in very short order, anger. Do you flash your lights? Beep angrily? Speed up to be aggressively close behind the offender? … Pause. Breathe. What do you want right now? What outcome? How quickly can you let their transgression go and be emotionally intelligent, calling on your rational powers to regain perspective and make good, safe choices?

So far so good. But theory is one thing…practice is another. And it does take practice.

We run a course for employees and managers on coping with workplace change and a big part of that is about the emotions that change (particularly unwelcome change) can trigger. One of the initial ‘mindset’ scenarios we use is about a house sale falling through at the last minute. Imagine a text is sent to you by the estate agent at the 11th hour saying the transaction will not go ahead. I ask participants (now I feel a little too glibly) “How would you feel about that - in that moment? What emotions would you experience?" The idea is that they begin to explore the mental process of moving on from the initial emotional reaction to forming an effective strategy for addressing whatever needs to be addressed.

And then, this week, it happened to me. My house sale fell through - after a three month build up (the agent emailed rather than texting though). My emotions were not what I would have anticipated: I was numb and sad, widening to dejected and disillusioned. I did not 'do' anything in that moment.

But what, looking back, surprises me more, was the knock-on impact. My emotional intelligence practitioner learning left me. “Sadness” and “dejection” are clingy emotional guests. And they stealthily transferred themselves to different aspects of my life - and it became easy to lose perspective more widely. “Nothing” will work out. “Everything” will go wrong. “No-one” can be relied upon. Worse, in my dejected state, my brain scanned my environment to find evidence to support my view. And, of course, found it. (We don’t need to go into that but it involved car parts, hospitals, pre-teen children, etc.) So much for emotional intelligence. I did not recognise what was happening nor did I make good choices in it.

I cannot claim to have worked this one out myself - I have had help from friends with considerable emotional intelligence themselves who, let’s be honest, told me off. Well, I deserved it. I must also note that I have great colleagues who tolerated and supported me this week and to whom this post is an apology and a thank you.

Deceptively simply in theory, EI is fiendishly difficult when you're feeling it. I have gratitude to those who, showing their own emotional intelligence, particularly empathy, helped me through. I realised this week that emotional intelligence is a collective thing. We each can improve each other.

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