We are all good at Emotional Intelligence when stakes are low… but what about when we are put to the test?
Emotional intelligence(EI) is the ability to perceive, understand and influence our own and others’ emotions across a range of contexts to guide our current thinking and actions to help us to achieve our goals. It can be summarised by this EIA model (“EmotionIntell“) that emerged from my PhD research (see more here):
This is the theory… but the application and context are the factors that really test our Emotional Intelligence ability.
Sometimes things will go along swimmingly; we, and those around us, are fairly content and healthy, with most of our thoughts, chats, and interactions (with ourselves and others) being constructive and positive. This is bliss, we are in the flow, and I am sure these phases or moments in our lives are prayed for… and valued when they happen. If we each had the power to wrap these states up in a box as a gift, then I am sure we would give this present to as many people as we could.
There are times however when things aren’t so stable, safe and blissful. Our normality can be rocked by factors which can and will test our emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence has been central to my work for the last 35 years. I have a goal to get emotional skills and competencies into a stable safe construct to help four-year-old school children gain a critical life skill – added to the reading, writing and arithmetic core curriculum. My PhD focused on emotional intelligence models as I didn’t believe there was a model out there that was stable and reliable enough to help me with my goal. My patience ran out waiting for someone to provide one. So I created one under the discipline of a University supervised PhD.
If you can forgive my immodesty, I have to say that I class myself as being in the top quartile of experts in emotional intelligence. This is pretty easy though, seeing an ‘expert’ is one deemed to have more knowledge of a topic than the average – and it’s all I have done for three decades. I have taught emotional skills and behaviour analysis to thousands of professionals, including many working in high-stake environments such as the military, intelligence agencies, medicine, police, security, combat sports, relationships, negotiation, insurance, and business investment/merger contexts. High financial stakes at one end, and life/death consequences at the other. That said, I am constantly working on my own flaws as a practitioner. When stakes are high, the primitive, conditioned, emotional human (or as I frame it, the ‘chimp’) inside me reacts rather than responds and I often make mistakes that I regret. My knowledge and experience also help me to be resilient when I have to make difficult choices that are necessary for my work and life… and to face and deal with things that happen that are outside my control. On this last point, I would like to share an interesting roller-coaster ride that may resonate with others who have had similar experiences – or maybe witnessed them amongst loved ones and friends. Following a routine blood check two years ago I learned that I had the terminal condition of Multiple Myeloma (a cancer of the bone marrow). Asymptomatic at first, but it progressed sufficiently nine months ago to trigger six months of chemotherapy plus a stem cell transplant. Incurable; you can’t cut it out. Though I was so fortunate to have discovered it early. I was able to combine great medicinal protocol, with complementary solutions I have researched and used, plus solid love and support from my wife, my three sons and extended family, plus a circle of really good friends. I have just been graced with news that recent tests reveal that I have achieved a ‘complete response’ to treatment; a result I know many others I have met in the clinics are praying for. I am so lucky. I have been able to build a bungalow for Ellen (my wife) and I to retire into, and also seen my two grandchildren come into the world (grand-daughter now 14 months old; grandson 4 weeks old)… very special… I am tearing as I write this note and as I reflect back to two years ago, and to nine months ago, when it crossed my mind that I may not be here to enjoy Keira and Bowen.
My learning about applied emotional intelligence has therefore been tested and accelerated over the last two years. Some huge emotional high and low points. Managing one’s own emotions and interacting with others, when the real potential of forced separation by death from our loved ones hits us, adds a dimension that can really test us. This is very different from an academic case-study such as ‘how would you handle your emotions when having to deal with an unsupportive co-worker?’
I could probably write a book that logs the gift of the many lessons that came out of my own experience, as will be the case for most of you reading this now, though I will contain my personal enlightenment here to three, so this stays as a blog. 😉
I thought I would highlight the top three principles and lessons that were magnified by this experience.
1. I need to remember everyone has their own story.
It’s not all about me. When I occasionally drift into self-pity, like when I was first diagnosed, or when my hair started to fall out due to the meds, I just have to recall the people I have met in the clinics who have far more severe cancer-related illnesses and challenges. Many of them have huge smiles on their pale, drawn, hairless faces – and I sometimes have to mentally slap myself, along with the self-talk message of… ‘get over yourself’.
As long as I am breathing, then I know that there is more right with me than wrong with me – life is a gift. My empathy has been supercharged. I now keep myself open to the possibility that everyone I interact with may have experienced, or be experiencing, or even be anticipating a serious life-challenge that I may trigger with my words or behaviour. I am even conscious, as I write this blog, that I risk triggering emotional episodes for readers, in the same way that I have just done (twice) for myself, knowing I am not there with them to see it and do something to help them. If this has just happened to you, I sincerely hope it hasn’t caused too much distress and I offer you a virtual hug.
2. Recognise and manage my mood.
I try to sanitise, regulate, and/or modify my moods for the task in hand… or, if I can’t do that, I try to reschedule the task. Emotions happen to us, they are often intense, they are quick, and we usually know what triggered them. Moods, on the other hand, are of a lower intensity, can fester for hours, and can tend to prime us for emotional outbursts. For example, we may wake up in a grumpy mood and this can light a slow-burning fuse for an angry outburst over nothing. I have learned recently that pain, lack of sleep, medication, and self-pity can make me prone to anxious, down and irritable moods. If the time is right, I can allow those to explode into their higher states of fear, sadness and anger (respectively), and talk about my fear, have a good cry, or let off steam and/or assert myself. I have learned to be mindful of my moods, real-time, so I can do what I can to change them (not easy but possible with a pause, a few deep breaths, reframing, and a few favourite mindfulness tools – I recommend you search ‘Jon Kabat-Zinn’ for these. Alternatively, I try to reschedule what I plan to do next if my mood doesn’t serve the task at hand.
3. It is ok to be vulnerable and to be a recipient of sympathy.
As a stubborn, proud, control-freak, ‘bloke’, I know I am able to empathise and be compassionate, but I know I have an innate aversion around having sympathy for others. I have always felt that sympathy is condescending, as it is about feeling sorry for others, and so this tends to irritate me when I sense it from others. So, I am learning that I have to let myself go and know that it’s ok to show weakness when I am weak. And therefore it’s natural for others to feel sorry for me, or even pity me when they first learn of my condition… and that’s ok. I don’t beat them up in my thinking – instead, I adopt ‘story 2’, they care and it’s just their way of handling an uncomfortable situation. I know that emotional intelligence is not always about the suppression of emotion; releasing emotions can feel good, and it humanises and connects us to others. Burying an emotion is like pushing a seed down into fertile soil – it will come back to the surface one day in a much more magnified, uncontrolled form. Ellen, taught me this recently during a little heart-to-heart chat, and this blog is part of my growing comfort with vulnerability. I recommend ‘Daring Greatly’ by Brene Brown, by the way, for more on the topics of vulnerability and courage.
So, in summary, I have learned to:
- Be curious and listen for clues about what is going on that matters to others. What’s their story?
- Work on aligning my mood to the task ahead – or, where possible, put the task off until I am in the mood.
- Allow myself to be vulnerable, and go easy on those who feel sorry for me when I am. It shows they care.