What is Emotional Intelligence?
For most people, the word intelligence almost always refers to raw brain power. You think about the girl who graduated at the top of her class or the boy who fi nished college while his friends were still in middle school. Intelligence in terms of brain power is typically what is valued and rewarded, but, more recently, emotional intelligence is being recognized as similarly important—perhaps even more so in the workplace.
“Charles Darwin is actually credited with doing some of the earliest work on emotional intelligence,” explains Patricia Pippert, owner of P2 Enterprises, a professional training and development company. “He discovered how important it is to our survival to be able to express our emotions.” Then, according to Pippert, our understanding of emotional intelligence really started to take off, culminating in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 bestselling book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.”
Emotion is commonly defined as an internal state of mind that is shaped by psychological and physiological information from our experiences over time. In other words, how we experience the world, both physically and mentally, helps shape our emotional responses. Emotional expression, as the words suggest, is the way we choose to communicate our emotions.
Crying at a sad movie, for example, or hugging a child who’s been hurt. “Emotional intelligence,” explains Pippert, “is ensuring that we choose appropriate emotional responses rather than letting them just happen, as well as helping others express themselves and their emotions in an appropriate way.”
Why Emotional Intelligence Matters
People often mistake the expression of emotion as a show of weakness, particularly in professional space. Some managers and business owners even go so far as to suggest emotions have no place in the professional arena.
But that idea isn’t realistic.
“We are human beings with an internal chemistry that changes,” Pippert says. “We can’t help but bring our emotions to the workplace.” And doing so, suggests Pippert, isn’t always counterproductive. “Emotions give us drive, motivate us to do more, to do better, to take risks and to empathize with a client, for example,” she says. “We’re able to show concern for clients and be passionate about the results we achieve. Who wouldn’t want these benefits?”
The key to emotional intelligence in a professional setting, however, is awareness. For awareness to occur, we need to admit a few things to ourselves, the first being that we go through life on autopilot much of the time, never stopping to really think about how we are feeling about what we’re doing or what’s happening to us.
Additionally, we need to acknowledge there are triggers—things that people do or say that will set us off. Some people mistakenly believe that denying these triggers exist prevents them from having an emotional impact, but that’s simply not true.
OK. But what can be done?
“Really try to tune into your own body during a meeting, for example,” Pippert says. “Notice when something changes about you physically. Does your face begin to flush? Are your palms sweating? Did your jaw tighten? These reactions all signify an emotional response.” Then, the trick is to recognize your emotions and be able to regulate how you respond.
How to Control Your Emotions
When talking about self-regulating emotions, Pippert wants to be very clear. “We want to make sure we don’t mistake ‘controlling’ our emotions for ‘sitting on’ our emotions,” she says. For example: You have a friend or coworker you feel was abrupt or curt with you for no reason. You think to yourself, “What was that about?” Then, the next day, something similar happens with the same person. “When situations happen like this again and again, sometimes people one day just totally explode in an exaggerated and completely inappropriate manner,” Pippert explains.
Pippert likens learning how to control our emotions to “playing junior psychologist” with ourselves, looking for trends in how the behavior of others affects us. “I once noticed that my internal chemistry would go nuts whenever my boss asked to see me in her office,” she says. “And once I started noticing physical changes in my body, I could begin to assess and ask myself why.”
Pippert wondered if the reaction was really about her boss, or something from her past experience that might have caused her to respond with fear, say being called to the principal’s offi ce or when her mother wanted to talk to her. “Past situations are the ones that create our triggers,” she explains. “These situations are what cause us to over- or underreact."
To begin unraveling where our reactions are coming from and how we might tame them, Pippert suggests starting from this question: What do I really want to happen as a result of this interaction? Pippert challenges people to look beyond the immediate situation and instead focus on the long-term goal. “When we feel someone’s mistreated us, our initial reaction might be to yell at the person or walk away, for example,” she says. “Our perspective changes when we think more long-term.”
In a situation where someone has gotten your hackles up, you might find that when you think about what you really want from the interaction your answer is that you’d like a good working relationship with this person, or that you’d like to get through the conversation without arguing or bad feelings. “Then, behave as if what you envision for the long-term is what you really want,” suggests Pippert. “When you do, your emotions can work in your favor and lead you to the result you want.”
In other words, if you want a good working relationship with the person who just hurt your feelings or said something you perceived as snide, act as though you want a good working relationship—which would mean yelling or walking off angry isn’t an option.
Recognizing Emotion in Others
Because many of our emotional reactions come from internal chemistry we all share—the fight or flight impulse—recognizing when someone is getting emotional isn’t always difficult. “If we keep our eyes open, we’ll see some of the physical changes that occur,” Pippert says. “Maybe their face is red or their hand will clench. Or their voice will change or they’ll make a sarcastic remark, signaling something is changing physically or psychologically.”
Noticing these changes should clue us in that we need to stop the conversation and acknowledge that something is happening. “You aren’t going to make any headway as long as strong emotions are present,” explains Patricia Pippert, owner of P2 Enterprises, a professional training and development company. “You need to first make sure you are able to regulate your own emotions, and then perhaps start thinking about addressing the issue.”
According to Pippert, you can start by asking the person if they noticed the tone of the conversation changing, and if they’d like to talk about it. “That gives everyone some room to collect themselves,” she says. “You can both decide then if you want a ‘time out,’ and then come back and revisit the content of the conversation when less emotion is involved.”