Leadership / Self Improvement

Emotional Intelligence Simplified

Part 1 — Know Yourself

Image by Claudio_Scott from Pixabay

When my wife and I were first married, we were stationed in Germany. As with any job, there were good days and bad days. In my early twenties, I wasn’t as mature as I needed to be. After a bad day at work, I’d come home and snap or be irritable with my wife. I felt frustrated or annoyed but I didn’t consciously grasp why. As a result, I was simply lashing out at whatever was in front of me. When I figured this out (with my wife’s help), our marriage became richer.

That was the beginning for me of learning about emotional intelligence. I didn’t know the name for it but I knew it was important and something I needed to work on.

We’ve all seen the videos of people reacting with horrendous rage over wearing a mask. People have been roughed up, suffered broken limbs, and torrents of profane verbal abuse spewed over the issue. Those viral videos come from New York to Minnesota to Arizona to California and points in between.

In those videos, we see people getting into a rage! Not annoyed, not irritated but boiling over with fury. When we see those clips, we rarely get to see what happens leading up to the explosion — all we see is the explosion. It doesn’t have to go like that.

The secret for both the people in a rage and the people who have to deal with them (i.e. everyone else) is emotional intelligence. While the term was first coined several decades ago, it blossomed in 1995 when Daniel Goleman wrote a book called Emotional Intelligence. Goleman, a journalist, stumbled across a scientific paper and found it fascinating. From there, he’s grown to become one of the foremost authorities on the subject.

Emotional Intelligence is sometimes referred to as EQ (as in IQ) or EI. Stated as simply as possible, EI is about understanding your own emotions and how they impact your thinking and behavior; understanding the emotions of other people and how their emotions impact their thinking and behavior; and then to use that knowledge to adapt to different situations and environments.

Sounds simple, right? I wish it were. I wish I had learned about EI when I was at the beginning of my Army career instead of the last half of it. It would have helped me immensely in terms of being a more effective Army officer. It helps me now in terms of being a more effective leadership trainer and writer. Even better? It helps me be a better husband, father, son, brother, and friend.

Getting in touch with your emotions sounds touchy-feely and maybe it is. But I’ve found when I understand what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling it, I’m able to perform at a much higher, more effective level. Even more importantly, I’m able to make sure my emotions don’t add to a bad or deteriorating situation.

There are several different models or approaches to EI and they can be quite in depth. I’ve read several books on EI and taught it numerous times to different audiences. The more I’ve studied it, the more I’ve worked to simplify it. My approach to leadership and teamwork has always been pragmatic.

I’m not intending to criticize other approaches. I found them difficult to put into practice even with a great deal of study. That meant most people I worked with wouldn’t get a great deal out of a short class or workshop.

My approach to EI comes down to three pieces: Know yourself, Understand others, and Deal with it. This piece is an introduction to the first part.

Know Yourself

How do you know if you’re happy, sad, mad, scared, or nervous? That sounds like a silly question, but I didn’t ask how you feel them. I asked how do you know you’re feeling them? Think about that for just a second.

We feel when we’re sad, we feel when we’re angry, we feel when we’re happy, but we need to take that up a notch from feeling those emotions to knowing what emotions we’re feeling.

We need to get beyond simply feeling and develop an awareness of what we’re feeling and why. We need to develop the knowledge of how those emotions impact our thinking, our patience, our problem-solving, our perception of the world and other people in it, and our decision-making.

Knowing yourself requires you to be willing to question yourself. Why are you feeling this way right now? Why are your hands clenched right now? Why are you singing out loud right now?

So how do you know? If you were outside of yourself and looking at you, how would you know what you were feeling? You’d start by looking at body language.

When I teach / train communication, one of the most important things I emphasize is body language and how they need to be aware of their own. So, what are some of the behaviors and body language which indicate emotion?

Here’s a short list of things that indicate emotion:

  • Humming
  • Smiling
  • Gritting Teeth
  • Fidgeting
  • Dry Mouth
  • Blinking Rapidly
  • Crying
  • Pupil Dilation
  • Redness of Face
  • Clenched / Clenching Hands
  • Rapid Breathing / Heartbeat

Many of these will occur simultaneously and some of them will occur with different emotions. For instance, people may cry when they’re sad, but they can also shed tears of joy. Some will be very similar to others. For instance, it’s often difficult to distinguish between anger and frustration just by body language. Many people will not even recognize the difference in themselves.

There are quite a few emotions, but the ones we’re most concerned about are happiness, anger, fear, and frustration. Why? Because those are the ones that cause us the most problems with others. Happiness, anger, and fear are also the most powerful in that they can strongly drive behavior.

We may feel sad or happy or scared but how do we know what we’re feeling? It’s about self-awareness and consciously acknowledging our current state and why we are there now. Are we cranky because we skipped breakfast this morning? When we know that and bring it out in the open, then we can mitigate it.

When people are unaware of their emotions, when they don’t manage them, they often contribute to a bad situation. While the person doesn’t realize it, their body language is sending an unintended message to the other party.

When you’re happy, you tend to be more patient, more tolerant, and better able to deal with problems or adversity in a calmer way. That’s what’s needed in tense situations.

When you’re angry, you have a shorter fuse, you tend to snap at people, you’re pricklier and less patient. You can apply the techniques below to put yourself in a better state to interact with others. But first, you must be aware of what you’re feeling!

There are two keys for success here. One, get happy and two, don’t get hijacked! Simple right? Oh, if it were only that easy . . .

Has anyone ever told you to “get happy?” Have you heard the expression? When I was in the Army, I heard people say that often to soldiers who were having a bad day. Let me tell you a little secret: telling someone to “get happy” doesn’t work! But there are things you can do to move yourself emotionally and get yourself where you need to be for maximum effectiveness.

Here are some ways to modify our own emotional state. Use these three techniques to put yourself in a better, happier state of mind: Self-talk, Music, and Exercise.

Self-talk. The little voice you hear in your head — it’s you talking to yourself. Sometimes people do this out loud as well. You control this little voice and you need to make it say nice things to you! Many times this little voice will put your self-doubts and fears into words that reinforce your negative emotions. This can create a downward spiral which isn’t healthy.

When you hear that voice, confront it. When it says, this is too hard for you, respond with an example of something you’ve done previously that was difficult, yet you accomplished it. When it says be afraid, tell it “fear is natural and healthy, but you’re not going to let it hold you back.” Find the words to refute those doubts and fears.

Music. Music is an incredibly powerful tool to push your emotions one way or the other. When I travel for a presentation, I’m almost always in a good mood. Why? Because I love speaking and presenting to groups; I love sharing what I know with others and helping them get better. But sometimes . . . sometimes I’m not. I’ll crank up that boo-yah playlist, that bunch of songs in a row that get my feet tapping, head bopping, and hands clapping (which can actually be dangerous when you’re driving!). If you need to push your mood down a little bit, sad, slow music will do the trick.

I know what you’re thinking. You can use music to get happy, but why would you want to shove your emotions another way? It’s because you can do different things better in different moods.

For instance, you do not want to be happy when you go car shopping. Why? Because you’re more agreeable and tolerant. If you’re in a “down” mood, you’ll pay more attention to details and will be more skeptical. There are pro’s and con’s for each emotional state but we’re not going to cover those here.

Exercise. There’s a great deal of scientific research that informs us not only of the physical benefits of exercise but also the mental health effects. Not my area of expertise, but the evidence goes something like this. Exercise releases chemicals in the brain called endorphins which contribute to a sense of well-being. Most people also experience a sense of satisfaction in exercising because they believe it helps. Finally people’s self-esteem increases as the result of exercise (they think better of themselves).

But wait, that’s not all! Exercising in this context allows you to distract yourself from the crisis at hand or the one coming. It doesn’t have to be high tempo, sweating-buckets exercise either. A good walk can do the same thing.

These techniques work for many, many people. Of course, there are others as well. You need to find what works for you! Figure it out and use it before you go to work each day, or at least the days you’re not “feeling it.”

Amygdala Hijack

The amygdala is part of your brain that controls your fight, flight, or freeze reaction in a crisis. Scientists refer to it as your “reptilian” brain because it works on the most basic, pre-thought level.

For some people, controlling this is easier than for others. What’s important is we can all get better. I know because I have. I tend to be a little too fiery sometimes. It isn’t easy for me but I’ve worked at it and over time, I’ve gotten much better. You can too. It takes a little homework, a little introspection, and lots of practice. You need to anticipate and rehearse which we’ll talk about shortly. You can control it but it takes work. The most important thing is to realize you can get better at it.

The objective is to respond instead of react.

We’re wired the way we are for a reason. This mechanism has served us well for thousands of years. When you touch a hot burner on the stove it isn’t time for thinking.

The problem is when we let that reptilian part of the brain, the amygdala, dominate in social situations. Those are times when it isn’t necessary; when you need to respond instead of react. You don’t need that instantaneous reaction to protect yourself. For more on amygdala hijackings, see my article Hot Buttons.

Knowing your emotions is a large part of Emotional Intelligence. This enables you to manage them in a way which creates better interactions with others. It helps you manage the situation for better outcomes on both sides. Sometimes, it’s about making sure your emotions don’t become part of the problem!

In part 2, we’ll talk about understanding others and their emotional states. For Part 3, we’ll talk about applying our knowledge and skills to situations for better, more rewarding interactions with others!

Excerpted from De-Escalation: Respond, Don’t React to a Crisis available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08L4FL4VR/.

Retired Army officer with two tours in Baghdad, taught at West Point, married with four kids. Proud West Virginian and West Point grad. Amazon pubs.

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