Emotional Intelligence Simplified

Part 2 — Understand others

Where my daughter Sophia worked at the grocery store, there were broad windows where she could look out and see nearly the entire parking lot. She could see the way people parked their cars, how they exited their vehicle and then approached the store. All of these can give an indication of their emotional state.

There were times when she could see someone stepping out, moving in an abrupt manner. She then had an indicator the person was upset. When you see that situation developing but you don’t have any tools to deal with it, that can be upsetting and frustrating. In fact, it can cause your amygdala to go on full alert and make your dragon ready to roar! When that happens, you’re in a poor mental state to deal with a tough situation.

As a front-line COVID warrior, Sophia was in the crisis from day one. She was often put at the front of the store to encourage people to wear masks as well as manage how many people were inside. She did this with little guidance and zero training.

As I stated in part 1 of this series, my approach to EI comes down to three pieces: Know yourself, Understand others, and Deal with it. In that piece I wrote about how important self-awareness is in understanding and managing your emotions. Of course we know when we’re sad or angry, but it’s even more important for us to know the why of those feelings. We need to recognize them and understand where they’re coming from.

When that happens, we can manage or mitigate them. This has two positive effects. First, we keep our emotions focused on the right things. For instance, we have a spat with our spouse before work. We leave the home angry. If we don’t recognize that anger and understand it’s directed towards our significant other, we may drive aggressively (been there, done that!). Or we may allow it to spillover at work. We walk in and a co-worker tells us “good morning” and we snap at them. Now we’ve set the tone for the day and it isn’t a good one.

The second positive effect is when we have a deeper understanding of our current state, we can figure out what to do to move it where we need it to be. Going to work but feeling down? Maybe we call a friend on the way to work for a pick-me up mood adjustment. Headed to buy a new car and feeling a little giddy? Punch up that sad song playlist to put you in the right frame of mind to properly evaluate the seller’s proposition.

This piece is an introduction to the second part, Understanding Others.

When we talk about understanding others, we’re talking about their emotions and their emotional state. This is the second component of my model for emotional intelligence. We start by understanding ourselves and now we’re going to talk about understanding other people. Because the mask-wearing is current, let’s use that as an example.

Why do you think people get so angry about wearing a mask? Stephen Covey’s fifth habit is to seek first to understand and then to be understood. We’re looking to apply that to these situations, whether it’s wearing a mask, performance feedback, or another potentially explosive situation.

When a person sets out for the grocery store, they probably weren’t planning on making a political statement or looking to go viral. Their overriding purpose was to go get milk and bread or whatever food they needed. Along the way, they realized that going to the store was going to require them to wear a mask. It wasn’t a surprise when they thought of it, but simply one of those little unpleasant things you momentarily forget.

One of the most common reasons people become angry about the mask thing is that sense of control. They feel like they’re being made to do something. Maybe they don’t believe in the coronavirus; maybe they think the media has hyped it beyond reason; maybe they feel like they’re being manipulated for political ends. Some may think people are over-reacting or panicking. They’re determined to be the voice of reason amongst all the hysteria.

Perhaps they’re thinking about how uncomfortable a mask is, or it fogs up their glasses, or it’s just unnecessary. After all, they’re not running around coughing and sneezing on people — why do they need a mask? They feel fine!

When these people are exploding, they’ve spent their travel time to the store engaging in that unhealthy self-talk. Remember when we talked about that in Part 1? They’ve told themselves what’s going to happen and then their unhappy/angry/frustrated reaction follows. They may even try telling themselves they’re not going to blow up but when they phrase it as this is what’s going to happen, they’re framing it in that negative context.

They’re fixating on the possibility which causes pressure or anxiety to build up inside of them. This is the difference between anticipating (which is good) vs fixating (which is bad). These people are fixated. They’ve turned possibilities (what might happen) to probabilities (this is going to happen). They then begin reacting as if it was already happening and will continue to do so whether it actually is or not. That’s the power of fixation — it’s almost like someone is brainwashing themselves.

That’s one possible road to an amygdala hijacking. You can look at other scenarios such as performance appraisals and other difficult conversations to see similar paths.

Let’s look for some additional clues to what’s going on. Trying to understand others is similar to the process we did for ourselves. Those same questions we discussed about how you know what mood you’re in — now let’s apply them to others.

How can you tell what mood someone else is in? How do you know when they’re angry, frustrated, or upset? Unfortunately, all three of those can look pretty similar from the outside. I’ve been to funerals and seen people clenching their fists, but from grief, not anger. Watching someone’s hands can tell you a great deal about what they’re feeling, but not exactly.

What we’re talking about here is body language. You need to watch their body language. When we were talking about knowing ourselves, we examined some of the physical ways we express our emotions. Now we want to apply the same idea to others. Here are some specific things to observe:

  • Facial expression — are they scowling or snarling?
  • Clenched jaw?
  • Agitated fidgeting
  • What are their hands doing? Clenched? Clenching and unclenching?
  • Chest out, arms back and out slightly (sometimes called a rooster stance)
  • Rolling shoulders or neck, almost as if they’re flexing or warming up for a fight

The person may not be thinking about a physical confrontation, but their amygdala, that sleeping dragon that’s now awakened, is telling the body, “confrontation.” At that most basic level, their body is getting ready for action.

Failing to understand this is what so often leads to escalation and really bad outcomes. This series of actions / reactions serve us extraordinarily well when we lived in the forest or jungle and physical danger was common. Unfortunately, sometimes these primal urges still occur in a social situation.

We talked about that with our own reactions, now we’re talking about the same thing in others. The brain is thinking conflict or confrontation and the body is turning the mental state into a physical reaction. Their body language is saying physical fight when their brain isn’t going in that direction. This is exactly the situation which can lead to escalation due to misunderstanding the other person’s state of mind. That’s not where we want to go — we want to de-escalate.

Keep in mind that anger, frustration, and fear can all look somewhat similar from a body language perspective. Many times when someone is actually afraid or feeling another intense emotion, their body language can communicate aggression. That’s why we have to keep a cool head. We need to manage our hot buttons, we need to maintain our self-control.

When you’re in one of these positions where tempers may flare, try to position yourself so you can observe people approaching as far away as possible. That will give you time to assess their body language. As you observe them approach, give yourself a little self-talk-thru/rehearsal and be prepared to respond rather than react.

Body language is important but it isn’t the perfect read of someone’s thoughts. I’ve seen very happy people who I thought were angry until they calmed down and I could understand what they were saying. Remember when you’re looking at their hands, expression, etc., to look at not just one but a cluster of signals. Just because someone is clenching their hands doesn’t mean they’re upset. Their hands might be cold! But when you pair that with a snarling face or other signs, you now have a clearer indication.

The third thing to consider after thinking through their “why” and then reading their body language is to listen carefully to their tone of voice. Words are what we say, our tone of voice is how we say it.

Tone communicates the emotion of what you’re saying. There is a tremendous difference between when I’m saying to my son, “Stephen, come here,” and “STEPHEN, COME HERE!” Same three words, but Stephen knows. For the latter, he gets that little clench inside, that little “uh-oh” when he realizes Papa Bear isn’t happy.

That tone of voice can be very telling. Again, remember to add that to the other signs we’re observing. I’ve known people who spoke roughly but were teddy bears. For whatever reason, that’s just the way they expressed themselves.

I teach lots of communications classes. In fact, it’s my most requested topic. Body language and tone of voice are incredibly important for effective communication and I heavily emphasize them. These are key for understanding where other people are emotionally as well as communicating clearly.

In part 1, we laid out the three-part model I use with my leadership clientele. The first part of the model is about gaining a deeper understanding and awareness of your emotions. This the second part. 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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