Mastering Emotional Intelligence: What’s Going On Inside and Why It Matters

by David Hinde on 20/05/2016

Back in 350 BC Aristotle said, “Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not easy. “Being intelligent with one’s emotions, it seems, was just as much a challenge to the ancient Greeks as it is for us today.

Daniel Goleman popularised the term “emotional intelligence” in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More the IQ (Bantham Books 1995). He breaks down the skill into five areas of competence:

  1. Self-awareness:  the ability to understand one’s internal states, preferences and realistically assess one’s strengths and weaknesses
  2. Self-regulation: the ability to manage one’s internal states, impulses and resources
  3. Motivation, the long-term ability and persistence in pursuing goals despite obstacles and set-backs
  4. Empathy: the ability to be aware of others’ feelings, needs and concerns
  5. Personal skills, the adeptness at inducing desirable responses in others

In this article I will focus on self-awareness. I’ll cover the others in later posts. However focusing on one area in isolation is not a good development tactic as they all interlink. For example it is difficult to self-regulate one’s emotions if you are not aware of them.

To accuse anyone of not being self-aware seems a very derogatory thing to do. Surely we are all in a prime position to work out what is going on inside our heads? But as I know to my own cost, it’s not always easy to understand ourselves. Sometimes our own emotions take us by surprise and drive us to behaviours that in retrospect would have been better avoided.

Ask yourself right now – how do I feel? Interested? (I hope so), anxious, positive, cynical, happy? You might be surprised by the answer. (Just so you know as I am sitting here writing I’m feeling lively but with a slight piece of anxiety about a big presentation I’m giving tomorrow.)

For me certain work situations, such as difficult meetings, can cause stronger emotions. Excitement that people are listening to my ideas, frustration that they’re not, sympathy when someone is having a difficult time or anger when there’s conflict or arguments. I find practising self-awareness is key. I try to internally “check-in” with myself from time-to-time during the meeting to ask myself how I feel. Once I realise that, for example, I might be getting frustrated that’s usually enough to stop me making a comment I might regret later on.

Learning emotional intelligence unfortunately is not just an intellectual process. In a recent workshop I ran we talked about emotional self-awareness. Everyone seemed to understand the theory. However in the next group exercise one of the men became more and more irritable with his fellow attendees and he started to be quite brusque to the detriment of getting the group to work together.

I caught up with him later in the day. “What did you feel like when you did that exercise?” I asked him. As he began to reflect on his feelings and how it had made him act he began to smile at me, “Goodness I wasn’t being self-aware at all was I!?”

Of course he’s not alone. If only I could say that because I teach emotional intelligence I have cracked it. I definitely haven’t. There are numerous occasions where, despite me best efforts, emotions take over and not always with positive results.

I think being self-aware in the modern world is, if anything, more difficult than ever. We’re all checking our phones, emails, instant messengers and all this “noise” from all these sources takes us away from being connected with how we feel and how we behave.

Another part of self-awareness is having a greater understanding of our preferences and values. In my twenties I had a choice between taking one of two jobs. In the first job interview I sat with the managing director and he had asked me how I thought the company should proceed. He had introduced me to his staff and they had taken me out for a friendly lunch. They were working on a new area of technology that seems interested, but being a young company they couldn’t offer me much money. Their office was pretty rough and ready as well – in an old, draughty building which used to be a warehouse.

The other job was very different. I was interviewed in their offices on the fortieth floor of a plush new skyscraper. I was shown my potential office with a panoramic view of London. I would be called the vice-president of development. The technology area was important, creating infrastructure for corporate web sites, but not exactly ground breaking.  Everyone wore sharp suits and they offered me 30% more than the other job.

The result…well you can guess. I took the second job and after the initial excitement I had a miserable eighteen months until thankfully the company went bankrupt. It was a good lesson for me. I realised I valued things such as working with friendly, clever people over money and sharp suits, I realised I didn’t care about job titles, but more about intellectually stimulating subjects. I realised that I valued environments where I was respected and listened to.

 So being aware of ourselves isn’t always easy. Ironically it’s particularly difficult when we need the skill the most, when we get flustered, irritated or angry. But little things like internally “checking-in” and asking how we feel today and reflecting on the things we value most can go a long way to improving a very important life skill, both inside and outside work.

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