Emotional Intelligence Questions Answered

Our recent column on emotional intelligence – the capacity to express feelings appropriately, interact empathically and use information about one’s own feelings and the feelings of others to make choices in the workplace– elicited thoughtful responses from many readers.

A common question we received following the tragic events of Sept. 11 was: “How is emotional intelligence relevant given the recent attacks?”

The attacks on the U.S. resulted in loss of life, livelihood, security and innocence for many around the world. As with any loss, powerful emotions including rage, fear, sadness, confusion, helplessness and vengeance were triggered. It is crucial during times of unprecedented stress for people to be aware of the full range of their feelings, manage these feelings intelligently, empathize with others and consciously choose their responses to emotionally charged situations.

Managing the feelings elicited by the U.S. tragedy will be a difficult daily task for some, especially those personally touched by loss. Others may experience a vague malaise or sense of things not being quite the same. Emotional intelligence helps workers stay connected, remain patient with themselves and others, understand that their tumultuous feelings are normal and make choices to act on their emotions in a way that is aligned with their values and goals.

Workers who work alone or have no physical workplace can monitor their feelings for signs of loneliness or isolation and an accompanying desire to withdraw. Should these feelings occur a decision can be made to resist the urge to avoid people in favour of seeking connection with others.

Another reader asked more generally, “How does emotional intelligence help staff groups who can’t let go of anger, resentment and recurring bouts of vengeance?”

Cycles of hurt feelings, anger and resentment that culminate in acts of vengeance (from backbiting to, in extreme cases, workplace violence) towards colleagues are common responses to feelings of powerlessness, loss of control, and rejection in the workplace. Emotional intelligence provides workers with the opportunity to understand these cycles, recognize the feelings involved and decide how to respond.

Rather than seek revenge when feeling powerless, for example, staff can articulate their values and goals to themselves and react based on those values and goals. For example, if being honest and dealing directly with workmates is a behaviour that you value, emotional intelligence skills including self-awareness and self-management provide you with a choice when you’re experiencing powerful emotions.

On a practical note, another reader asks, “How does emotional intelligence help people perform better in meetings?”

Standard strategies for effective meetings, such as creating a precise agenda, establishing clear beginning and end times and being prepared are important skills but not always enough.

To be emotionally intelligent at meetings means understanding the dynamics of the people in the room, how others may be feeling and the impact your contribution may be having as various topics are discussed.

The more intense the topic (corporate restructuring and layoffs, for example), the higher the need for emotional intelligence.

Leaders and staff members can recognize how their own behaviour and attitudes might affect others and how others may feel in circumstances that arise during meetings, such as conflict or the fallout from reporting poor financial results.

Empathy training and an ability to recognize common interpersonal scenarios will help reduce conflict and unproductive blaming. It will let all participants have their voices heard at the meeting.

One reader wanted to know how emotional intelligence can help people say the right thing at the right time.

Emotional intelligence helps staff be constructive in their communications and if they slip-up, to repair the rift quickly. Since faux pas and regrettable remarks are often made under stress, understanding one’s emotions when in stressful circumstances aids this process. If someone feels defensive regularly, with the help of emotional intelligence they can be aware of that tendency in themselves and be better prepared should that emotion surface in a work situation.

Rather than engaging in knee jerk reactions, workers can slowly take the time to analyze whether their initial defensive response is warranted or effective. Emotional intelligence training helps workers recognize the feeling before acting on it and later regretting ineffective responses.

One reader wrote, “I can relate to emotional intelligence intellectually but it is hard to put the concepts into practice. How do I learn to do that?”

We believe the optimal way to learn new skills and ways of being is through experience. It is the best way to create lasting change in people. We encourage our corporate clients to engage in intense action-oriented learning about emotions and the role they play in their work relationships.

Real change can occur when people feel safe to learn and ask questions as well as participate voluntarily to a comfortable level of intensity.

Another person wondered how emotional intelligence could help him deal better with his customers.

Emotional Intelligence enhances customer service and sales ” and thus business performance ” when staff are highly in tune with customer feelings.

Harried, stressed or irate customers pose a challenge for service workers while sales people deal continually with rejection. Both types of workers are most effective if they can maintain a consistently positive, upbeat focus. But being rejected or regularly under fire can make it hard to stay positive.

“Learned optimism” is effective in this regard. The term, coined by U.S. psychologist Martin Seligman, refers to the capacity to perceive set backs as temporary, changeable. When workers without “learned optimis” face critical comments or set backs they tend to personalize the rejection rather than seeing the problem as temporary and not about themselves.

Emotional intelligence helps staff to increase their optimism, stay motivated and avoid personalizing criticism.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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