When The Emotion Drops
For this last spring break, I traveled to Portland and Seattle on my first ever Girls Trip. I’m going with two of my closest friends and we set plans almost a year ago. My husband travels all the time, sometimes for work, sometimes with friends. And I’m always at home… just me and the dog. And don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my dog. But it was finally my time. My turn.
A week after I booked my flights, my husband told me he had a new business opportunity. A painter he had been collaborating with for months invited him down to Arizona to make a video series. He was so excited and I was too but… when? The four days right before my trip? Then who’s going to take me to the airport?
He assured me he would be back Sunday so we could spend a little time together before I left, even if it meant driving through the night on Saturday.
A few days later he texted me while I was out with my best friend. “Alan offered to pay for over half my plane tickets!” This was huge, because he just changed jobs and took a pay cut. When I got home, he was just bursting with excitement.
“So when will you get back?”
“You mean like after 8 AM when I fly out?”
The logical part of my brain was screaming in the back of my head. “OH WELL. Cheaper than paying for it yourself! You’ll see each other when you get back!” But it sounded like a distant whisper next to my emotions. Disappointment lit me up like a blinking neon light.
We were interrupted by the doorbell. His brother. They were going to play video games together. Josh tried to hug me as a resolution to the conversation, but I just stood there. Completely rigid.
Two hours passed. I don’t even remember what I did to pass the time while they gamed in the man cave, but somewhere along the way, my emotions cooled down, and my logic caught up.
What happened? My emotional intelligence kicked in.
It’s important to recognize that emotions happen for a reason. They aren’t a bad thing, or a sign of weakness. Sometimes it seems like our society values people who are cool and calculated, logical. But there is nothing wrong with experiencing emotion. In fact, we need to learn to value them. They are a reaction to stimuli. When we’re young, we don’t know what emotions are called, but we still experience them. They start as physical reactions to outside stimuli. When you’re about to cry, your nose starts to burn. When you’re afraid of something, you get tense or your stomach starts to turn. As we grow older, we learn how our body reacts when we feel certain things, and pretty soon we don’t notice the physical symptoms of the emotion; we just think “I’m sad” or “I’m nervous.” Now, we all experience emotions, but some experience them more frequently or more intensely. This is the spectrum of nature in the Myers-Briggs personality test. The spectrum is measuring whether it is more natural for you to use your brain or your heart. The important thing to recognize is this is a spectrum. Although you fall into one camp, or the other, you do both.
Ever talked to someone who you thought had no emotions? I’m friends with several people who I lovingly refer to as “robots” because they are unsentimental, completely lack empathy, and constantly argue logic. But they still experience emotion. They have a harder time processing it and verbalizing it, but I guarantee you that they still have the burning sensation in their nose before they cry (just because someone cries very rarely doesn’t mean they lack emotion; it just means they are not as sensitive as others or haven’t experienced as many things that would cause them to cry). They probably still get nervous. I know they still get angry because they get loud and start yelling and I call them out on it, only to be met with “I’M NOT ANGRY.” Sure. Okay.
However, there is a personality construct called alexithymia, which is defined as “the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self.” There is dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating. It occurs in only 10% of the population though, so it's not common. When your friends says they don’t have feelings, they probably don't have alexithymia; they just aren’t comprehending their emotions very well. They never learned to put a name for an emotion to the physical reaction they experience.
On the flip side, emotional Intelligence, or as we’ll call it “EQ,” is your ability to recognize an emotion as it happens. It might be in others, it might be in yourself. Studies have shown that people with a higher EQ have greater mental health, job performance, and leadership skills. Unlike IQ, it is something that can be developed-- a skill. Something that you can grow and develop in instead of just being assigned a number that will stick with you for the rest of your life.
The Ability Model of Emotional Intelligence breaks EQ into four different processes. Like in my opening story, they often happen without us thinking about it.
I. Perceiving emotions—not only of others’ but also your own.
II. Using emotions—lean in, recognize what is causing that emotion.
III. Understanding emotions—what can the emotion tell us about the situation and ourself?
IV. Managing emotions—be sure not to let any distressing emotion get the best of you and your leadership.
For each person, it looks different. Some people are able to work through these processes very quickly. Some of them require time. Sometimes it depends on the emotion. Sometimes it depends on the situation. There’s not much about emotional competence that is static because emotions are complicated. People are complicated. Relationships are complicated. However, by understanding the processes that go on subconsciously, and how we can be more conscious about them, we can ensure that we are developing more emotional intelligence.
As leaders, it is our duty to strive for emotional intelligence because emotions happen and we need to be able to handle them when they come. Life doesn’t stop for leaders, nor does it stop for the people we are leading.
When I was a junior in high school, I was thriving as a mega band nerd. I was a drum major and would be returning for my second year. I was first chair alto saxophone in jazz band, which automatically puts you in a untitled leadership position. I loved band. I never practiced my instrument, and I didn’t sincerely dig jazz music. But I loved band because my band director, Mr. Rohlfs, was one of the only people who I felt like believed in me. He had been a constant in all of my years of high school. He had given me leadership opportunities, and I would follow him to the end of the earth, because he was one of the most emotionally competent leaders I had ever met. I wouldn’t have known to call him that back then, but there was something about him that drew me into being a follower of his. In hindsight, I recognize that he had emotional intelligence and he exuded healthy confidence in that.
One Monday, he pulled all of us jazz band kids out of class and told us that he would not be returning the next year, my senior year. He was moving to a nearby school district out of town to take the head band director position. It would be better for his family, and it was a great opportunity to have full control over a music department. I was devastated. This man who had poured so much into me wasn’t going to be around for the grand finale to my high school career. He had set me up to be so successful in these two crucial leadership positions, but I didn’t want to do it without him. The room was absolutely silent. We were all heartbroken, and on some level, hurt.
But Mr. Rohlfs understood that, because he was emotionally intelligent. He gave us space, but he was available to talk when we were ready. I eventually sought him out a few days later and told him that initially I was hurt and mad that I would have to be a leader without his guidance, but after processing and some distance from the situation, I realized he had to do what was best for him and his family. His world didn’t revolve around his students, and that was okay.
I learned a lot of things through that situation. I learned that it’s important to recognize that leaders have lives too. I learned it is so valuable to vocalize to someone when you believe in them and see leadership potential. I learned how important it is as a leader, when life happens, to be emotionally competent. He handled that situation with such grace. He had students who were sad, angry at him, and everything in between, but he remained constant. He didn’t let his emotions about the transition affect how he treated us, or even the normal day-to-day of teaching. He was ready to listen and to help us process through the change that was to come. He was empathetic. He was aware. He was available. Now that I have a better understanding of emotional intelligence, and the importance of it in good leaders, I look back and see Mr. Rohlfs (throughout my three years as his student) as a perfect example of emotional competence.
David Goleman, the leading expert on Emotional Intelligence, breaks Emotional Intelligence down into two aspects: self-management and effectiveness in relationship. Full emotional competence comes when you can handle both your own emotions and others’. Across those two aspects, Goleman has separated them into five different categories.
I. Self-awareness (Self-management)
II. Self-Regulation (Self-management)
III. Motivation (Self-management)
IV. Empathy (Effectiveness in Relationships)
V. Social Skills (Effectiveness in Relationships)
Here are 10 practical things you can do to better your emotional intelligence (adapted from this New York Times Article) within Goleman's model mentioned above. Unlike IQ, it’s not “set.” You have the power and the opportunity to develop this skill and become a better leader.
1. Have realistic self-confidence. This is part of self-awareness. This means asking yourself some tough questions. First, what are you really good at? Pinpoint a few things. Okay, now here’s a harder question: What are you bad at? If you can pinpoint your weaknesses, you can surround yourself with people who can fill in those gaps—not only can they help carry the weight, but they can also influence you and help you learn and grow in that area.
2. Develop Emotional Insight. Know what makes you feel things. If you’re aware of things that set you off, or are hard for you to handle, you can be ready when they creep up on you. When people react emotionally, it’s usually because they were taken off guard. If you’ve mentally prepared, or planned how you would react in a similar situation, you are more likely to keep a level-head.
3. Develop resilience. This is directly tied to developing your emotional insight. Once you know what sets you off, it doesn’t mean it’s never going to upset you again. But you can make a plan on how to recover from moments like that. Learn how to bounce back.
4. Keep emotional balance. Anytime you have a distressful feeling, like nervousness, anger, sadness, pay attention to what is triggering it and try to compensate for it by focusing on the positives. This will require intentionality on your part, and it will feel difficult and unnatural when you first start doing it, but by taking a step back from a situation, you can maintain a balance and a level-headed position.
5. Tap into self-motivation. Before you can do this though, you need to set some goals. What are you hoping to accomplish? Have mixture of long-term and short-term goals. And make choices that will propel you toward those goals. Apathy is not a sign of emotional competence. It shows a lack of motivation and empathy.
6. Develop Cognitive and Emotional Empathy. Cognitive Empathy means you can understand other perspectives and you welcome questions. Emotional Empathy means you can read another person’s feelings and understand why they feel that way. Together, these create an ability to relate to people as well as look at situations objectively, without any bias.
7. Be a good listener. Remember that hearing something and listening are two very different things. In order to be a good listener, you need to pay full attention when someone is speaking; don’t be working on other things, thinking about what you’re going to eat next, all the things you have to do, etc. You also should actively think about what they are saying. Take time to understand and apply that cognitive and emotional empathy discussed previously.
8. Strive for compelling communication. Whenever you’re communicating, formally or informally, you should work to implement persuasive language, with clear points and transparent expectations. By communicating in such a way, you will be easy to understand, easy to relate to, and interesting to converse with. Imbue your communication with passion and zeal to convince others that you are a person worth following.
9. Be a team player. If you’re a team player, people feel relaxed with you because they can tell you care about the group as a whole. A tell-tale sign of whether someone is comfortable with you is if they laugh easily around you (and not that awkward fake laugh that we do to humor people; I mean like REAL laughter).
10. Push yourself in social situations. Not all of us are good in front of a crowd. Not all of us enjoy mingling. Regardless, we need to put ourselves in social situations that make us uncomfortable. The more we expose ourselves to these difficult situations, the more comfortable in our own skin we will become, which will in turn make us more comfortable with others.
Remember, a skill is something you can build over time with intentionality and purpose. Building our emotional intelligence will not only benefit those around us, but it will help us in our personal development as well. I don't really see a downside to it, so do it.