“It is very important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart over head—it is the unique intersection of both.”
– David Caruso
In today’s workplace, technical aptitude will get us only so far. Emotional intelligence has emerged as a significant contributor to the success of individuals in the workplace and in life. Having high emotional intelligence becomes even more critical for development professionals in leadership roles as the job requires us to engage and motivate others. Although there is much research about emotional intelligence, many struggle to understand exactly what it is. What is emotional intelligence?
Simply explained, emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to identify and understand what we are feeling in a given situation, manage those emotions, recognize the behavior and emotions of others, and, finally, communicate effectively to manage relationships in a healthy way. Sounds easy enough, right? The harsh reality is that all of us will face situations that will challenge our emotional intelligence. With training, we can improve our ability to manage our emotions, recognize what is happening, and communicate better.
Imagine finding yourself in the following situation: Traffic is terrible, and you are running late for work. You skid into a parking space, leap out of your car, grab your briefcase and coffee, and run to your office, splashing coffee on yourself along the way. As you set down your briefcase on your desk, you hear, “Good morning…do you have a minute to talk?” You look up to find your one of the development officers on your team eagerly awaiting your reply. An alarm from your phone pops up reminding you of a meeting across campus in 15 minutes. As you dab at the coffee stain on your shirt, you remember you have an important lunch meeting with a donor.
What do you feel after imagining yourself in that situation? Stress? Frustration? Anxiety? Many may feel the urge to blow off these intrusions, “Not now. Whatever it is will have to wait!” There are numerous ways we could respond based on our stress triggers and most of them are counterproductive. This is where emotional intelligence comes into play—recognizing what we are feeling in the moment and managing those emotions.
First, let’s dispel a common myth: If someone is not great at emotional intelligence, he or she never will be. With intention and practice, emotional intelligence can be learned. We can improve our abilities by expanding our knowledge of the topic and by putting into practice a few strategies that lead to greater success.
Let’s tackle the first skill to increasing our EI: self-awareness. Having self-awareness allows us to better identify and understand our own emotions. In Dr. David Walton’s book, Emotional Intelligence: A Practical Guide, he asks the reader a simple question: “Have you ever driven to work and then upon arrival, not really remembered the drive?” Walton refers to this as operating on autopilot. As we maneuver through our typical days in the office, we are often on autopilot, performing our typical tasks, attending meetings, etc. While this is not an inherently bad thing, when a stressful situation arises and we are operating on autopilot, we will likely respond in ways that are familiar to us but perhaps not effective.
Emotional intelligence research suggests the antidote to autopilot is practicing mindfulness— being fully engaged. Mindfulness is paying close attention to what is happening in the present moment—both within us and with others—and then based on what we are observing, we choose how to react. Most of us would say that we pay attention at work, but do we really? How quickly do we recognize when we are stressed? In the moment? A few hours or days later?
Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman says, “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”
Without mindfulness, our immediate reactions to stressful situations rely on memories from our past—our autopilot response. Our memories and experiences can influence our interpretation of events and cause us to fall into a pattern of behavior we’ve used to cope with stress since we were young. And learned reactions to stress aren’t always appropriate. They may alleviate short-term pressure but can create more significant problems down the road to both ourselves and our relationships. Mindfulness allows us to see what is really going on and perhaps react differently.
Those of us in leadership roles have added responsibility to be intentional about being mindful. If our learned response to stress is exemplifying less than healthy behaviors, we can drive disconnection and add unnecessary turmoil to the lives of our employees. Practicing mindfulness will alert us more quickly to the signs of stress: upset stomach, holding stress in our neck and shoulders, not sleeping well, etc. When we recognize these signs, we can take steps to circumvent poor response choices with better ones, like going for a walk or talking to someone we trust.
To practice mindfulness, simply begin by paying attention to your own inner self. Recognize the emotions you are feeling, when your body is becoming tense, how positive or negative you are being, and the ways in which you are looking to alleviate stress. This is the first step everyone can take to developing stronger emotional intelligence skills.
Recognizing you are feeling stress, you take a deep breath and ask your development officer, “Walk with me?” She eagerly nods. You make a quick call to let the colleague you are meeting with know that you might be a few minutes late. You are able to address your development officer’s questions as you walk across campus. After the meeting, you remember you have fresh shirts from the dry cleaner in your car and swing by and grab one. Realizing it is a beautiful day, you slow your pace, breathe deeply and make a plan to always carry a crisp, clean shirt in your car.
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