“Emotional intelligence” is a popular phrase in leadership development. There are several well-known models of emotional intelligence, and I wrote a summary of them in a previous blog post. The models have several attributes in common including self-awareness and self-management. Even though the phrase “emotional intelligence” is used commonly and easily in leadership and workplace settings, I’m struck by how hesitant we are to talk about emotions in the context of leadership and the workplace. But if we want to increase our self-awareness and self-management, we must be willing to talk about our emotions and our relationship to them.
Our emotions come to work with us whether we acknowledge them or not. Ideally we feel the whole spectrum of emotions at work, such as feeling pride at a job well done and feeling relaxed and confident in our interactions with others. Of course, these aren’t usually the feelings that we find challenging. Instead, many of us experience organizational change that leaves us feeling stressed and anxious. Or we have conflict with others, and we feel angry and upset. Our emotions can keep us from thinking clearly or behaving constructively. So what do we do with our emotions, so that we can be effective leaders and colleagues?
Name it. A study done at UCLA found that putting feelings into words makes sadness and anger less intense. They suggest that this is why talking or writing in a journal about something that upsets us can actually make us feel better. However, it is important to use the language of feelings. For instance, if you look at a picture of an angry face, it triggers a response in your amygdala, the “fight-or-flight” part of your brain that says you are in danger. If you label the face as “angry,” it lessens the response in your amygdala. However, if you label the face with someone’s name, there is no change. Many of us need some practice at labeling our own emotions. If you are one of them, here’s a good place to start.
Look underneath. Our emotions are frequently driven by the stories we make up in our own heads. For example, a co-worker is a late for an important meeting, and you quietly fume. It is so unprofessional to be late! How could he leave me in the lurch like that?? It’s only afterward that you find out he was up all night in the emergency room with a sick child, and he got to work as soon as possible. Check in with yourself to ask, what do I know to be true, and where am I filling in the blanks with my assumptions? Recognize when you may be jumping to conclusions since this is often what drives our emotions.
Breathe deep. When we are stressed or upset, most of us have heard the advice to pause and “Take a deep breath.” It turns out that this can actually change your emotional state. In her book The Happiness Track, Emma Seppälä refers to several studies that demonstrate a cause-and-effect connection between our breathing patterns and our emotions. In one study, when participants were instructed to take shallow, rapid breaths, they started to feel anxious or angry. When they were asked to instead take long, deep breaths, they started to feel calm. As Dr. Seppälä points out, given that it is nearly impossible to talk ourselves out of our feelings, changing your breath is a powerful way to immediately change your emotional state.
Emotional intelligence means having self-awareness and self-management, including of your emotions. We can’t control having emotions, but we can change the way we relate to our emotions so that they don’t control us.