Emotional intelligence is the intelligent use of emotional data in decision making and behaviour.
When I was completing my Diploma of Positive Psychology and someone was fighting back tears (which happened surprisingly often in a class all about happiness!) the wonderful Sue Langley of Langley group would say that “its ok – it’s just data!”.
She was reminding us that emotions are not things to be afraid of, controlled or ignored. Emotions are rich sources of data, elegantly transmitted through nature and nurture, that keep us safe, productive, adaptive and infinitely creative.
According to the World Economic Forum, emotional intelligence was ranked as one of the top 10 most important workplace skills, when it comes to what workers will need in order to be successful in 2020.
Much has been written and said about emotional intelligence. Daniel Goleman, John Mayer, Peter Salovey, David Caruso, and Australian based researchers Con Stough and Ben Palmer are just a few names to Google.
In these current times of uncertainty, many of us are feeling a whole new repertoire of emotions. Emotions we are not used to and don’t particularly like. I’m here to encourage you, like Rumi in his famous poem The Guest House* – let them all in. They’re all trying to teach us something, and it’s better to make friends with them, than let them run rings around you.
When something is not right – our brains will alert us. What we don’t need to do in those moments is disregard or stifle feelings of unease and anxiety, as a weakness or an insecurity. Instead we need to identify them, name them, and pair them with the memory causing those emotions. That way we don’t let our emotions run us….we invite them in as data that adds value to our decision making process.
Thriving in any environment – whether it be one of abundance or scarcity – means effectively working with and leveraging our emotions. Emotional intelligence is trusting yourself. Trusting that your intuition, paired with your rational capacities, will deliver the best answer for you in any given moment.
Emotions work best when our emotion brain centres (the limbic system – smack bang in the brain centre) and thinking brain centres (prefrontal cortex – the bit behind our forehead) are working as a team.
The limbic system is the house of our emotions and memories. It activates the flight or fight response when it’s time to react to a perceived threat – like someone breaking hard in front of us in traffic. It activates the relaxation response when the threat has passed and it’s time to regain homeostasis (balance). It activates positively valenced emotions that connect and strengthen our social bonds. It activates negatively valenced emotions when it’s time to stand up and fight injustice or right a wrong. When you can feel and name an emotion – that emotion pathway is stored in the depths of your limbic system.
The prefrontal cortex is also called your executive function – because it acts like an executive team who live in your head. Your CEO directs planned action, your Chief Innovation Officer directs creative thinking. Your Chief Communication Officer helps you clearly communicate your intent. Your Chief Operating Officer is helping you prioritise the thousands of actions you perform every single day. Without conscious awareness, your C-suite team is doing an excellent job of keeping you measured, planned, controlled, and responsive.
(Apologies to the more discerning neuroscientists out there for my very basic descriptions of what are in reality highly complex interactive systems).
Working together, these two centres provide a dynamic vehicle for the expression of your unique strengths and personality in the daily enactment of your work and life.
These systems are like an elephant and the rider. The powerful, wise elephant is your limbic system. The alert, cognisant rider is your prefrontal cortex. When the two are working together, they are a dynamic team capable of producing amazing feats.
When the elephant senses something lurking in the jungle, it becomes hyper alert. It flaps its ears and stomps its feet. But it still listens to the rider, it is still able to follow the rider’s instructions and calming notions. It still trusts the rider and is willing to participate in teamwork.
But, when the threat is too real to ignore, the elephant takes off. In this situation, there is nothing the small, insignificant rider can do but hang on for dear life and wait for the elephant to run its course.
Afterwards, there is a trail of destruction, but the elephant and rider are safe and can once again work as a team.
Such is life. When our threat response is peaked, there is very little our prefrontal cortex can do. That is why it is important to be self-aware. To register when the elephant is becoming twitchy. To acknowledge it and learn how to be comfortable with its vulnerability. To foster that deep connection of trust within your own head, that you are capable – like the rider – of taming the beast and encouraging it to continue working as part of a team. And when the elephant ignores you, trust that you can forgive it for its nature and once again rekindle the bond of cooperation.
How can you improve and strengthen that connection between the rider and the elephant? Between your thinking brain and emotional brain?
The first thing is to befriend the elephant. Connect with your emotional state and strengthen your emotional awareness.
The YPO Forum Meeting process contains an extremely simple and useful vehicle for strengthening emotional intelligence. They call it “self-curiosity”. It goes like this….when you feel an emotion – any emotion – say “The emotion I am feeling is….and the memory is….”
By doing this – you connect both with how you’re feeling right now, and how your past experience has influenced you to feel this way in response to this moment.
Here are some examples….
(How is that last one helping me? It’s pushing me to just write and stop self-criticising everything and get the damn thing done already!)
I encourage you – in your quieter moments – to be self-curious. To explore your emotions, appreciate them for their wisdom, give them names, identify where they came from, and thank them for their service.
To up-skill as an EI practitioner – go to:
To read or learn about EI – a must read is Daniel Goleman’s – EI, why it can matter more than IQ.
*The Guest House
This being human is a guest
house. Every morning
a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and attend them all:
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture, still,
treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.