Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the ability by which individuals sense, react to, and effectively manage their emotions. And while it may appear that emotional intelligence is a “soft and fuzzy” concept, research shows that professionals across the board—whether in leadership or individual contributor roles—don’t usually fail because of a lack of technical skills; they often fail due to a lack of emotional intelligence.
People with high EI are equipped with critical leadership traits—the ability to manage their emotions, have positive interactions with others, and build strong working relationships. But the question is: Can EI be learned like any other leadership skill? To answer that, Linkage’s own Susan MacKenty Brady, Senior Vice President, Global Programs honestly shares some valuable insights from her own professional development.
“I’ve always been comfortable with people—extraverts unite!” she says enthusiastically. “But the thing is, after completing a Linkage Leadership Assessment early in my career, I learned that I was not as aware of my impact on others as I’d have liked to be. I also discovered that in my comfort and haste to say ‘what’s up’, and ‘what’s so’ for me, I could sometimes give myself more credit than was warranted regarding my circumstances. I was very surprised that others rated my scores on empathy lower than I rated my own (wasn’t I such a nice person?), but I learned the valuable lesson: My impact on others was not always what I intended it to be.
“It took a while (most of my twenties and more of my thirties than I care to admit) to really ‘get’ this, and it forced me to challenge my discomfort with vulnerability. Who wants to be vulnerable at work? I realized—NO ONE! And yet, being vulnerable myself has allowed me to better connect with others and I think my impact is more congruent with my intention now than when I was younger (although I still need to check this). Learning to be more vulnerable means not having to always be right, and not speaking as though I always understand everything about a situation.”
Here is some insight on four skills that Susan believes can help leaders earn their black belt in emotional intelligence.
1. Take the Space
Simply put, it’s important to take the “space” between stimulus (in this context is anything that happens, or is said, that evokes an immediate desire to respond) and one of three hard wired human responses—fight, fix, or flee—that we all have to some degree. Our knee-jerk reaction when we don’t like what we are experiencing will probably be to fight, fix, or flee, but the real power comes from being able gather oneself before reacting to a comment/situation/issue so your response can be as functional (productive, not destructive) as possible.
Taking space can be as simple as taking a breath during a meeting when you feel fired up about something—before you speak (which only takes just a few seconds), or it could involve saying something like ‘I need to take some time to think about that,’ or ‘I can’t talk about this right now, can we schedule some time to speak…’ This is not easy to do—especially when you’re compelled to react. As a fellow traveler on the road of “taking space”, the important thing I find is not to react until I can get myself into a space of neutrality (shifting from reaction to responsiveness) from which a productive conversation can begin.
2. Amp Up Curiosity
Every situation is more complicated than any one person can see, and the only way to understand the complexity or any situation is to get curious and ask questions. Even when I think I’m right, I force myself to get curious because I now assume there’s always something I can’t see. There is a direct correlation between how often I ask for another’s point of view (and take it in and truly hear it) and, my ability to get aligned and cultivate effective and productive working relationships.
When the human brain receives a stimulus (especially one it perceives as negative), it takes time to return to a neutral place. (Daniel Goleman refers to this phenomenon in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ as the Amygdala Hijack.) So, when speaking with someone who is reacting, or complaining, or sharing strong feelings, I’m keenly aware that it isn’t productive to negotiate with them or offer solutions. First acknowledge what is being said or felt and understand that the reaction has to play out before any progress can be made.
4. Clarify the Request
This goes along with curiosity, ask: ‘What is being asked?’ ‘What do I/you request to have happen?’ Again, try to understand not only where the person is coming from, but what they actually need. This will help you to better address the situation and it will also give you time to process your own initial reaction.
Want to learn more? Here’s a reading list Susan recommends to help you get you started.
- Difficult Conversations—By Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen
- Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ —By Daniel Goleman
- 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—By Stephen R. Covey
- The New Rules of Marriage—By Terry Real
- Beyond Yes— By Erica Ariel Fox
- The Ladder of Inference—By Chris Argyris
- The Fifth Discipline Citation—By Peter Senge
Have your emotions gotten the better of you at work? How would taking just a moment before you react help you and your team work better? How do you deal with emotionally difficult or volatile colleagues?
Susan MacKenty Brady is an expert in driving revenue for organizations through the implementation and execution of strategic business development and marketing activities. She is an engaging speaker, coach and teacher, and has deep experience working with executives in a variety of contexts. Prior to re-joining Linkage as Senior Vice President, Susan worked with Mobius Executive Leadership, a premier leadership development consultancy and spinoff of the Harvard Negotiation Project where she coached executives, and led strategic marketing and business development activities.