With emotional intelligence, you’re able to look at yourself, make a connection and reflect, even in stressful situations
The paradox about feelings is this: we think we control our emotions, but they tend to control us. We are like ducks on the water—we appear to be in control, but what’s happening underneath? Most of us are paddling as fast as we can! We think we’ve got the situation under control, but it’s wearing us out physically under the water.
The American Heart Association calls this concept habituation. We get to the point where we are so “under control” of everything that we “push everything down.” But we’re like that duck—we are still doing all that paddling regardless of how we look on the surface.
Have you ever been at a stoplight with your car on high idle? What happens when you take off? You spin your tires. Many people think they have everything under control, but they are pushing it down and not dealing with it—they are living on high idle. A leader perceives that he has it all under control. He’s not emotional. He makes decisions on facts. But you cross him —bam! Now he’s angry. He is on a high idle, and he lacks emotional intelligence.
Do You Monitor Your Emotions?
A lot of people lack good dashboard monitors. Some dashboards in cars now look like cockpits in airplanes—they monitor everything. That’s like an emotionally intelligent person. Other people are like the old cars that only had a check engine light. So, some people can monitor their environment, understand what’s going on around them, and sense the emotional undercurrents. They have intuition. Women tend to have more intuition and emotional and situational intelligence, which is a decisive advantage.
The people who only have the check engine light tend to be men because men are thought to control their emotions. Men tend to have the check engine light come on in anger or arousal. That’s why male leaders so often get in trouble. Many successful men screw up and start yelling and screaming when they think they have it all under control. Or they made unwise choices like have a stupid affair or fall into dangerous addictions. We read such stories in the news every day. And a lot of it is biological, psychological, and emotional.
Many people who serve in the military or as police or firefighters—some of the most challenging jobs in the world—learn to suppress their emotions. And if they never deal with them, these emotions become repressed. That’s why they may struggle with PTSD, panic attacks, or acute stress disorder. It has to do with handling those emotions and press them down so long that they come back at you. A guy gets out of the military and says, “I’m out of all that.” Then all of a sudden, flashbacks hit him. So, no matter how tough you are, you’ve got to deal with the emotions.
How to Get Out of Hijack Mode
As leaders, we need emotional intelligence—the ability to monitor our emotions and use them appropriately. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., author of Emotional Intelligence and Working with Emotional Intelligence, says, “Emotional intelligence is being able to hover outside of yourself and look at yourself, so you don’t get ‘hijacked by your emotions.” Getting hijacked happens in the amygdala, a part of the brain which deals with survival, but it usurps you and suspends assumptions for survival purposes.
For example, Goleman explains that anger causes blood to flow to our hands, making it easier to strike an enemy or hold a weapon. Our heart rate speeds up, and a rush of hormones – including adrenaline – and creates a surge of energy strong enough to take “vigorous action.” In this way, anger has been ingrained into our brains to protect us.
Think of anger like an iceberg, a large piece of ice found floating in the open ocean. Most of the iceberg is hidden below the surface of the water. Similarly, when we are angry, there are usually other emotions hidden beneath the surface. It’s easy to see a person’s anger, but it can be challenging to see the underlying feelings the anger is protecting.
Step back and look at yourself to get yourself out of survival mode and into emotional intelligence mode. You can step outside of yourself and look at yourself and say, “I’ve been a Bear.” That’s why I use a cartoon in the Journey to Newland story—it gives people immediate emotional intelligence. They see, “I’m also dealing with the Bear.” Or, “I have been a Bear.” It provides a safe and fun environment to be open and honest.
By seeking to understand and accept anger rather than fix or suppress it, you can begin to improve their relationships by recognizing their anger as a signal that they need to set healthy boundaries for what you would and would not do.
High-Trust Culture Helps Foster Emotional Intelligence
Sometimes there is no openness in work culture, and it’s expected that people repress feelings. You’ll only be open in the grapevine, not in front of others. But you can’t build trust that way. Inappropriate obsessions, actions, and expressions do not build trust—they destroy trust. In most meetings, people are barely open—they are not releasing what they think, particularly how they feel. And then they go to lunch with somebody they trust and say, “Well, that was a joke of a meeting. Wasn’t it? I’ll tell you what the real problem is…”
In a high-trust culture, you can be just as open in the group as you are with individuals when you go to lunch. The best teams are very open and have high emotional intelligence. Team members say what they really feel about a situation, and they express it appropriately. When decisions don’t go their way, they say, “I disagree with the decision. Here’s how I feel about it.” There’s no groupthink mentality.
If you have a closed low-trust culture and clogged communication channels, you need to use the Drano of respect: suspending assumptions, valuing differences, and optimal listening. Otherwise, your meetings will be places where ideas come to die, and your decisions and solutions will not be prime because of a lack of trust and openness.
For three tips for listening to anger, check out The Anger Iceberg from The Gottman Institute.
Bill Poole is CEO of J2N Global and author of Journey to Newland.