Aristotle said “Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.” When emotions surge, it is often tense, uncertain and fearful ground we tread. Irrational thoughts and behaviours can overtake us.
At the core of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is the ability to be aware of your emotion as you experience it, and the capacity to remain aware and responsible in moments of intensity. “Responsible” is a compound word made of “response” + “able”, meaning the ability to choose our response as opposed to being reactive, or not in control. Other traits of EQ are: Self-motivation, persistence, optimism, delayed gratification, regulation of our moods, and recognizing and understanding emotions in others – empathy.
Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and pioneer in the field, says “emotions are an impulse to act.” They are the engines of human behaviour. Given this, it would seem most everyone would want a better understanding of the forces that drive us. But adults looking inward at their emotions is like kids taking medicine. Neither wants to do it, but neither will get better until they do.
The last decade saw an unparalleled study of emotion and the mind. Science tells us that Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, is relatively fixed while EQ can be increased. Our deepest feelings, passions, and longings are guides that help our species thrive but can get out of control. The typical view of minimizing emotions in our lives, especially at work, is short-sighted since they play such a huge role. Ignoring emotion, trying to push it out of your awareness, simply blinds you to it’s influence. Understanding the impact of emotion on decisions and communication is essential when navigating the complex system of authority and interdependence in any workplace.
Science asserts that the emotional part of our brain is much older in our species than the intellectual part of our brain. Automatic reactions have always been the difference between survival and death, and each emotion plays a unique part in those reactions. Unfortunately we often confront ordinary, modern dilemmas with reactions from this “primitive brain.” Irregardless of your beliefs about evolution, it’s critical to your EQ that you understand the physiological portion of the “primitive” brain, and the role it plays in your work relationships.
We have an emotional mind and a rational mind, one that thinks and one that feels. Both have their roles. Usually the two minds are balanced and coordinated, but in a rush of emotional intensity the scales can tip, and the emotional mind captures the upper hand. Goleman describes this phenomenon as a Neuro-Hijacking. The emotional brain (limbic) declares an emergency and recruits the rest of the brain to its urgent agenda. The hijack happens in an instant before the rational brain (neocortex) knows fully what’s going on, let alone if it is a good idea. Think about the last time you “lost it.” When looking back, it later seems unnecessary. There is good reason why this happens.
The amygdala, located between the brain stem and the limbic portion of the brain, plays a special role in emotional matters. It works like an alarm system that sends messages to every part of the brain. When you hear a noise in the dark, the sudden movement of an unknown shape causes you to jump before you know what it is. This is useful and helps to insure our survival. Unfortunately this same mechanism often kicks into gear when our survival is not threatened. In social situations when we feel criticized, or threatened in any way, being led by the emotional brain alone can be disastrous. Like an Indy car careening around the track with the throttle stuck and the steering wheel gone. This is not useful.
How do we fix it? One way to understand and “fix” this problem is to look at it as simple physiology. Why does the amygdala jump to conclusions before all the evidence is in? It happens because the emotional brain is far less complicated than the thinking brain. The emotional brain senses danger, decides immediately, and sounds the alarm. New research shows that there are many more neurons carrying messages from the amygdala to the neocortex than there are in the reverse direction. Once the alarm goes out the thinking brain, hijacked in the intensity of the moment, becomes a full partner in the primitive activities of fight or flight. It’s like there’s an eight lane freeway going one direction, and a Jamaican back road going the other. Regaining control isn’t easy.
Primitive brain reactions are prevalent in the workplace, but they are much more subtle than they sound. People fight by quietly debating, by talking behind each other’s backs, or through the varied forms of office politics. They freeze and flee by keeping their mouths shut, playing it safe, and not engaging. Indeed, many workplaces are mostly run by the primitive brain.
The old sayings of “count to ten” or “take a deep breath” take on new significance as scientifically-based antidotes to the human condition of “temporary insanity.” All actions are motivated by feelings. Emotions put us in motion. We can always choose how we respond to an emotion. Taking a deep breath calms the system and gives the rational brain a moment to catch up. Just to realize in the moment that you have been hijacked by your amygdala is a huge leap in self-awareness and a huge help in your relationships.
The mission, should you choose to accept it, is to develop your Emotional Intelligence. Awareness of your feelings is the key to self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is the key to self-management and improvement. Emotional Intelligence is not the much feared “touchy feely” openness wherein people are pushed to share their personal lives and inner emotional states in every interaction. Emotional Intelligence is an intentional increase in one’s capacity to recognize one’s emotions, and to use that information to make intentional, productive choices in our personal and work lives.
By Associate Mark Horswood – From Human Factors 8.2, Winter, 2008