By Denise Blanc
Understanding our emotions is a key for successfully relating to others and to ourselves. When we tap into the power and insight of emotional intelligence, we respond with greater wisdom to whatever situation we happen to be in. Simply defined, EQ is about being smarter with our feelings.
As we learn to decode our emotions, our emotions no longer need to own us. Daniel Siegel, co-founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, calls this ability “name it to tame it.” We can calm spiraling negative thoughts or intense emotions like fear, rage, or anxiety when we label them while they are happening. By recognizing our emotions in their early stages, we can take effective action before they begin to intensify.
For example, I am driving to an important meeting, but the highway is suddenly at a standstill. I feel anxious, frustrated, and worried that I will be late. I scream at drivers who are honking their horns. But by acknowledging and naming my feelings, I am surprisingly able to calm my emotional response. Now I can combine thinking and feeling more effectively. I may need to call and say that I will be late, or check my GPS for an alternative route. Suddenly, I have more choices. I can also realize that others are completely frustrated – and cut them a little slack.
As we become more emotionally fluent, we come to understand and appreciate the wisdom within each emotion and notice their distinct signals. Guilt can signal that a recent action wasn’t aligned with who we wish to be, or that we may want to apologize for a mistake. Anger tells us that a boundary has been crossed. We can learn to harness this information to make decisions that are in line with our values.
As humans, we hold an amazing power of self-awareness. The Buddhist thinker Henry Vyner calls this awareness the “watcher,” which is different from the “doer.” The watcher notices, “I just interrupted her again, I notice myself becoming defensive, I feel my heart pounding and my hands are sweaty.” When we watch our emotions, our thoughts, and feel our physiology, over time, we begin to influence the doer. By choosing to become self-aware we watch ourselves in action and consciously choose where and how we pay attention. This is emotional intelligence in action.
Those with low EQ typically are unaware of how their actions affect others. They struggle to understand and control their emotions and can lash out reactively. They also fail to read social and emotional signals from others – such as when someone’s voice suddenly drops, or the way their eyes cloud over. Low EQ will show up as lack of self-awareness, insensitivity, limited empathy, and inability to take responsibility for one’s actions. People with low EQ will struggle with their relationships.
The tools to become more emotionally intelligent are rich and varied. Most foundational is our choice to become present to others (and to ourselves) by building self-awareness and becoming aware of our patterns. Mindfulness practices are especially helpful in learning how to remain calm even in the most challenging situations. When we identify the causes and symptoms of stress, people with higher-than-average EQ have an excellent chance of reducing anxiety by generating alternative meanings for stressful events, working with their nervous system, and choosing to act in accordance with their values instead out of reaction.
Emotional intelligence is not a fixed state. Everyone can learn these skills, with intention and practice. We do so in order to deepen our relationships, defuse conflict, become more approachable and empathic – and ultimately more connected to ourselves. Our emotional intelligence will also have powerful ripple effect on others.
The late Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh was famously quoted as saying, “When the crowded refugee boats were met with storms and pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But even if one person remained calm and centered, it was enough for everyone to survive.” As we deepen our emotional intelligence, we can each be that person.
Denise Blanc, MA, PCC is a certified emotional intelligence coach, facilitator, and mediator. She is the author of RiverLogic: Tools to Transform Resistance and Create Flow in all of our Relationships. This article is based on the webinar she presented to NACC on April 20.