Imagine the following scenario. There’s a meeting. Decisions are made about an important project that has not gone exactly to plan. Despite initial reactions, Jim the team leader discovers all members aren’t as agreeable about the next course of action as assumed.
Corina was relieved the team had agreed to hold off on the next phase of the project. They needed more information to satisfy her lingering doubts. Erik objected, but everyone else seemed to think waiting made sense.
Or so she thought. When she ran into Jim, he seemed brusque. Hadn’t he just agreed that waiting made sense? Yes, but Corina missed Jim’s subtle body language and emotional cues that indicated his words were far from what he was truly feeling. Why did she miss it? Underdeveloped emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to understand, perceive, monitor and discriminate between different emotions and then use that information to guide thinking and behavior. Like varying degrees of IQ, people have varying degrees of emotional intelligence. Those who are less perceptive to emotional cues may find themselves assuming one thing about people only to find out the opposite is the reality. This can make relationships challenging.
To be clear, emotional intelligence is not about the degree someone expresses emotions. It’s about how in tune one is to how emotions play into relationships, how emotions hinder or propel performance.
Why Does It Matter?
Learning leaders are frequently presented with teams full of smart, capable people, yet they just can’t get along. Trainers are asked to fix these teams and help them learn how to function more effectively. Multiple elements play into effective team performance, but emotional intelligence is often overlooked.
At its most basic level, emotional intelligence is about valuing humanity. Human beings have a deep need to be understood — even when they struggle to express themselves or show what they truly feel. Being understood enables people to feel connected, and being connected, understood and sensing you belong is fundamental to be an effective, contributing team member.
But it goes deeper than this. People’s ability to read and understand each other is fundamental to build trust in relationships. Team members do not have to personally like one another, but they need an essential level of trust that allows them to believe their participation will be met with others’ efforts and that together, common goals will be met. But trust isn’t an automatic emotion; it has to be earned.
Too often we presume people will trust our word or our intentions because we self-identify as good, nice people, but it falls flat if not earned. Taking time to become familiar with each other leads to more comfort, which ultimately leads to trust. Emotional intelligence is understanding that relationships need familiarity and comfort to grow, then taking the time to listen and learn about another person through that lens.
Emotional intelligence hinges on ones’ ability to empathize, to imagine oneself from the others’ perspective and allow that person to be different while still being inclusive. People learn how to empathize throughout childhood via the role models and experiences they have. Yet when a heart is willing, empathy can be learned.
People need the ability to empathize with others’ psychologies — the shy, the brash, the expressive, the introvert and the culturally different, as well as the broken, suspicious and abused. That way, whatever shaped their worldviews or preferred way of communicating, their egos and emotional defenses are factored into how people relate, listen to and interact with them.
Empathy allows people to recognize the signs and gives that person the grace and acceptance he or she needs without knowing someone’s personal story. How many times have we seen one person speak up about a frustration only to have someone else dismiss it as irrelevant? The dismissal and judgment only push the other person further away, compelling them to fight or defend, and this breaks down any real opportunity for acceptance and understanding.
Countless times in disconnects and disagreements, the root of the problem is one person’s inability to be empathetic to someone else’s point of view. High emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize that even if we may not see the issue the same way, the people have a right to feel the way they do, and it’s inappropriate to dismiss it or to judge them.
There are various ways people learn empathy. Insight into their own and others’ psychological makeup and personality traits, as well as knowledge of their own and others’ cultural influences, are primary ways to learn the empathy required to improve emotional intelligence.
Learning leaders can explore the following areas to improve emotional intelligence.
Cultivate self-awareness.To learn empathy, we first must understand ourselves. What is our unique psychological makeup? How do we perceive our world? How do we perceive ourselves? What forces shaped and influenced us, and what parts of our personality were we born with? Self-awareness must be cultivated, but so must self-compassion, because we cannot learn to see others with empathy if we are harshlyjudging ourselves.
Learning leaders can use various personality tests and hold discussions to foster a sense of self-acceptance and understanding of the many factors that influence one’s behavior and communication style. Educate people on the various forces that shape our personalities and the “lens” that we use to see the world.
It is essential for people to see this kind of development not as something “the organization requires,” but as something directly tied to their ability to be successful. Leaders have to create a safe place where self-awareness is viewed as a growth opportunity to get people to honestly reflect on who they are and why they behave as they do.
Create other-awareness.Once we are self-aware, we can begin to explore others psychological and personality makeup and differences. For example, many people have backgrounds of abuse or humiliation. Even when they have done healthy emotional healing work, certain characteristics can remain and create a higher barrier for trust.
Use storytelling and mindful reflection to foster empathy. In that safe space, people should be encouraged to tell their stories and to listen without judging. Facilitators might then ask reflective questions to show participants how to build empathy by imagining themselves in another’s place. By being out of our normal comfort zone and considering how others feel, we can compare how others perceive and react to the world with our own reactions.
We need information to open our eyes to how things are different. Learning the “whys” behind our differences builds understanding, and when we couple it with compassion andhumility, itallows us to see through differences — not ignore them. Then we can learn how to behave toward each other in ways that make us each feel valued, respected and understood. But first, we have to break down the fear of making mistakes or being politically incorrect. Everyone should feel safe enough to discuss differences.
Embrace cultural awareness.Every person on this planet has his or her own culture — country, race, economic, regional, educational, religious and upbringing are all elements that make life normal. A person’s culture will clash with others when there is no mindful awareness of differences. This is not just a diversity and inclusion issue; this is a human tendency.
To build cultural awareness, people first need to be educated on why cultural self-awareness matters and how they must “own” their culture and be responsible for what they bring to relationships. We need to understand what emotions mean within our own and other cultures. Each culture has macro and micro nuances that influence our perception about what emotions are, what emotions are appropriate in given circumstances, and how to respond or react to the emotions we perceive in others.
Assuming similarities — what others feel and have the same assumptions of normal — can mean being blindsided when differences appear. These differences are neither wrong nor right; they’re just different. They feel wrong because they are not rooted in what we deem culturally appropriate. They surprise us and create conflict and misunderstandings when we are not intentionally aware of what our differences are, how they matter and why they need to be honored.
The question we need to ask is: With our psychological, personality and cultural differences, how can we work together to honor and respect each other?
Build emotional intelligence by developing empathy toward ourselves and others. Thisallows us to expand our definition and acceptance of difference,while fostering ways to embrace those differences with respect and dignity.It allows us to be mindful of why people behave, react and communicate in certain ways, so we can meet them where they are and,together, create highly functioning teams that drive business performance.
Emotional intelligence can be taught and learned by zeroing in on empathy and by rooting it in a deeper discussion and learning about the differences that form the basis of emotional differences. When people know why others react as they do, they can reach for true understanding, create goodwill and focus on achieving common goals.