Emotional Intelligence? I Thought I Mastered That

Emotional Intelligence Dam

It’s hard to read leadership articles in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fast Company, or Businessweek and not see the benefits of emotional intelligence(EI). Many even argue that a high EI is a more vital indicator of success than IQ. So can this obsession with EI harm us?

We’ve read the articles and the statistics are clear. The best leaders display high emotional intelligence. Advancing in today’s workplace requires more than a genius-level IQ.

Emotional Intelligence? Dam It!

We know the importance of identifying our emotions, and we’ve worked hard to ensure we professionally respond to those emotions. Each day, in each meeting and in each hallway interaction, we keep our emotions in check.

Keeping our emotions in check is difficult, but we believe we’ve found an effective tool with these steps:

  1. First, we can identify our building emotions
  2. Next, we tell our feelings to dial it back
  3. Then, we scold them for being irrational
  4. Finally, we wrestle the control of our behaviors from our emotional brain and engage our logical brain

On the surface, this approach to maintaining a high level of emotional intelligence seems effective. We can continue to operate with this approach for months or even years.

Then one day, it happens. Our seemingly effective tool for managing emotions fails. A dam breaks, and a violent eruption occurs.

What the ___ just happened?? ( insert favorite expletive)

Daniel Goleman – Four Components of Emotional Intelligence

While Peter Salovey and Jack Mayer first coined the term emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman introduced the concept to the world. Goleman’s international best seller encouraged us to investigate why EI might contribute more to our success than IQ. Goleman defines emotional intelligence by describing a framework built on four components:

1 – Self-Awareness: Knowing what you’re feeling and why you feel it, how it’s affecting what you do, what you think.

2 – Self-Management: Not only knowing what you’re feeling but handling your destructive emotions so that they’re less disturbing.

3 – Empathy: Knowing what other people are thinking. Or rather, what other people are feeling.

4 – Relationship Management: Putting that all together so as to manage effective relationships – i.e. handling your relationships well.

All four EI components may not be trivial to practice, but they are simple enough concepts to understand.

Each component has its set of challenges, but the one that seems to trip most of us up is self-management.

As a society, we envy those that can keep their emotions in check. Misty eyes have no place in the office.

We rarely look below the surface at our methods of keeping our emotions in check.

Tough Guys Don’t Cry?

Tough GuysI used to joke with my kids that I cry every ten years whether I need to or not. Because of this, they are always looking to catch their dad as a blubbering mess.

My grandfather had a profound influence on my life. When I attended his funeral, it had been some time since I shed serious tears. However, when the highlight reel of his life began to play at the funeral, I lost it.

It wasn’t just misty eyes.

It was a full-on ugly wailing cry.

Fortunately for my tough guy facade, my kids were 900 miles away from that funeral. Whoa, dodged a bullet there!

Like many leaders, I often feel the need to project strength to those around me.

I can’t let my kids see my emotions.

Those I lead can’t see me as vulnerable.

I must portray a high degree of emotional intelligence, right?

Angry Eyebrows

Angry Eyes   

My attempt to keep my emotions in check had unintended consequences. Rather than working through emotions as they occurred, I began to store them in a mental reservoir.

With my grandfather, I had many questions I never asked: Confused – add to the reservoir.

I never thanked him for his influence in my life: Regret – add to the reservoir.

There were frustrations left unresolved: Frustration – add to the reservoir.

I thought I was placing all of these emotions in an isolated corner of my brain. But, it wasn’t just the regrets or frustrations with my grandfather. I also used the reservoir for any event that triggered a negative emotional response.

Eventually, the reservoir began to build to the point where it impacted my interactions with those around me—stress lines formed from the corners of my eyes. My typical smile faded to tighten lips.

On a road trip with our young family, it became apparent my high EI facade wasn’t working. Several minutes into the stack of road trip movies, our four-year-old yells out, “Dad! Mr. Potato Head has your eyes!”

Initially, I thought it might have been a compliment. It wasn’t. Our four-year-old was pointing at his “angry eyes.”

Decades later, my wife and kids still give me grief for my angry eyebrows. They can spot it immediately if I allow too much to build inside my head.

I may think I appear to have it all together. I’m not fooling anyone. It’s a facade. Apparently, the first signs of cracks in that facade are my “Mr. Potato Head angry eyebrows.”

Penstocks and Spillways

Emotional ReservoirAny reservoir that has stood the test of time has two critical design elements: penstocks and spillways.

The first element, the penstock, directs water leaving the reservoir in a controlled and productive manner. The beginning of the penstock typically has a control gate to regulate water flow. In some reservoirs, this flow of water powers electric generating turbines. In others, it allows a precise amount of water to enter an irrigation canal without flooding.

The second element, the spillway, is for emergency use only. When a flood of water enters a reservoir at a rate faster than the penstock can handle, the water will flow over the spillway. The spillway supports a significant flow for a short duration. Without a spillway, brief storms can instantly destroy a dam and drain the entire reservoir.

Three Ways to Handle Feelings

In many ways, how we handle our feelings can resemble a physical reservoir. There are three ways to address feelings as they flow into the “reservoirs” in our minds:

1 – We Allow Them to Flow Unrestrained

When we allow our feelings to flow unrestrained, we pass on the feelings we have to those around us. If I’m angry, I’ll pass that anger on to you. When we continually choose this path, it often isolates us or requires us to repair relationships constantly.

2 – We Close the Gate

When we close the gate, we might get quiet and bottle up that emotion inside. While this approach seems less destructive than the first, it’s dangerous. This approach is building a ticking time bomb. Eventually, the emotional dam will give way, and those around us will likely suffer from an explosive reaction.

While the second approach to handling our feelings is potentially destructive, there is one tool to minimize the damage: the spillway. The spillway is also known as “venting.” Observing the rising pressure, we can briefly unload on a trusted friend and relieve some of our pent-up emotions. While this may help avoid a catastrophe, it is not built for consistent use. If used too often, it can strain even the best of relationships.

3 – We Put Our Feelings to Work

The third approach diverts our feeling to be processed by a higher level of our brains. In other words, we put our feelings to work.

True Emotional Intelligence

Whether it’s regret, anger, sadness, frustration, or any of the other 34,000 emotions, bottling them up rarely ends well. While the wailing spectacle at my grandfather’s funeral ended with lighthearted jabs from my kids, often, the consequences are much more severe.

Careers and relationships have been ended because of the “close the gate” approach to emotional intelligence.

What is a more practical approach to managing the constant stream of emotions?

In a recent leadership discussion, Dr. Karyn Gordon stated:

“Our thoughts drive how we feel. Our feelings drive our behavior.” – Dr. Karyn Gordon

As parents, we often inadvertently invalidate feelings and punish lousy behavior without looking at the root cause, the thought behind the emotion. Dr. Gordon explains we need to validate our feelings but then look behind them at the thought. I’ll be the first to admit that this is hard. A mad 4-year-old is a force to be reckoned with! A frustrated teenager is an equally formidable force of nature.

To some degree, the same can be true in the workplace. We address behavior issues and encourage those we lead to keep their feelings in check. However, we rarely get to the thoughts behind those feelings. We give people the impression that a high EI means we stuff feelings and don’t let them show up in the workplace. Hiding feelings doesn’t resolve issues. It just creates pressure cookers that might eventually explode.

Helping others process thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is challenging. However, the biggest challenge is often within ourselves.

Authentic emotional intelligence doesn’t exist when we close the gates and try to maintain a facade. Productive emotional intelligence comes when we put our feelings to work.

Thank You, Check Engine Light

Check EngineFor years I looked at feelings with disdain. What good were they? They seemed as if their only purpose was to slow me down or stir up trouble. Eventually, I became reasonably good at silencing these “useless” emotional responses. I didn’t realize that they were designed and installed for a purpose.

On the dashboard of most cars is a light that can, at times, seems just as “useless” as our annoying emotional responses. My car is running down the highway just fine. Then, out of nowhere, the words “Check Engine” scream out of the dash. How annoying!

If we acknowledge a “Check Engine” light, it disrupts our plans. First, it requires translating the warning into something meaningful. Next, it requires working to resolve the issue behind the warning.

In some cases, the warning simply told us the gas cap wasn’t tight enough. In other circumstances, the issue requires repair from certified technicians.

While warning lights might seem annoying, they lead to an underlying issue. We can become frustrated with the disruption or we can process the issue behind the warning. Either way, the underlying problem still exists.

In many ways, validating our feelings can be considered “thanking our check engine light.” It’s not helpful to scold our emotions. Our emotions are an indicator. Our emotions signal it’s time to begin uncovering an underlying issue.

When we begin to process what is behind the warning, we begin the path toward authentic emotional intelligence.

Processing Thoughts

Much like a physical reservoir, there is tremendous power in putting our feelings to work. Emotional work can begin when we use them as indicators to uncover the thoughts behind our emotions.

The work varies between each person and each indicator. For example, one processing path might include changing the internal narrative for stories that no longer apply.

Bob Goff explains the process of changing our internal narratives. Many of us craft stories to make sense of situations we endured during childhood. Those stories may have been beneficial to ensure our survival as children, but they may no longer apply as adults. He suggests we retire those stories and give ourselves the freedom to narrate a new story:

“Thank you rule. You played this important role in guarding my heart. You played a really important role at one time, but I don’t need that rule anymore. Story, thank you. I want to thank you and excuse you. You just don’t need to be the story of my life. But you were really really helpful, thank you. You caused me some problems too but pushing ahead from those I just need you to have a seat. You don’t get the microphone anymore. That’s what new creation people do.” – Bob Goff 

This approach can undoubtedly begin retiring old stories that have outlived their usefulness. However, our stories can be very stubborn. We’ve used them for years, and most of them are not looking forward to retirement. Therefore, we will likely need to stay alert for repeat warning lights. When this occurs, we can again utilize Bob’s story retirement speech and encourage our stories to remain in retirement.

Authentic Emotional Intelligence

Hopefully, these analogies provided insight into what authentic emotional intelligence should look like.

Emotional intelligence as a facade creates dangerous dams waiting to burst. I encourage us to drop the facades and push toward authentic emotional intelligence. This occurs when we acknowledge and validate our emotions as the warning indicators they are. Authentic emotional intelligence occurs when we go to work processing the thoughts behind the feelings.

We all have stories and thoughts behind each one of our emotions. So let’s process what lies beneath, regardless of our unique processing steps.

While this may have been a lighthearted article, I do not want to trivialize the complexity of our emotional responses and the stories behind them. Many have endured heartbreaking trauma that may take more than a short article to process. It may require working through these issues with professionals. The information in this article does not take the place of trained professional counselors and medical doctors in treating many trauma-related conditions. 

If you are having thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at  1-800-273-8255.

Veterans can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255


For more information on how past trauma can impact the workplace check out the Trauma-Informed Leadership series.

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