Improving Emotional Intelligence

Peter Salovey and John Mayer defined emotional intelligence as a form of social intelligence that “involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions’. Daniel Goleman echoes this, observing that emotional intelligence is the “ability to manage our own emotions”.

Mayer and Salovey noted that emotional intelligence is “the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth” – this implies that emotions can be managed and developed. Daniel Goleman cites Mayer as concluding that “Emotional Intelligence develops with age and experience”. Goleman also proposes that, all other factors being equal, emotional intelligence can have a dramatic effect on how successful someone is, especially in the workplace, and that employees with extremely high levels of emotional intelligence can be twice as productive as someone with average emotional intelligence. So it would seem that if emotional intelligence is indeed responsible for success or achievement and we can actually improve and develop our emotional intelligence, then it should be a key part of our personal development.

The problem is then emotional intelligence is not just a cognitive phenomenon but it is also determined by biological factors. The amygdala is a small almond shape gland which is rooted at the base of the brain. The amygdala generates a ‘rough guess’ response to stimuli and it bypasses the more logical, rational parts of the brain. It is what is responsible for the fight-or-flight response to danger. The amygdala plays a major part in emotional intelligence and it can have a greater effect on the emotions of some people than in others – that is one reason why some people fly off the handle more than others. The famous marshmallow test conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford University is a great example of this. In his experiments, Mischel gave a child one marshmallow. He told the child that if they could wait five minutes without eating the treat, they could have two marshmallows. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mischel found that some children could control their urges and others couldn’t. Amazingly, when these children were tracked down as adolescents, the ones who had resisted the urge to eat the one marshmallow were more socially competent, self-assertive and better able to cope with life. They were less aggressive, less prone to stress or anger and more trustworthy and dependable. Also, the children who had eaten the marshmallow did less well academically, they were less able to verbalise their thoughts, less able to concentrate and less able to focus.

However, extreme levels of IQ are linked to lower levels of emotional intelligence. Have you ever known anyone who was really clever but flew off the handle all the time? Is that you? This is quite a common combination, in fact, the research on emotional intelligence shows that once IQ goes over a certain level (approx 150) then levels of emotional intelligence tend to fall. This does not mean that people with low IQ are high in emotional intelligence, it’s just a common finding which it worth noting.

Cognitive processes also play a big part in our emotional responses to the environment. Have you noticed that some days you are more prone to stress than others. If you’ve had a stressful day at work, are you more likely to snap at your partner when you get home? For most people, the answer is yes. Same brain, but different reactions on different days, depending on your thinking. You have some negative thoughts and the good old amygdala kicks in and before you know it, you are screaming at someone. So it’s a dangerous partnership, negative thinking and an eager-beaver amygdala.

How can I improve my emotional intelligence?

1. The Cognitive Behavioural Therapy framework can help to regulate the thoughts which work with the amygdala to generate emotions. The framework recognises the interrelationship between the cognitive domain (thought) and the affective domain (emotion). Think about how you are thinking (metacognition) and examine your rules, values and beliefs to see if you are making any false or negative associations.

2. Plan ahead. Research has found that the inability to control impulse is related to low emotional intelligence. Therefore, a pre-determined strategy to delay negative impulses can help to negate the effects of our good friend the amygdala. The old advice of ‘count to ten’ is somewhat trite, but it does suggest a good tactic for dealing with the heat of the moment. With major emotional inflation, ten is nowhere near enough, you might need anything from an hour to a day. So, make an agreement with yourself and your family and friends that every time you feel angry or upset, you will give yourself some time and space to calm down before you think logically and rationally about the situation.

3. Tony Robbins’ 6 step change model can help to identify unhelpful negative emotions and replace them with positive emotions.
Further reading:
Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ
Daniel Goleman: Working with Emotional Intelligence
Christine Wilding & Aileen Milne: Teach yourself cognitive behavioural therapy

Danny Sroda is owner and Lead Trainer at Reach Corporate Fitness for Business.

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