When I mention Emotional Intelligence to people they tend to back away slightly! “Oh, I never get emotional at work”, they tell me, “you’ll never find me crying in the toilets!”
But this is very far away from what Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is. Let me explain the Neuroscience behind it.
As humankind developed as a species, the brain developed. The oldest part of the brain is the Reptilian brain and controls our fight, flight or freeze responses as well as such automatic functions like breathing and heartbeat.
Out of that grew the Limbic system which controls our emotional responses, values, memory and attitudes.
And finally the Neocortex, which is the “thinking” part of the brain.
Nowadays, we are not faced down by the sabre-toothed tiger too regularly, but the reptilian brain stills scans our environment for threats and still leaps into that fight, flight or freeze response.
So when that car cuts you up at the traffic lights, that can be perceived by the brain as a threat encroaching on your territory and the fight response jumps in within milli-seconds! This is called the Amygdala Hijack, where your responses are literally hijacked by the emotional part of the brain (The Amygdala). Usually those situations are followed by regret at things done or said!
If you count to ten like your Granny told you to, you allow the logical part of the brain to catch up on the emotional part, and to contribute a more logical response (maybe they’re late for their flight..).
But emotional responses are not just relating to anger. You might be asked to do an important project at work and your knee-jerk response might be “Oh, I’d never be able to do that”. Self confidence is an EQ competence.
Or perhaps when a new system is being implemented you keep saying “Wasn’t it fine the way it was. We’ve always done it like that”. Adaptability is another EQ competence.
The extent to which the “emotional” brain and the “thinking” brain communicate is at the core of emotional intelligence. The neural highway between them can run very smoothly. Tuning in to your triggers and responses, understanding your reactions and allowing yourself the time to choose a different response delivers a powerful punch in decision making and as a consequence delivers the actions and results you actually want.
With the increased demands on us, both professionally and personally, the ability to manage ourselves and our relationships with others is more critical than ever.
Emotional Intelligence is not set, in the same way that IQ is. Rather, it can be grown and developed through practice and repetition. This has the impact of developing new neural pathways in the brain which can kick-in instead of the old behavioural ones.
The key to this is to be self-aware. To recognise what is going on with you when your responses are triggered and having that momentary “time out” to choose how you respond. This effectively is the difference between reacting and responding.
So while Emotional Intelligence might have the sound of something teary-eyed and uncontrolled, in fact the opposite is true. How we manage ourselves, our relationships with others and our social interactions are all key to our performance every day, and to the results we actually deliver to the top and bottom lines, in our organisations.