Emotions. They can make life so difficult. Frustration, anger, embarrassment, worry, those nerves that get us before public speaking
They also have the power to transform the everyday into the incredible. Excitement, gratefulness, contentment, enthusiasm, that hopefulness we feel when embarking on a new project. Not only this, but emotions can be incredibly useful in traversing the complex and challenging modern work environment.
Emotional intelligence is simply that. Being intelligent about our emotions
Unless someone tells me otherwise, the only way to lead (either self leadership or leadership of others) is through the lens of our own humanity and experience. The trick with emotional intelligence is not simply to tame your emotions, in order to limit their effect. But rather to learn how to integrate them into your everyday life to do better, achieve more, be happier and more content.
Here are six strategies to do just that.
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1. Name that Emotion
Within your brain you have the Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC) and Limbic system. The PFC is where your rational and logical thinking happens. The limbic system, sometimes referred to as the “lizard brain”, is the home, amongst other things, to your emotions. You can imagine these on a seesaw. When one is up, the other is down. You will have experienced this if you have ever lost your keys when you are in a rush to get somewhere. In short, you panic. “Where are the keys aaarrrghhhh!!!!” This is your limbic system working. Eventually, you remind yourself to think of where you last had them. At this stage your PFC is kicking in, as you are logically and systematically thinking through where you have been.
You can speed up this process of exiting the panic zone by labelling your emotion. It’s easy to do - just say for example “I’m feeling stressed”. Doing this flicks the switch from limbic system to PFC. As the PFC system goes up, the limbic system goes down, and you can start getting to work solving the problem.
I used this exact technique one morning when, on my way to a Wisdom at Work session, I couldn’t find a carpark to save myself. “I’m feeling very anxious” I said. Then I made a plan on how to do what needed doing in less time than I had budgeted on.
2. Ask the right question
Just last week I was talking to a woman who was doing it tough at work. Someone else in the organisation had complained to her manager about something that she thought was unwarranted. She was upset about the way things had unfolded. Over the course of ten minutes I heard a lot about how this was unfair. About how this other person had it in for her. About how she was sick and tired of it.
After I had helped her calm her limbic system by encouraging her to name the emotion; we got to work on finding an answer. You see the problem was that she was stuck in the drama of the situation. So much so, that she had lost sight of the ultimate goal - to find a solution and stop this sort of thing happening again. I asked “What do you want to happen?” I had to ask it about three times.
Eventually we got somewhere, she came up with an action plan. Her thinking was elevated from being in the drama, back to planning, and we made some progress. When you are stuck, try asking yourself various questions - “What am I trying to achieve?”, “What is the next step here?”, “What am I not seeing”? “What exactly has happened, step by step?” “What does success look like?”.
Asking different questions forces you to think about things at different levels.
Getting stuck in the drama can mean losing sight
of the ultimate goal
3. Work the anti-problem.
Logic can get us so far. And then we can get lost in it. We are so used to doing things the same way. Sometimes we need to kickstart ourselves into another way of thinking.
A friend of mine was having trouble finding her next work opportunity. I enquired into all of the ways she had been searching for roles. She gave me all the usual things you’d expect. I asked how it was going - we ascertained, that in fact, it wasn’t going all that well. So, I asked her if she was happy to take a more creative approach. To think divergently vs convergently. She decided to give it a go.
“Tell me one way that you absolutely would not apply for a job…..for example, would you hire a plane and spell out in the sky “I need a job?”, would you walk into an organisation and demand they hire you?”
After reflecting on this and having some fun playing, she came to the realisation that the one thing she wouldn’t do is exactly what she was doing - applying for jobs the way everyone else does.
When analysing the problem is getting you nowhere, switch it out for the anti-problem. It can get your creative juices flowing, and be a heck of a lot of fun at the same time. I’m pleased to report that my friend found her next opportunity and is now happily back in employment.
4. Take a break from the heavy lifting.
On a similar vein, when you’re doing it tough on a difficult problem or situation, give your brain a break by doing something completely different. Even better if you can have a walk, run, daydream or have a nap.
“It has been shown that focused attention and active effort punctuated with ‘down time’ is most beneficial for learning and for generating novel solutions”. Not only does taking a break allow your brain time to replenish its energy, it also allows time for unconscious neural processing. This can help you come up with more novel solutions.
I had a situation with this just last week. I was designing a learning path for an organisation. I’d already done a lot of work on it, and had left it alone for two days. During that time I was revisiting the company values. Then, in a flash, I realised that by approaching the learning path through the eyes of a value, it could take what would be an average job to an amazing outcome. I realised that this was an amazing opportunity to take a human centred design and internal marketing angle to this situation. This all came to me in a flash of insight. Now it’s time to get back to focussed attention to make it happen.
Focused attention and active effort punctuated
with 'down time' is best for learning and for
generating novel solutions.
5. Describe out loud what you are experiencing.
“Even if you cannot define exactly what is causing you to feel a certain way, to believe something to be true or to make a particular assumption, describing what you are experiencing will bring your thoughts more into your consciousness”.
I am one of those annoying people who seem to spend countless hours talking to themselves. First sign of insanity, I know! I am often recounting a story to myself of what I am experiencing right then. For example, if I am feeling that something is not right but I don’t know what it is, I will voice this to myself. If I am notice an old familiar feeling, especially one that is unhelpful, I will start examining it.
By talking it out, you can help yourself determine if this is an objective or subjective reality. If your experience is embedded in logic and rationality, or if it is your mind playing tricks on you. This can be especially helpful before you jump into action mode.
Running a business, raising two girls, keeping a household - it gets pretty busy and frankly a bit overwhelming sometimes. If I feel anxiety creeping in, I start doing exactly this - describing out loud the situation. Inevitably within ten minutes I’ve successfully debriefed myself, understood where I am blocked, and determining what to do to unblock myself. It’s the fastest way I know yet to find a way out of a tricky spot.
6. Use your intuition and emotions intelligently.
When solving a problem, you are unlikely to ignore a big data set that is provided to you. However, this is exactly what is happening in many workplaces around the country as people ignore their emotions and intuition. When you stop to think about it, intuition and emotions are just other data sets available for you to use. By stopping to enquire into them and taking them into account, you can make a fuller decision.
Just as with traditional “data” you should also apply critical thinking and analysis to your emotional and intuitional data. This way, you can decide to what extent your intuition can be useful in this situation and what to do with it.
Your intuition is most accurate when it has been formed in similar experiences as the one you are in. For example, my mother’s intuition is very well honed after 12 years of motherhood. I joke to my kids that I normally can tell what they are going to do, before they even do.
Intuition can cause you to probe a bit further into a situation or change tack if necessary.
For example, as an experienced facilitator, I have learnt to do my preparation for a session, and then enter into the moment, reading the participants energy, going where I need to go for learning to occur. In short, I rely on my well honed intuition to deliver an outstanding experience.
We all have emotions, so we might as well embrace them and learn to master them. As I continue researching neuroscience, mindfulness and leadership, I will add more strategies. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your strategies in the comments below.
References: BrainWise Leadership, Connie Henson & Pieter Roussouw