Why it’s hard to be emotionally intelligent

I’ve been doing some reflection on why emotional intelligence can be such a tough subject for people to understand. The crux of things comes down to the fact that emotions drive behaviour. We may not want to believe that, but it’s true. Once we accept that, is when we can start to develop our understanding of how this happens in ourselves and in others. Once we understand how our emotions affect us, we can choose to act in ways which help us cultivate better relationships. That’s emotional intelligence. And it ain’t easy.

Beyond this understanding of what it is to be emotionally intelligent, I’m working through the ‘but why can’t people just get it’ challenge. I believe there are two factors to the answer to this question.

The first is in knowing what the baseline is for someone else. Knowing someone’s baseline is about knowing what does normal behaviour look like for them? And that’s hard, because everyone’s normal is highly individual and very nuanced. Once you understand someone’s baseline, if that persons behaviour changes unexpectedly and significantly, then we can be pretty sure they’ve has an emotional reaction to something which needs to be explored, and hopefully support them in being better.

In personal relationships (partners, friends, loved ones), it can be naturally easier to know the baseline for the other person. That doesn’t mean we always respond appropriately if they’re having an emotional reaction, it just means we are better able to recognise when they’ve had an emotional reaction.

In working relationships, establishing a baseline can be hard particularly because we don’t have the time to develop that understanding with everyone we work with. With our team members it’s going to be easier to gain that knowledge, but with peers and colleagues who we see infrequently, it’ll be a challenge and fraught with assumptions we need to battle.

And we can’t forget the importance of a persons culture on what their baseline might be for them. For example, heavy gesticulating of arms is expressive communication for Italians, is seen as overly excessive by the English, and as aggressive by Indians. What this also points to is everything we’ve ever known about body language was from flawed insights.

The baseline. Hard to gain that insight at all, once we have it and we see unexpected significant changes, do we know how to respond better to help support that person and build relationships?

The other factor is in knowing what triggers an emotional reaction. In some work I’ve done with Phil Willcox on this he describes this as catching the spark before the flame. It’s a great turn of phrase. Every emotional reaction happens because of a trigger. That trigger, like the baseline, is unique and individual to everyone. But less obvious is what triggers we all have. Even with partners and those who know us intimately, this may not be obvious. Our triggers will motivate us, they will protect us, they will build empathy, and they will stop us from certain actions.

That’s where deeper work around personal coaching or counselling can be beneficial. In understanding our triggers better, we can catch that spark before the flame and better decide what action we want to take next. What are the specific things that happen before you are surprised? Before you get angry? Before you hate something? Before you laugh? Before you feel love or affection? Before you are afraid?

In knowing these things we can make better informed decisions about what emotion has been or is about to be triggered and we can modify our behaviour for a better outcome if we recognise our normal reaction may not be appropriate or helpful.

It’s quite deep all that stuff up there, isn’t it? Which is partly indicative of how difficult it is to be emotionally intelligent and at the same time provides an insight into what level of reflection/insight is needed to cultivate and support development of emotional intelligence in ourselves and in others.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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