OCTOBER 27, 2016

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There is no denying that the world could use a booster shot of Emotional Intelligence (EQ): greater ability to read the emotional states of others, more awareness of our own inner states and how our behavior is viewed by and affects others, more emotional fluidity… Please, bring it on!

Of course, the way things seem to work in this world is that assets are always offset by liabilities in some form. What could possibly be the liability of high EQ?

EQ is a multifaceted capability. To oversimplify it, there is a ”self” dimension and an ”other“ dimension. The “self” dimension includes abilities such as being aware of and able to report on one’s own emotional states, regulating emotions to maintain focus and equilibrium when needed, moving fluidly between emotional states, etc.

A big part of the ”other” dimension includes being sensitive to and aware of others’ emotional states, being able to read facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. People with this aspect of high EQ seem to be not only sensitive to but genuinely curious and interested in the feelings and states of those around them. High ”other“ EQ also includes understanding how you are seen and experienced by those around you.

If the self and other dimensions of EQ are both high and balanced, there will probably be few problems. But if one dimension is too strong relative to the other, troubles can form. For example, someone who is able to recognize their own emotions but is less equipped to read and interpret the feelings of others should not be surprised to get the “tone deaf” label in their 360 feedback report. Moreover, that ability to ”push through” despite the feedback and feelings around them can foment resistance and, in the extreme, some form of backlash.

What about an imbalance in the other direction? What if you're highly tuned into the needs and feelings of others but less able to regulate your own emotional state? This is what we’ll focus on here.

If this is your tendency, when the environment and those around you don't align to your needs and expectations, you can get judo-thrown by your own reactions and emotions, and left bloodied by attacks from your own Inner Critic. It is often the case that the external feedback wasn’t even that bad—it is what was done with that information internally that caused the real problems: the proverbial ”inside job.”

Someone highly attuned to the reactions of others and who lives/works in an environment short on positive support should know they are living near the edge. You can't count on how you are going to feel about yourself and how you will perform in any given moment. This is because your inner world view is highly dependent on the people and environment around you. You’ve effectively outsourced your well-being, equilibrium and confidence into the hands of unreliable, often vagarious others.

I tell my clients with this issue that if they want to stop living on the edge they must move the handle of their psychic doorway from the outside to the inside. This way, others cannot just whip open the door to your head and heart and, through what they say or do or don't say or don't do or what happens or doesn't happen, affect how you feel about yourself. External circumstances and others have less influence over your mood, your confidence, your sense of self-worth. You control when you open that door and what feedback gets in. You make sure it gets processed in a more measured way so it can be integrated, as opposed to overwhelming you.

There are two distinct but equally effective strategies I have found for moving the handle inside.

It starts with just recognizing that you have this tendency. You know you can get whipsawed by external events and you take steps to prepare. Forewarned is forearmed, as it were.

The late Muhammad Ali had an expression I always loved. He used to say that he would never get knocked out by a punch he saw coming: he could turn his head to reduce the impact such that it would not knock him out.

Strange as it sounds, that’s your objective too: to not get knocked out by punches you see coming. Most of the punches you’re ducking are being thrown by your Inner Critic. And by now, no one should know better than you that your Inner Critic has a wicked right hook.

There is a range of options here for staying on your feet. Steps such as shifting your focus to what you want to learn as a result of, for example, putting hours into writing a report vs. doing it for an ”atta boy“ that may never come; following your thoughts more closely and developing strategies to break-set when particular self-talk starts to spiral; maintaining daily practices that help you tap into your own, self-referenced power... are all efficacious countermeasures.

The second strategy is to shift your focus to a bigger game—develop a larger mission and vision... for your department, for your team, for yourself. With your mind and heart on bigger objectives, some less-than-stellar feedback or offhand comment won't have that destabilizing effect.

I work with a lot of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Everywhere you turn in their startups there seem to be problems, yet I never cease to be amazed at how founders in particular seem to look right past them. Asked about it, their responses seem to center around keeping the focus on a preferred future... a down-the-road version of the company that does not have these problems.

This wider lens helps with maintaining emotional equilibrium, but not for its own sake. The equilibrium is actually a byproduct of a bigger focus: one that is maintained even when the results are not what you had hoped. This is part of what I imagine enabled Martin Luther King, in the face of blinding prejudice and horrific acts of racism to see a brighter future and reiterate the phrase ”the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” versus being completely broken by the continuous stream of injustices all around him.

So yes, more EQ is good, but attending to the equilibrium between the self and other dimensions of it is equally important. Moving the handle of your psychic doorway to the inside by way of the two strategies outlined here is a start at maintaining that balance.

Dennis graduated from the Professional Coaching Course in 2015. You can read more from him on his blog.

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APRIL 6, 2016

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Rene Descartes’ method for discovering what’s true starts with a bold and radical move – distrust everything until it can be proven. It’s not hard to see how powerful a way this is to cut through superstition and confusion. By starting from first principles, and using step-by-step logic, he gives us a way to prove things for ourselves, doing away with our need to rely on anyone else’s claims.

In order to make the method work, it’s necessary to start with one thing that can be assumed to be true without proof – and for Descartes it was that he was thinking. Hence cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’. The one thing I can be sure of is that I’m thinking, because here I am, thinking it! And in this move, he both makes his method possible and sets up the condition of our society ever since.

Without this we may never have lifted ourselves beyond the confusion of Descartes’ times. But when we take Cartesianism to be the only way to relate to the world (a project at which our education system is very effective) we quickly become estranged from ourselves. Our bodies, emotions, our subjective experience, and the experience of others are all to be doubted, or considered irrelevant. Even the existence of others is something we can no longer take for granted without proof (and conclusively proving this everyday, common-sense aspect of our experience turns out to be extraordinarily difficult in the Cartesian paradigm). Though we often don’t know it, we’re deeply educated in and profoundly conditioned by the Cartesian principle that thinking is paramount and that everything else is to be distrusted.

The consequence? We’ve forgotten how to trust ourselves.

We don’t know how to trust what’s true in the senses of our bodies (we’ve often barely learned how to pay attention to this at all). We don’t trust the felt-sense of situations, and we don’t know how to tell what action to action take when we feel distorted, disjointed, incongruent, afraid. We don’t trust what we love. And we don’t know how to listen deeply to the longing and song of our hearts.

We’ve become experts at distancing ourselves from ourselves. And because we can’t feel what’s happening to us we launch ourselves into many projects – in our work and in our private lives – that harm us, and harm others, and harm the planet. We justify our actions, if we’re prepared to justify them at all, as ‘reason’ or ‘business’ or ‘productivity’ or ‘best practice’ or ‘getting ahead’.

We need the cold, sharp blade of the Cartesian method as much as we ever did. But if we want to create lives and a world in which we can thrive, a world which brings about wisdom and beauty as well as truth, it’s time to learn how to feel things again. And it’s time to teach ourselves and our children once more about the discernment and understanding of the world that comes not just from the sharpness of our minds, but from the intelligence of our bodies and the sensitivity of our hearts.

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JUNE 16, 2015

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It can be incredibly helpful to learn to distinguish between what happens and your assessment of it.

What happens:

She didn’t return my call

Your assessments:
I must have done something wrong
She’s angry with me
She hates me
She’ll never forgive me
I’m such a loser
This relationship is over

What happens can be observed and agreed upon by others, if they were there to witness it – even people who don’t know you, or who have very different opinions to you.

Your assessments are what you make of what happens. They are interpretations, arising from your particular perspective, experience, history, values, and commitments.

Assessments can be more, or less, grounded. Sometime they’re based upon a careful study of people and events. And sometimes they are wild flights of speculation and imagination. Or projections of a past situation into the future. Or an extrapolation: based upon an initial impression of someone we fill in all the details of who and how they must be.

Making assessments is necessary, of course, if we are ever to make any sense of a world in which things keep on happening in a way that matters to us. But they can land us and others in deep difficulty when we fail to distinguish them from the events upon which they are based.

When we take our assessments to be the unquestionable truth – and they can easily seem this way to us – we are in all likelihood heading for trouble.

This is why we all need people around us who respect us enough to point out when what we’re most convinced about is in fact shaky, and who can remind us not to be as sure of ourselves as we think we are. In the end, our truest friendship and deepest support comes from those who are willing to tell us that our assessments are assessments. And it’s a huge step forward when we learn from them how to do this for ourselves.

More from Justin at his blog, On living and working.

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JULY 15, 2010

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At a recent session 3 of the PCC in Boston, I came up with three essential skills for all human beings:

  • being able to deal with the inner critic
  • staying present with and learning from anxiety
  • being able to tell what’s true (not in a mathematical or scientific sense but rather knowing when something I say or feel is true in my life and also being able to tell the truth when someone else says something to me).

The first two are essential for the third one to be realized. When under attack from our inner critic it’s very difficult for us to stay present, and consequently to differentiate between reactivity from the past and response to the current moment. Facing the truth, which often threatens to displace our self-image, closely held beliefs or sense of worth, requires us to stay with anxiety and its unsettling somatic, emotional and cognitive experiences.

We like the notion that the truth will set us free, we just don’t like the feeling of floating freely unmoored from our usual safe habitat of self identity (a strong indicator that we are engaging the truth). When we feel anxious, the frequent experience of being unmoored, we abandon our inquiry into what’s true.

In other words, the truth dissolves our persona, our mask, our shell of personality in the process of revealing more fundamental aspects of us. Does that sound inviting to you?

Perhaps theoretically. But in practice we must have spaciousness, constancy and groundedness to hang in there with anxiety. We are not taught any of these responses and often don’t have practices to cultivate them. Instead we’ve learned to interpret anxiety as an indication that something is wrong and not as an invitation to the deeper relationship with ourselves and reality.

Of course all this shows up in coaching. As coaches it’s common and normal for us to feel anxious when we realize it’s time to say something direct and contrary to the client’s self-concept. Or when our client challenges us or brings us a difficult situation to work with or is in the midst of strong emotional, somatic, or cognitive content.

The destabilizing power of anxiety comes from an intuition embedded deeply within that if we persist in our investigation we will find out that who we took ourselves to be is empty, hollow and has no meaning. That’s what the existentialists tell us – that’s what they found out – they just didn’t take their study far enough.

Yes, our personality is a social construct that only exists as a way of getting by in the human world and has no meaning or reality beyond that functionality. And yes we feel deeply identified with it—so deeply identified in fact that we are certain that its demise means the end of us.

But we don’t disappear or get annihilated when the truth dissolves our personality – that’s the part existentialists didn’t write about  even though they knew it in their own experience. How can I say that? Because the major writers in the tradition, say Kierkegaard, Camus and Sartre, all had transcendent moments of insight, deep encounters with beauty; they all felt profound love. Just read their books and you’ll know what I’m talking about yourself. In these experiences they were living at least for a moment beyond their personalities and still they existed.

No doubt this has also happened to you.

When we get transported by strong experience we frequently bypass anxiety, at least momentarily.  So maybe these wonderful thinkers never caught on that anxiety is a harbinger of truth. (By the way, Heidegger was totally on to anxiety as an invitation to a direct meeting with ourselves.)

If you want the truth than please welcome and delight in and make friends with anxiety.

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