Bringing Emotional Intelligence into Balance

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.

New Ventures West