Simple Steps to Being Emotionally Intelligent

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“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” — Ambrose Bierce

How many of today’s actions would we take back if we could? How many times did poor emotions win out over rationale? For me, the answer is too many. Every day, it’s too many.

I lose patience with the kids. I make sarcastic remarks at work. I choose comfort over courage out of fear.

How much better of a father, and husband, and leader would I be if I were more in control of my emotions?

We’ve all heard the term emotional intelligence. Seen articles like 10 Things Emotionally Intelligent People Do During Meetings or 8 Ways Emotionally Intelligent People Interact.

I read those. Thought they made sense. Made some changes that day. But two days later I was always back to my previous behaviors. Because reading a quick article doesn’t do much for long-term change.

I tried to shortcut the process. I skipped directly to the end result. But I didn’t understand the emotions that drove my behavior. So I couldn’t create lasting change. My mind was working against me.

Our brains are responsible for everything we do. Every sense and input goes through some level of interpretation and analysis. We make a decision and send the response back out to the rest of our body.

While the inner workings of the brain (and all those hard to pronounce sections of it) are well outside my knowledge area, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis helps demonstrate how our brains associate emotional consequences with input stimuli as a method of decision-making. He supported this by studying people who’ve injured the areas of the mind which controls emotions. He found people could correctly analyze a decision, but struggled to both actually make one that leveraged future gains over immediate cost and learn from their mistakes.

As I said, outside my knowledge area. But the precise method shouldn’t matter to the majority of us. I don’t need to understand the precise mathematical model of how gravity interacts with the universe to know that if I jump out the window, I’m going to be in some trouble. The same holds true for emotions.

Whether as a means of initiating instinctive fight-or-flight survival actions or associating a stimulus with past actions and results, our emotions play a significant role in our responses.

And Emotional Intelligence is simply recognizing those emotions. And making the decision to use them productively. Instead of letting them use us.

Emotional Intelligence isn’t taught at school. I put in a lot of time to understand differential equations, but no real investment towards effectively managing emotions.

One of these skills I use everyday. The other hasn’t been touched since graduate school.

TalentSmart offers a quick Emotional Intelligence Appraisal. My scores were not impressive. Not surprising, but definitely not impressive.

Travis Bradberry and Jean Graves published the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 to align with the appraisal. My scores were consistently below the examples used to demonstrate a problem. I already said they weren’t impressive! Hey, at least there’s plenty of opportunity for improvement.

The book also includes a trove of suggestions for improving each area. There’s enough options to find some appealing ones. Which helps, since I easily give up on things that aren’t interesting. I chose to start focusing in these areas:

  • Stop and Ask Myself Why I Do the Things I Do
  • Know Who and What Pushes My Buttons
  • Visit My Values

“The key to being proactive is remembering that between stimulus and response, there is a space. That space represents our choice — how we will choose to respond to any given situation, person, thought, or event.” — Stephen Covey

As convenient as it is to believe, people don’t make me do things. Others don’t make me mad. Or depressed. Or scared. I choose this perspective.

After every event, we have a choice. After every stimulus, after every input, we give it a perspective. We tell ourselves a story to give the moment a meaning. And this perspective, this story, dictates our response.

My problem is that I’m not a very objective storyteller.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”

Too often, my initial story is one of malicious intent. You’d think my office was full of Iagos and Moriartys. A whole environment of people whose mission is to thwart my noble quest.

But most people don’t operate with evil intent. Frankly, people just don’t care that much.

Why do I create stories of malice and villains? Because then I’m not at fault. If I’m working against a master villain, it’s understandable that I’m struggling.

But if my moral struggle is just against some guy in our Logistics group who’s too overwhelmed to answer an email, then my excuses don’t quite hold up. And my quest seems less noble in comparison. And maybe I should just do my job.

So I try to be a more objective storyteller. I try to take that space and use it with intention instead of reaction. I pause a moment and try to run through the following steps before making a soon-to-be-regretted reaction.

  • Retreat. Take a step back and consider what I’m feeling. What story am I telling myself? What emotion is this creating and how will it cloud my decision-making?
  • Rethink. Evaluate whether I’m crafting a fantasy or representing the truth of the situation. Does the evidence support this story? Would an objective, rational person come to this same conclusion?
  • Respond. Maintain composure and deliver a measured response. What response would I advise someone else to provide? What response will I be proud of later?

Taking a couple seconds before responding is often the difference between a response that I’ll be proud of and one that I’ll be shaking my head over on the commute home.

“Nothing in this world is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — William Shakespeare

This RRR (Retreat, Rethink, Respond) technique’s worked well. It’s helpful to stop and consider my emotions and how those are influencing my perspectives. It’s brought more composure and maturity to each day.

But it’s also a drain. It’s better than the alternative of daily regrets, but it’s not always easy to take a quick time-out and regroup.

So I tried to revise my default reaction. And limit the need to wage a constant war with my instinctive choices. And perhaps just start out with a better story. Instead of spending so much time in editing.

Over the course of two weeks, I made a note every time something triggered a negative emotional reaction.

  • When my kids don’t listen.
  • When my wife “suggests” that I handle tasks that (in my opinion) are unnecessary.
  • When employees don’t know an answer but try to fake it.
  • When people give excuses instead of taking responsibility.
  • When people insert themselves as roadblocks or bottlenecks, but are unwilling to support needed schedules.
  • When employees or peers overly burden my time with trivial requests.
  • When senior management questions my judgment or behavior.
  • When senior management trivializes employees’ efforts.

Most center around a perceived lack of respect. Perfect. Now if everyone can just always treat me with the respect I think I deserve, I’ll be fine. Problem solved.

And this fantasy may even last until my kids wake up this morning.

But expecting everyone to behave in line with my beliefs is both egomaniacal and foolish. To quote Marcus Aurelius, “if we find ourselves shocked or surprised that a boor behaves boorishly, we have only ourselves to blame: We should have known better.”

Eliminating these events from occurring just won’t happen. It’s not something I control. So why do I let it bother me?

Because I had flawed expectations. The issue was mine, not everyone else’s.

Marcus Aurelius also wrote: “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness–all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.” At a time when he was the Emperor of Rome, the most powerful person in the Western world, he still found benefit in framing his perspectives with a daily credo.

So I adopted the same practice. Every day, I read through the following:

Today my kids will not listen to me. Remember that you should be encouraging independence. Kids who will not be content to conform for the sake of conforming. Kids who will pursue leadership and be unique in a world where the obedient become generic. You want them to adopt values. Not blindly follow rules.

Today my wife will ask that I work on several things that are long-term investments. Remember that she is much more talented at planning and vision than you are. Her involvement is the only reason that the kids are able to take advantage of such great opportunities. The main reason we take vacations. The reason the house interior (her responsibility) looks much better than the house exterior (your responsibility). If you’re too short-sighted to see the benefit of today’s request, trust her on it. She’s earned it with past successes.

Today an employee will not know the answer to my questions and will try to ad lib their way through it. How have you created this situation? What behaviors have you reinforced with him to punish transparency? Appreciate that you now have an immediate opportunity to correct it. How will you model and reinforce desired behavior going forward?

Today I will work with someone who avoids accountability. Someone will provide excuses instead of ownership. Understand their concerns. Build a connection. But seize this opportunity to develop. Blaming others is not actionable. Ownership leads to corrective actions. Corrective actions lead to growth. And to quote Seth Godin, “people will go where they grow.”

Today I will work with someone who is in a bottleneck position and is not supporting my priorities. Embrace this motivation opportunity. Anyone can motivate someone who is fully aligned with their vision. What positive consequences can you provide that will improve this behavior?

Today someone will consume a significant amount of my time with trivial requests. Meeting and connecting with people is your job. Not a waste of time. How can you empower this person to make these decisions without you? How will that improve their morale? Take this opportunity to teach and remind people that you trust them.

Today senior management will question my judgment. What a tremendous opportunity to promote the work that your team has accomplished. Embrace the opportunity to explain your rationale and all of the work that supported it. If senior management has an alternative idea, you’ve just gotten smarter. And you’re better equipped for future scenarios.

Today senior management will trivialize the hard work of my employees. This is not done in malice, but in ignorance. This is your opportunity to remove that ignorance. Better it is corrected now than allowed to continue on with silence.

It takes me about two minutes to read these paragraphs each morning. From that investment, I’m able to help set my expectations for the day. And better control my default story.

Changes take time. Most improvements won’t occur overnight. And I’m not very patient.

Without convincing evidence, I’m likely to throw in the towel. If my new exercise routine doesn’t yield results, I struggle to keep at it.

So short-term wins are important to build momentum. And just like with weight loss, some form of measurement is needed. Otherwise the small, incremental changes go unnoticed.

I’ve previously written about my daily performance gauge. It’s the same process. Which values do I want to demonstrate each day?

So each day I try to reflect on the following areas. What are the values that I wish to live my life by? And how have today’s actions reflected these values?

Thoughtfulness. How did I show appreciation and encouragement today?

Modesty. How was I authentic? How did I avoid arrogance?

Integrity. How did I communicate honestly, openly, and completely? How did I act in the best interest of others?

Growth. How did I learn from every success and every failure?

Excellence. How did I add value in everything that I did today?

Throughout each day, I reflect on these values and how my actions support or contradict them. I wish that I could say it was all positives. Not yet. But it’s starting to trend in the right direction. And I’m focused. And most days brings me some improvement. Which is all that really matters.

We’re all confronted with emotionally charged situations each day.

I could cite any number of statistics to push the benefit of EQ on career growth. But in truth, none of that really matters.

What does matter is how we want to behave each day.

Do we want to control our actions through intelligence and rational thought? Or would we prefer to be a series of emotional reactions?

I’d rather be intentional about my actions. And have less instances that I want to take back at the end of each day.

Have a great day. If you enjoyed this, please let me know your thoughts or click the 💚. I write and improve at

Writing helps me realize just how little I know.