Success in life depends on numerous factors including brainpower, education, personality, ambition, inheritance, and health. Yet, we all know people who score highly in these areas, but who accomplish little in life: brainy people with high academic achievements who cannot hold down a job; ambitious people who never give up, but who never succeed either; and people with substantial inherited wealth who squander it all. Conversely, we know individuals who were academically mediocre, inherited nothing, yet, achieved great success. Clearly, there’s something else at play. Nearly always, that “something else” is emotional intelligence (EI). Yet, important though it is, EI is often overlooked because it’s a nebulous concept, which attracted little media attention until recently. So what exactly is it?
In a way, it’s like a mental version of the Japanese martial art of Judo. In Judo, contestants need to harness a competitor’s strength as well as their own in order to win. For that, they must analyse and understand the other person’s mental and physical attributes. Similarly, people with a high EI level are keenly aware of other people’s emotional plusses and minuses as well as their own; they use both to create empathy and encourage cooperation in order to achieve a desired result. Of course, other factors matter, but without a high level of EI, most interpersonal relationships are frustrating, uphill struggles.
Unlike Judo, however, EI is not primarily about winning a game or contest (though it certainly improves a person’s chances of success in a competitive environment). It’s more about seeing the other person’s point of view and attributes – both positive and negative – while being fully aware of one’s own in order to achieve the best outcome. Good managers with a high level of EI, for example, bring out the best in employees by constantly being sensitive to their subordinates’ psychological triggers, while also being fully aware and in control of their own. Crucially, those managers don’t just ensure that emotional prejudices won’t impede a desired outcome, but actually turn them into positive forces that support it.
Some people are born with a high level of EI. It should not, however, be confused with charm, charisma, or an agreeable personality. Some charmers may have a high EI, but many don’t. Like most of us, they too can greatly improve their personal and professional lives by increasing it. Unlike IQ, which is fairly static throughout life and difficult to alter, EI can be improved with the right techniques. These techniques involve focusing on three key areas: ourselves, others, and the interaction between both. That may seem simple, but it’s not. Let’s look more closely at the three areas:
We must identify the factors in our interpersonal relationships that trigger quasi-automatic reactions in us, so that we can replace such reactions with well-considered responses. The goal is to take control by turning unproductive habits into productive ones. (See my two blogs related to the power of habit: “The Winning Habit” and “Don’t Leave it Too Late to Start Being Early”). By identifying the triggers, we can control our impulsive reactions. The result is nearly always transformational because it quickly turns negative or neutral relationships into nurturing and mutually beneficial ones.
When we’ve developed the habit of controlling our own reflexive responses, we can focus our attention on others. The most important skill in dealing with other people is listening, and many of us are poor listeners. To be a good listener we need to develop the habit of turning attention away from ourselves and fully onto the other person. When we do that, the other person unconsciously focuses all their attention on us. My blog “Stop, Look, Listen” deals comprehensively with this vital skill.
Mutual understanding is automatically improved when even one person in a group is acutely aware of the reflexive response triggers, and knows how to manage them to produce a beneficial outcome. A manager with those skills can transform an entire department into a hive of productivity, pride, and mutual respect. It’s hardly surprising that most CEOs of successful companies have an abundance of EI.
The process of increasing your EI can start immediately. You don’t have to join a club or enroll in a course. All you have to do is make the decision. The sooner you do that, the sooner you’ll start enriching your personal and business relationships, and, in the process, transform your quality of life.