Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness – 5 Skills that Work Together
As the American writer Henry David Thoreau said:
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us. And when we bring this out into the open, miracles happen.”
Every now and again, ideas come along that really do change the world. Emotional Intelligence is one of those ideas that has changed most of what we thought we knew about how people process information, make decisions, manage stress, innovate, lead, and influence other people effectively. Similarly, mindfulness has emerged as one of the most effective technologies for systematically building emotional intelligence. But how do they work together? And, how can we leverage their collective power to transform our lives? Here are five emotional intelligence skills that are developed through practising mindfulness.
The first skill can be thought of as an inner focus that involves developing greater self-awareness. Self-awareness is essentially the foundation upon which emotional intelligence is built as it forms a platform for understanding and developing all other competencies in the model.
Awareness or knowledge of your emotions begins with paying attention to the subtle physiological reactions in the body and continues with cultivating an ability to observe your thoughts and emotions objectively and non-judgmentally. Accurately decoding these internal cues from your body and mind holds the key to emotionally intelligent behaviour. The stable, clear, non-judgmental attention developed through mindfulness provides you with the best possible technology to acquire this insight.
Of course, the ability to notice your emotions and manage them well, so that they do not sweep you up, involves another element of emotional intelligence: self-control. Solid self-control is the skill that enables you to stay calm in a crisis, manage your anxiety and rebound from setbacks.
Some years ago I had a client who was a flight attendant. She’d been referred to me by the courts in Australia for an incident in which she’d attacked a passenger with a bottle of wine. It turned out that she had a long history of impulsive behaviour that had led to many angry incidents, but nothing quite as dramatic (or career defining!) as on this occasion.
Over the years, she had received help from counsellors and had managed to gain some control over her behaviour, particularly by catching her angry thoughts before they erupted into destructive actions. But all too often, by the time she realized how angry she actually was, it was too late and she ended up regretting her actions.
I taught her to practice mindfulness of the body to help her recognize her anger as it correlated with sensations in her body. She began to notice, for example, that prior to an incident her breathing became shallow and rapid very quickly and that she clenched her teeth forcefully. She came to recognize these phenomena as very early warning signs of anger arising rapidly. That knowledge gave her the possibility of acting quickly to move away from potentially destructive impulsive responses before they erupted.
- Empathy and Relationship Skills
Another core focus in emotional intelligence involves monitoring the feelings and experiences of other people. This provides the foundation for emotional skills such as empathy.
Of course, it makes sense that you need to have some insight into your own feelings and experiences before you can possibly understand the feelings and experiences of other people. It’s therefore not surprising that, in general, when people score low on the self-awareness they also score low on empathy. And empathy is not as psychologically soft as some people imagine.
Essentially, it involves paying mindful attention both to the very concrete reality that someone else describes, as well as grasping the emotional dimensions of their experience, including what they may need from you.
Some years ago, Heinz Kohut, one of Europe’s most influential psychoanalysts, suggested that, at the psychological level, people have two essential needs: to be understood and to be admired; however, the most fundamental need is to be understood. Empathy allows you to understand not just what people are facing and feeling, but also what they need from you. It’s what we all want from our most important relationships – to be understood. When people feel understood, they are more comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings and ideas and building valuable connections with others.
- Optimism (The Big Picture)
The final area of focus in emotional intelligence involves an outer focus. Having applied mindfulness to the body, thoughts and feelings, and even to monitoring the experience of others, the final application is to pay wide-open attention to the broader interrelationships occurring in the world around you. In the classic mindfulness tradition, this application of mindfulness involves paying attention to the patterns of how things work together – because this happened, then that happened or didn’t happen.
From the perspective of emotional intelligence, this involves skills such as optimism, by which you choose to focus on the bigger picture with a genuine sense of the opportunities and possibilities available. Cynics often dismiss optimism as false hope or a lack of realism. But, far from being naïve or having a Pollyannaish view of the world, optimists have a particular way of seeing reality. They see problems as temporary, controllable and linked to a specific situation, rather than permanent and intractable.
Perhaps Melinda Gates captured the strength of this perspective best in a recent commencement address delivered to Stanford graduates. After visiting a TB hospital in Soweto, where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was working to supply the technology to increase survival rates, she commented: “Optimism for me isn’t a passive expectation that things will get better; it’s a conviction that we can make things better – that whatever suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don’t lose hope and we don’t look away.”
There is another emotional skill at work here: adaptability. Mindfulness involves a flexibility of attention that also leads to a flexibility of mind – an openness to change, an enthusiasm for what’s new. In other words, a common objective of both emotional intelligence and mindfulness is to develop greater psychological flexibility. Adapting more easily to the changing demands and opportunities that life presents to you is an important key to creating a more peaceful state of mind and is a powerful tool for cultivating the potential within you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Martyn Newman Ph.D., D.Psych., is a clinical psychologist specialising in Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness. His new book, The Mindfulness Book: Practical Ways to Lead a More Mindful Life, was released in the UK on the 22 September 2016. To order click here.