It often surprises my executive coaching clients how important their emotions are to their workplace success. Most of us have been trained to keep our emotions out of the office, so we let lag an ongoing investment in our Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Part of the problem is that investing in developing EQ is work that doesn’t always have an immediate payoff, and most of us are focused on results now! But part of the problem is a fundamental misunderstanding about what EQ is.
EQ is not having emotions, it’s understanding them, in ourselves and others and responding constructively.
We all have emotions, but most of us carry around errant assumptions and beliefs about them that cloud our ability to use them appropriately at work. Here are three common examples of misguided EQ that apply, whether it’s us or someone else who’s experiencing and/or expressing emotions.
- Strong emotions = I can’t handle it. Muted emotions are easy to ignore if you’re not sure how to react to them. Strong emotions are hard to ignore. Instead of learning how to understand and respond to strong emotions in the workplace, many of us believe they have no place in the office and assume that if someone expresses strong emotions, they “can’t handle it.” This plays out often between men and women. Women are socialized to be more comfortable expressing emotions generally, and because they have more experience they often know that expressing emotions is an awesome strategy for “handling it.”
Expressing strong emotions allows a feeling to be noticed, honored and put into proper perspective. Does this mean it’s not wise to close your door or scurry to the car to let out some rage or grief? No. That’s a fine strategy. But if you do this—or observe someone in their car sobbing and back at their desk smiling an hour later—understand that they (and you!) are probably “handling it” just fine. If you choose to respond, please demonstrate empathy.
- Empathy = approval. Sometimes bad things happen to people we work with. Sometimes people we work with make bad choices or encounter bad luck with people or situations are in their life. Sometimes they need to talk about it, or express strong emotions, to get refocused on work and sometimes we have to listen because we’re the person they have to tell. Sometimes we make the poor choice to express our negative judgments about their situation, completely disowning their feelings and making them feel isolated. Sometime we make the poor choice to express our complete support and say “I feel that way too,” which takes ownership of their feelings and makes them feel less unique in that moment. Bad moves, “we.”
Why do we do this? Why do we tell them that they are so misguided or totally right? Why do we sometimes withhold our words, but let our body and face communicate our feelings for us? Why do we feel as though we must feel what they feel—or not? Often it’s because we believe that if we don’t express disapproval, they’ll believe we approve of how they are handling it; or if we approve, we worry they’ll think we disapprove if we don’t overtly approve. But does all this judgment help the people who are struggling to refocus? Often it doesn’t. More often than not they simply need us to be a sounding board or vent-ear.
Practice empathy by listening, deciding how you feel about it, keeping this information to yourself and—knowing they are not you—acknowledge that their situation is their situation and how they feel is simply how they feel. Be in this state of acknowledgement and tell them you know they feel _________ and that you’re there to support them within the boundaries that you can. You get to decide what those boundaries are.
Acknowledging their feelings does not mean you approve of them, whether you do or not.
- Joy doesn’t happen at work. There’s a spontaneity about joy that often doesn’t “fit” in the planned, focused and driven culture of the workplace. We all really want joy in our lives, but most of us believe that work is work, and that work is the opposite of joy and thus we assume that we won’t find joy in the office. As a result we don’t look for it. Because we don’t look for it, we don’t find it. Because we don’t find it, we don’t nurture it. Soon our workplaces are joyless.
Joy isn’t about spontaneity, it’s about seeing the positive in whatever moment or situation is at hand, and in every moment we can find something positive if we look for it. Joyful people can feel intensely alive in the midst of tragedy. One key strategy of the person with EQ is to see a joyless workplace as a ripe place to discover joy. In a world of zeroes, a one goes a long way.
The truly EQ people always find a way to nurture joy, even in the darkest of times and places. Sometimes this feels like love. Even at work.
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