Mindfulness, The Bedrock of Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness is the bedrock of emotional intelligence, and mindfulness practices improve our self-awareness.

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor.

His book Man’s Search for Meaning chronicled some of his experiences as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps. It is an extraordinary book. Frankl reflects on the idea that everything can be taken away from a man except for one thing; the last of human freedoms, he writes, is the ability to choose one’s attitude in any situation. The following quote is attributed to him:   

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response, and in our response lies our growth and our freedom”. 

Increasing the space between stimulus and response is an exercise of emotional intelligence, a concept that surfaced over 40 years after Man’s Search for Meaning was first published.

At work, one example of a stimulus might be an angry email from a client, or a mistake on the part of a colleague. How do we respond to those? 

Emotionally intelligent professionals practice increasing the space between stimulus and response so that their actions can align with their higher goals, purpose and values, and so that their teams can be healthy and successful. 

The following will outline what emotional intelligence, or EI, is, and the powerful role that mindfulness plays in it. 

EI has become one of the most popular concepts in management and leadership, as science continues to show that hiring emotionally intelligent employees leads to better decision making, increased positivity, motivation, productivity and performance, less stress, and more career and life success.

There are many models of emotional intelligence, but I will refer to the most recent model proposed by psychologist, science journalist, and New York Times bestselling author, Daniel Goleman, because it most reliably predicts positive outcomes in the workplace.   

Goleman’s model of EI includes four domains and twelve key competencies. The domains are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. A domain can be thought of as a baseline potential to succeed in each competency, and competencies are skills that must be learned. For example, a strong, 6 ft. 5 person who has never played basketball before and does not know the rules of the game might have a strong baseline potential to succeed in the game (because she has the physical build of a typical basketball player), but would never be able to play well without learning all necessary information and then consistently practicing. Someone who is 5 ft. tall but has been playing basketball for years might have, presumably, had a lower baseline potential (since most people in the sport are very tall), but because of her knowledge of the game and consistent practice, she is a strong player.

Regardless of our starting point in each domain, we must translate our emotional-intelligence-potential into on-the-job skills. Having social awareness, one of the domains, for instance, does not guarantee mastery of the additional learning needed to resolve a conflict between two subordinates (conflict management, a key competency). 

See below for a table of the competencies nestled within each domain.  

Table 1 - Emotional Intelligence Domains and Competencies

What is surprising to many is that EI is not something that you are either born or not born with. On the contrary, it is a complex skill-set that needs to be cultivated through deliberate practice. 

As philosopher Alain de Botton noted,

In school, “our energies are overwhelmingly directed toward material, scientific, and technical subjects and away from psychological and emotional ones. […] The assumption is that emotional insight might be either unnecessary or in essence unteachable, lying beyond reason or method, an unreproducible phenomenon best abandoned to individual instinct and intuition. We are left to find our own path around our unfeasibly complicated minds — a move as striking (and as wise) as suggesting that each generation should rediscover the laws of physics by themselves.

Especially in our volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA), and rapidly evolving world and workplaces, many of the material, scientific, and technical subjects learned in school have become either obsolete or a non-distinctive skillset, readily accessible to many because of the internet. Today, IQ and cognitive intelligence have become lesser predictors of organizational success than EI and social intelligence, once known as “soft” skills. 

Regardless of technological advancement, emotional skills will continue to be critical for both personal and organisational achievement. As De Botton observed above, not teaching emotional intelligence is akin to not teaching future generations the laws of physics.   

So how do we teach and learn EI?

One way to begin is by practicing mindfulness.   

According to Goleman’s model, we need self-awareness to become skilled at all other EI domainsSelf-awareness is the foundation, the base layer of the emotional intelligence pyramid. It not only involves observing ourselves, but also recognizing the relationship between our thoughts, emotions, and reactions.  

Research by organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich reveals that 95 percent of people think that they’re self-aware, but only 10 to 15 percent actually are.

Mindfulness involves becoming an observer of our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, without being carried away by, judging, or reacting to them. “With mindfulness we monitor whatever goes on within the mind”, Goleman writes. Simple as that. One mindfulness practice is mindfulness meditation. This involves carving out some time (I began with 6 minutes every morning), sitting (here are some suggestions on how to sit while meditating) and focusing attention on the breath. When the mind wanders, or when an emotion or physical sensation arises, the practice is to notice the thought, emotion, or sensation, and then bring focus back to the breath. The aim is not to stop thinking, feeling, or sensing, but rather, to witness all that is occurring, without judging or being carried away by it. This is called meta-awareness. Yuval Harari, author of international bestsellers Sapiens and Homo Deus meditates for two hours a day (which is a lot for anyone, don’t worry), and put it like this: 

Meditation “is not an escape from reality. It is getting in touch with reality. At least for two hours a day, I actually observe reality as it is, while for the other 22 hours I get overwhelmed by emails and tweets and funny cat videos”.

Mindfulness practices become an aperture into what is really going on inside of us, “reality as it is”, a route to self-awareness. What happens over time with a consistent mindfulness practice is that we begin to notice thought-emotion-sensation-behaviour couplings that, when left unnoticed, control us. 

For instance, a pattern that I’ve noticed through practicing mindfulness is the following:

While working, a thought pops into my head: “I’m not qualified for this job and I am not good enough to be here”. That thought then triggers some physical sensations in my body: tingling in my fingers, a quickening heartbeat, and shortness of breath. I then recognize those sensations as anxiety, an emotion. I don’t like feeling anxious, so I stop what I am doing to check my instagram or grab a sugary snack, a behavioural reaction, to receive some short-term relief from the anxiety. 

Noticing what was going on inside of me, the above  thought-sensation-emotion- reaction chain, was a necessary first step to changing my habit of checking social media too often and eating too much junk food. This is one example where self-awareness, the first EI domain, necessarily precedes self-management, the second EI domain. I needed a mindfulness practice to see the sequence of events happening inside of me in order to eventually change them. 

Another common chain reported among self-aware leaders is:

Emotion: fear of failure → Thought: “X person, my subordinate, is not doing his job conscientiously and this will look bad on me” → Sensations: chest tightening, heartbeat quickening → Reactions: lash out by screaming at X and complete the task myself.  

In this example, a leader who practices mindfulness might recognize that it is her fear of failure catalyzing her thoughts, sensations, and reactions. She might then take ownership of the work that she must do to maturely engage with her unhelpful fear. In a completely separate effort, she may coach and mentor her subordinate that seems to be performing below his full potential.  

The data is in: behaving with empathy, patience, and support is the most sustainable way to lead.

Emotional impulsivity leads to negative work and life outcomes for both the impulsive actor and the recipient of their impulsivity. 

Another critical point discovered by neuroscientists is that emotions are contagious. Employees “catch” the emotions of their peers and leaders. Just as the back of a motorboat creates a wake, so too do the emotions we project impact our environment (whether or not we intend for them to). Becoming self-aware through mindfulness is a necessary step to understanding, clearly, what emotion we are feeling, in order to take ownership of processing it effectively, so that it does not leak onto others. 

All in all, “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response, and in our response lies our growth and our freedom”. Practicing mindfulness increases the space between stimulus and response by improving our self-awareness, the bedrock of emotional intelligence. 

We invite you to take the first step of improving your emotional intelligence by downloading any free mindfulness app, such as Awakened Mind, Headspace, Ten Percent Happier, or Calm, and letting us know if you have any questions throughout your journey.

To learn more about our Emotional Intelligence trainings with Lauren Deckelbaum, we invite you to contact us at commmunity@mindsmatter.com.   

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