Living: When emotions matter

Don’t let your emotions get the better of you
Last Updated 25 May 2018, 17:20 IST

My face is hot, I can feel the blood pounding in my ears….. and I can see a red haze come over my eyes. If Daniel Goleman could see me, he would say that I am in the throes of an amygdala hijack. My husband would say I am about to blow a fuse, from a safe vantage point.

Intelligence and emotion. Uneasy bedfellows for a long time, because intelligence was associated with the head and therefore signified a sense of order. Emotion, on the other hand, was all things messy. It is no wonder then that the term ‘emotional Intelligence’ was almost an oxymoron at one point.

And then along came Daniel Goleman. A science journalist who reported on the brain and behavioural sciences, he took “EI” and made it fashionable. His book, Emotional Intelligence — Why it can matter more than IQ, shot up to the top of the bestseller lists. Suddenly, everybody wanted to have their EI quotient measured. EI became the shiny red bell bottoms everybody wanted to own.

It has been more than 20 years since the book was published, and many other theories and frameworks have gained acceptance since then. But the core principles continue to be relevant, for work and in our personal lives. Let’s look at the key components that define emotional intelligence:


Most people equate emotional intelligence with an enhanced social ability. It is equated with “people skills” or being a people leader. But self-awareness goes deeper, into the values and beliefs that define us. The question is, do we know who we are? We would like to believe so. But ask people how they are feeling and eight out of 10 will answer with, “OK”, “Good”, or “Great”. Nothing wrong with that, right? Except that none of these is a feeling! Why is this important? Because according to Goleman, self-awareness is being able to identify and label what we are feeling, as we are feeling it. It means being able to look at ourselves as we are snapping at a subordinate or peer and recognising that we are angry.

Freud called this a state of “evenly hovering attention”. This helps us identify our triggers — events or even people that spark a certain reaction. When we know this, we are able to anticipate our reaction, and manage it better. Which brings us to the next point.


This is the ability to manage our own emotions so that we feel, but do not let ourselves get hijacked by what we are feeling. We can look at it as the ability to delay gratification, by not giving in to extremes of any emotion. Resisting the impulse to buy your 69th pair of shoes is delaying gratification, but so is controlling your temper when you want to rant and smash things. People who are good at self-management probe deeper to discover the underlying cause for their emotion. It means asking ourselves, “I feel angry, but what am I really angry about?”

The ability to manage our own emotions decides whether we take life’s challenges in our stride or sink into despair. Think balance, not repression; feeling emotion is human, letting it take over is not. We all know this on a cognitive level, but it is harder to put into action.

Let’s understand the neuroscience behind this. The human brain is wired to deal with different kinds of situations. Information that we perceive through the senses is transmitted to the neocortex, or the thinking brain which processes the information in a logical manner and then instructs us how to respond. But through a shorter route, the information also reaches the amygdala, the “emergency response centre” of the brain.

In normal situations, the amygdala lets the thinking brain do its job. But when a threat is perceived, the amygdala immediately swings into action and sends a surge of hormones coursing through our body, preparing the body for fight or flight, before the information has even reached the thinking brain. This explains how we respond to danger even before we are consciously aware of it, but it also explains how we explode in anger and then wonder what happened later.

So what do we do about it?

Studies indicate that the best way to deal with anger is to distract ourselves until the adrenal surge subsides, in an environment where we are not likely to encounter further triggers for rage.

The key is to distract ourselves with an activity that does not allow space or energy to pursue the anger-inducing thought. It is, therefore, better to go for a long, brisk walk and burn off the anger rather than eat a giant bowl of chocolate ice-cream (and have to walk off the calories anyway!)

Social awareness

No, this is not about knowing what your neighbour’s son is up to when his parents are away. It is although, about noticing how your neighbours interact; about knowing that Mrs Iyer is the person you should go to if you want the waste segregation problem sorted, and that Mr Shastry is the only one who can marshal everyone for the Diwali programme. In the workplace, people with high social awareness understand group dynamics, recognise how power flows and identify key influencers. We all know such people, those who are able to “read” a group. This is not some mystical skill bestowed upon a select few. It is simply the ability to tune in to another’s emotions. Every person, whether they like it or not, is sending out a steady stream of information; verbal and non-verbal cues that give us a glimpse into how they are feeling. All we really need to do is keep our eyes, ears and hearts open.

Closely linked with this is empathy; the ability to feel with another person. This is different from sympathy, which is to feel for them. According to research professor Brené Brown, “an empathetic response rarely if ever begins with ‘at least..’” At least you have this, at least you haven’t lost that. The best way to demonstrate empathy is to listen, and listen deeply; without judgement and without dipping into our akshayapatra of solutions-to-solve-every-problem.

But why is empathy important? Because empathy builds real connection; the kind that cannot be measured in units of Facebook friends or Instagram followers.

Relationship management

It is one thing to be aware of others’ emotions, but managing others’ emotions is an entirely different skill. But this is easier because our ability to manage emotions in others manifests clearly as observable behaviours in our daily interactions. It includes:

  • Influencing others
  • Communicating effectively
  • Conflict management — the ability to defuse tension and manage conflict so that it is constructive.
  • Collaboration — being able to work with other people and bring out the best in them
  • Motivating or inspiring others

Of these, the one that sees the largest gap between intent and impact is conflict management. Conflict is not inherently bad, it is how we manage it that makes a difference. One technique that coach and facilitator Ashley Grandisch recommends is to reflect on the following questions:

  • What actually happened? What are the facts?
  • What story am I telling myself? What conclusions have I made about what happened and the other person?
  • What story is the other person telling themselves? What conclusions would they have drawn about what happened and about me?
  • Where can we meet? What is an acceptable solution to both?

These questions help keep the focus on facts, while also highlighting that conflict usually arises because of a difference in perspective. The consensus is peaceful, but innovation is born from dissent, when one person says, “I disagree. There is a better way to do this.”

Most of us want to get better at relationship management, at influencing others or handling conflict. But this hinges on two things — a heightened ability to manage our own emotions as well as the capacity for empathy. Each of us has different abilities in the four areas of emotional intelligence. Some of us are good at motivating others, but not so great at recognising our own emotions. But the good news is, we can learn.

For those who are unnerved by all this talk of emotion, fret not. Think of emotions as bits and bytes of information. Information is power. What you do with that power, is entirely up to you. Me, I’m off …now that my murderous rage has subsided.

(Published 25 May 2018, 06:47 IST)

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