Posts Tagged emotional intelligence

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

I could stand to be more empathetic. I’ve suspected that for a while now, but it became more obvious this week, when snow kept me from the gym.

More often than not, Midwesterners do a good job of clearing sidewalks and parking lots after snow storms, but my gym is an exception. The owners and/or management who took control about a year ago seem to have adopted the Southern response to winter precipitation, i.e. leave it alone and let the sun take care of it. If they do happen to use a shovel, they clear the most meager of paths. They recently cleared a narrow path next to the building by the handicapped parking, leaving a ridge of snow between the parking spots and the cleared area. They might as well have saved the effort – there aren’t very many skilled high-jumpers or hurdlers where I park.

Detachment like that leaves me shaking my head and asking questions. Don’t they understand that gym patrons, particularly those who park where I do, need a cleared surface in order to enter the gym safely? If they spent a day in my shoes, they would realize how dangerous slippery surfaces can be. There’s the catch: they’ve never been in my shoes, and because of that, they likely lack the empathy that an experience like that would provide.

It’s hard to be as empathetic as we should be, because we rarely understand the full extent of most challenges. We look derisively at the mother using food stamps or the scowling teenager at the mall, because we’re so sure that we’re superior or could do better in their shoes. Yet, we don’t know their entire story. If we did, we would probably be embarrassed by our attitude. Many times, our judgment isn’t as sound as we believe it to be.

Before age and the wear and tear of my awkward gait took its toll on my body, I often scoffed at the numerous handicapped parking stalls at gyms. Are there really that many handicapped people in a gym, I thought to myself. If I could park in a regular spot and walk in, so too should almost anyone else. I learned the hard way just how wrong I was.

That’s not where the irony ends. My experiences with a physical handicap occasionally give me an unfounded sense of superiority, especially in areas of effort. If I could do it, why can’t they? In thinking like this, I discount all of my other advantages and likely discount the challenges of those I judge. There’s almost always an untold story.

I was at a high school basketball game a few years back, and the volunteer keeping the clock was struggling. It was a tight game where every play mattered, and this poor guy kept screwing up the time. He’d either stop the clock too soon or too late, and the bleachers were full of people eager to point out his mistakes. More than once, the game had to be stopped to allow for a scoreboard adjustment. I had a similar experience in the same role at a youth football game, so I could empathize with his situation. I silently wished that those sitting around me had such empathy, as I watched him get flustered.

None of us knew that he had brain cancer and would die after a three-year struggle. I’m not even sure if the cancer was affecting him at the time or if he had even been diagnosed. When I learned of the diagnosis though, I immediately thought back to that game and wondered how many boo-birds regretted their behavior that night.

A lack of empathy toward my sidewalk challenges at the gym made me look internally at my own shortcomings in that area. Don’t wait until something like this happens to you. Strive to be more empathetic. It can’t hurt.


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When Good Will Isn’t Returned


One of my all-time favorite television programs is Frasier, a spin-off from another favorite, Cheers. Since the series ceased production in 2004, I have enjoyed watching reruns of the program that features a neurotic and perpetually challenged but witty psychiatrist who gets himself in a series of tough spots.

In an episode I recently watched, Frasier experiences misfortune when he tries to do good deeds. The worst misfortune is his arrest for soliciting prostitution when he mistakes a transvestite prostitute for a stranded lady in need of a ride on a rainy night. His misfortune causes him to contemplate the value of altruism. Within a week, I found myself contemplating the same.

Though my contract entitled me to keep it, I returned a substantial payment to a client when a deal unraveled due to neither of our negligence. Standard procedure dictated that I keep the payment and continue to work on the project, but it was evident that would cause distress for my main contact in my client’s office. Since I had a long and successful relationship with that contact, I broke protocol, returned the check and continued working on the project. After a short time, the project was unceremoniously cancelled. My good will was shrugged aside, just like Frasier’s.

Initially, I was hurt by the injustice and angry at myself for exposing myself to mistreatment. I had gone out of the way to do the right thing, and it backfired. Wasn’t I owed something for my effort? That’s where I was mistaken.

Life doesn’t owe us anything, and if we plod through expecting rewards, we will create unnecessary frustrations, like mine and Frasier’s, for ourselves. Frustrations eventually paralyze good intent. When good intent is paralyzed, we not only stop contributing positive energy, positive energy quits coming our way too. Before long, we become that grouchy old person that no one wants to be around. If we want to avoid that fate, we have to learn to let go of the anger that very naturally bubbles forth when someone lets us down.

Easier said than done, right? Much easier!  Anger is one reaction to our natural fight-or-flight response, and it’s often the first reaction when someone lets us down. We’re mad at the injustice we suffered and mad at those responsible. There isn’t anything wrong with this natural reaction, unless we hold onto it for more than a few minutes or compulsively act on it. If we give ourselves too little time to make sense of our anger, we risk intensifying the situation with rash behavior, and if we hold on too long, we waste needless energy that should be directed toward positive outcomes.

Anger simply alerts us to a choice we must make: are we going to let the negative situation pass or does it merit a reaction? Many of us make the mistake of delaying this decision, which puts us in a helpless state of anger. We’re mad, but we’re unsure if what we’re going to do about it, if anything at all. It’s much better to stop and focus on the anger as soon as possible, and then, in most cases, to let it go.

I’ve been working on this myself, and that work required a little research and testing. Context and appreciation seem to be keys to dispelling anger that requires no reaction.

Context: most things that anger us aren’t really that important, if we put them in proper context. That guy who gave you the one-finger salute on the freeway? Will you even remember him next week? If not, why give him any more of your attention and energy?

Appreciation: anger tends to elbow its way to the front of our attention span. When we’re angry, it’s hard to appreciate our blessings. Have you ever let a bad experience with restaurant waitstaff rob enjoyment of an otherwise perfect evening? I’m ashamed to admit that I have. You never get back those moments you spent in anger. Make sure that appreciation gets much more attention than anger.

I applied this strategy to the situation with my client and their cancelled project. Other than this instance, my experience with them has been overwhelmingly positive. This one situation seems small and unimportant when I look back at my history with them. Further, I appreciate their business and wish to continue the relationship.

I’m not perfect. It took me most of an afternoon to come to this acceptance and let go of my anger, but I’m glad that it didn’t take longer and cost me a valuable relationship.

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You Say It’s Your Birthday?

I celebrated another birthday last month. As I have mellowed, so too have the celebrations. Quiet dinners with my family have replaced loud parties with friends, and moderation isn’t something I scoff at any more. Instead of using the day as an excuse to indulge and go crazy, my birthdays are now an occasion for quiet reflection. In a way, I’ve brought the celebration inside.

This has made my mind my most important participant in my celebration. If my mind isn’t right, it won’t be much of a celebration. Because of this, on my birthday, I resolve not to let anything drag me down and to focus only on the positive.

If I dump half of the top shelf in the refrigerator trying to get orange juice for breakfast, who cares – it’s my birthday. If a fellow commuter challenges me on my drive to work, not a problem – it’s my birthday. If the kids leave the kitchen a mess, it’s not the end of the world – it’s my birthday.

I attempt to control and direct my emotions to improve my experiences, practicing emotional intelligence – the ability to recognize and control one’s emotions for personal development.

The term emotional intelligence has been around for more than 100 years. Though there isn’t consensus among scientists about its validity as actual intelligence, most of us can benefit from its general foundation – awareness and purposeful manipulation of human emotion. If we can be aware of our emotions and their causes, we can attempt to control them.

I learned about emotional intelligence by reading the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves. Before reading the book, I accepted my emotions as a consequence of daily activities – something that would come and go. I resisted dwelling on my emotions and their causes, thereby undervaluing their effect on life satisfaction and personal development.

Emotional intelligence starts with awareness of emotions. At almost every point in the day, our emotions color our perception of the world, even if we are unaware of this effect. If you are combing through your e-mail, and you come across a message from someone who has disappointed or angered you recently, that anger and disappointment comes back. Though those emotions might not be as intense as they once were, they still affect us and our approach to the world, while they are with us.

Likewise, when we take time to notice the simple things in life, like the peaceful quiet of a new morning dawn, we fuel ourselves with positive emotions. Someone who can become tuned in to his emotions can minimize their negative disruptions while exploiting their positive benefits, but it takes practice. Like learned intelligence, emotional intelligence gains strength through repetition.

I stressed emotional intelligence on my birthday this year, and I had a great, peaceful day, which tells me that I need to do that the other 364 days of the year. I’m pretty sure that I’m bending pages in the second half of this really intriguing book called life, and it’s getting good. I can make better with emotional intelligence.

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