What is Emotional Intelligence, and why does it matter?

Helen M Campbell

Were you really born to suffer?

Why are some people more successful than others? There are many possible factors, the accident of their birth is important (being born into a rich family is definitely an advantage) but does not necessarily predict success; far from it. Success itself requires definition. One person may consider it to be launching a huge and complicated venture after a long effort, while another measures success in surviving the day with the family intact with food in their bellies. These are difficult questions, and I assure you this discussion does not have all the answers. What I propose for the purposes of this exploration is that we define success as living with the absence or limitation of suffering.

Suffering can be physical or mental, emotional or spiritual, depending on capacities of the individual. We experience it when our needs and expectations are not met. One person is suffering because they made demands that were not satisfied, (“Mum, I need those shoes!”) or they are not making the sales that will pay the mortgage. Another is suffering because their body is wracked with pain, or their struggle to escape from war to find shelter for their children is taking its toll. Suffering happens in the mind and body; it is an emotional event. I suggest that the people in life who succeed are the ones who understand this. Those people skilled at managing their reactions, minimising suffering for themselves and others, and looking for ways to eliminate it, are the successful. This could be through excellent management in business, providing the best CX in the history of their industry, or being a great colleague. It might be as an active member of the community, a good neighbour, or a good friend. It may be by being the person your family need you to be, and you want to be, and the human being you are on your best days. Suffering, in a sense, is a signpost; it serves to show us that we are not getting it right – yet. Truly successful people notice suffering, and use all their abilities to do something about it. In essence, emotional intelligence is the capacity and skill set that enable you to do that well, and in ways that are sustainable.

Emotional Intelligence: a product of cultural evolution

Emotional Intelligence is one of the many aspects of learning and behaviour developed by a group in answer to environmental and social challenges (things hurt, this is what we do about it). Over time these developments accrue into a ‘culture’ and transform groups into recognisable ‘tribes’ with associated habits of presentation and behaviour. They tend to wear similar clothes and grooming. Their mannerisms and language reflect tribal origins and traditions. These habits and understandings are so deeply embedded in a person’s psyche it is easy to assume that the culture of the tribe is The Way rather than a way. All too often they learn that any other way is the Wrong Way – because other is them – so it is easy to see how problems arise.

Misconceptions of patterns of cultural evolution provide more opportunities for generating suffering in the world than almost anything else*. It is breath-taking to consider the amount of suffering created over time by misunderstanding (deliberate or not), aggressively competing and preying on other cultural groups. It is worth pointing out clearly that individuals and well developed emotionally intelligent cultures do not do this. Movements and individuals are active across the planet today who aim to address some of our most pressing global issues through emotionally intelligent education. Thank goodness, the sooner the better, but they have a lot of catching up to do, so the least we can do is try not to get in their way.

Emotional Intelligence is a set of skills that can be expressed differently in every culture. Some cultures are more emotionally mature than others, and EI skills surround them from birth. They see suffering in a different way, and know that, with practice, it can be managed and eliminated through thought and action. Other, less emotionally developed cultures, have a limited set of skills that may not be fit for purpose in a global village (or anywhere).

A wise counsellor once told me that the British are very good at suffering, but not very good at being happy. Anyone who has seen young British people at their happy worst will be able to sympathise with this point of view, but the times are changing.
Thanks to initiatives in the education system; younger Brits are now growing up with a better understanding of emotion and how it can be managed. While this is not the instant solution we would all like it to be (and we can all point out the ones who are getting it wrong – no points for that) parents are beginning to notice a sea change. I regularly see comments on social media from surprised parents filled with wonder at the emotional maturity of their children (when all they did was use a skill that someone taught them at school). It is a wonderful thing, a little training.

So EI is something anyone can benefit from?

Emotional intelligence is a set of skills and competencies that we can all learn if we are given the right opportunities. These include internal factors (self awareness, insight and understanding, and self management skills) and external factors (social awareness, insight and understanding, and relationship management skills). In most situations internal competence is a prerequisite for relationship skills and social success. Internal incompetence is an inexhaustible fountain of disappointment and suffering. This is why the best way to change history is to change yourself first. Living in a world shaped by people who are unaware and confused about themselves, and have no self control or personal management, is not easy for anyone. EI will not help you master the world, but it is what helps you master yourself.

How do you learn Emotional Intelligence?

There is nothing new about individuals travelling the world to gain new understanding, insights and skills from other tribal cultures. ‘New age thinking’ is fundamentally old-time or alternate-tribe thinking that doesn’t yet fit comfortably into the current culture. As it is processed and (if useful) accommodated it becomes mainstream and new generations will grow up to assume that it is The Way. But while biological evolution can take centuries, cultural evolution seems to happen today at light speed, especially since the development of technology, which has really changed the game. We can choose to grow increasingly uncomfortable as things change around us, embrace the alternate and try it on for size, or look around for home grown solutions to the challenges we face. The only thing we cannot do is stop change, and to try is to be unintelligent in every way. Intelligence literally is the ability to observe and adapt successfully to suit changing circumstances.

Embracing the challenge to develop new skills can be daunting. Time is precious and the world is full of fools (some of whom are rather successful) who don’t do things the right way. Of all the things you could learn that would be worth the trouble (Japanese conversation, breadmaking or home plumbing?) developing new EI skills is likely to be the most valuable investment overall. EI is associated with achieving virtually everything worth having or doing; from a good night’s sleep to a happy home life. Our prisons and educational rehabilitation units are filled with people with inadequate training in self mastery and social competence. If nothing else, you owe it to your children to be as grown up and mature as you can. They are relying on you.

Whether you choose to learn from reading books and thinking deeply, enrolling on a psychological training course or coaching, or backpacking to India to sit with a guru, you will find that – beneath the cultural variations in language and presentation – the fundamental skills are the pretty much same. Personal skills of self reflection (literally in-sight) and self management permit the development of interpersonal and wider social skills. As you reassess and reinterpret your thoughts, feelings and history, reprioritise and abandon former assumptions and let go of the past; like a hot air balloon freeing sandbags, you begin to rise. You scarcely notice as you climb effortlessly upward, until the time when you look down and see where you came from growing smaller in the distance.

That is why emotional intelligence matters. Without developing the skills we need to think and feel for ourselves, understand and cooperate socially, and enjoy the rewards of real, honest and healthy emotional relationships, we are condemned to suffer. We bounce along the ground with every passing breeze, a risk to ourselves and to others. The wind will never be ours to control, but with better skills and experience our hot air balloon develops into an air ship. You can do something useful with an airship, and if nothing else, flying high and seeing life from sunlit skies is a lot more fun!

*Short of a meteor strike, an Earth choking volcano or the destruction of the planet’s ecology – oops!

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