In an article published by Scientific American titled “The Dark Side of the Brain: Too Much Emotional Intelligence Is a Bad Thing,” the author suggests that “profound empathy” sometimes comes “at a price.” The suggestion is made that people with too much empathy are likely to be sidelined by stress more than those who do not have as much empathy. The author points to a Frankfurt study where students who were rated as having higher emotional intelligence (as determined by an empathy measure) also had higher levels of stress during an experiment (as measured by the level of cortisol in their saliva). While the study itself may be perfectly valid as far as it goes, there is a notable problem with the magazine article’s conclusion: the author equates emotional intelligence (EI) with empathy. This is a rather common mistake.
There are three general ways that we emotionally react to stress, threats and anxiety: Fight, Flight and/or Freeze & Appease. (Yes, you learned this in biology class.) In my book I refer to the three movements or dimensions using the three primary colors: Fight is Red; Flight is Yellow; and, Freeze & Appease is Blue. So when you find out at a holiday meal that your niece went to a protest against Donald Trump you might react from the Red paint bucket by angrily railing at her, and every other liberal, for being sore losers. Or if your sister’s husband lists all the ways that Trump will in “make America great again,” you might react out of the Blue paint bucket by coming around to “see his point of view”—even though you voted for Hilary because you saw Trump as dangerous. Alternatively, you might go absolutely silent and emotionally detach (Yellow paint bucket) when your Uncle Bud goes on about Obama being a Muslim. We can blend the colors as well. For example, you can go into the Purple space (reactive Red and Blue) and dominate a conversation at the dinner table, not letting anyone else have a say.
All of us react in one (or a blend) of these three ways throughout the year in our public and private relationships, whether toward a spouse, a child, a boss, an employee, the idiot who just cut you off, or the president of the United States. And when we do, our limbic system (emotional brain) gets triggered and we get thrown out of balance—to the detriment of others and ourselves. But we can almost always count on our vulnerability to reactivity when co-mingling with relatives at Holiday event, when we come together with those whose ties with us are not necessarily of our own choosing.
So what can we do to mitigate our reactivity?
Last week I had a business meeting in Houston. On my ride to the Los Angeles airport my driver enthusiastically described Donald Trump as a great businessman who will get America back on track. He then expressed his outrage at all the “sore losers” protesting in the streets. A few hours later, on my ride from the Houston airport to my hotel, the driver explained with dismay that his young daughter had awakened in tears, afraid that she and her family could be deported. He was outraged that America could elect what he saw as “an insecure bigot.”
Never in my memory has the country been so divided in reaction to an election—a state of affairs clearly represented by my two drivers. It is amazing that any two of us can look at the same event with very different eyes. Some see Trump as a national treasure who will save America. Others see the same man as a dangerous narcissist and bigot. How can we see the same reality in such different ways?
Donald Trump is president elect. And unless you’ve been asleep for the past week, you’re aware that there has been an unparalleled reaction to the surprising outcome of the election. As I talk to friends, clinical clients and business clients, I’m seeing unprecedented personal and collective feelings of despair, anger and anxiety. (I suppose that if Hillary Clinton had won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote, many Trump supporters would be equally unhappy.)
I have—like most people—opinions about this election and its candidates. But that is not the purpose of this article. The intention of this article is to present a model to help the large number of people who are notably pained by recent events to respond with emotional intelligence rather than react. I will organize my thoughts around the three dimensions that I write about in both of my books: these are Power, Heart and Mindfulness, respectively.
I am always in search of people who exemplify the convergence, synergy, balance, or integration of Power, Heart and Mindfulness—the three dimensions of emotionally intelligent people. These are the people who bring positive energy and productivity to every relationship they touch, whether the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the janitor at a local high school, your (favorite) uncle—or the First Lady of the United States. As a case in point, Michelle Obama’s emotional intelligence shines through admirably in her public speaking.
While watching the First Lady speak at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, I saw a woman who had the dynamic balance of Power, Heart and Mindfulness. I was not just listening to a good speech, but a good woman as well. Whether you are Democrat, Independent, or Republican, if you were listening, you had to know this in your gut. You might disagree with her politics, but she represents a minority of people who can find the relational sweet-spot at the intersection of power, heart and mindfulness. Continue reading “Michelle Obama’s Emotional Intelligence”
July 18th was Mandela Day: A perfect time to look at how Nelson Mandela exemplified someone who found the balance of power, heart, and mindfulness in his great life.
As one of the most respected and beloved world leaders of the 20th century, Mandela instigated the peaceful transition of power in South Africa that many had thought impossible. And he accomplished this remarkable feat within the backdrop of his own personal and protracted sacrifice and suffering. Mandela received over 200 awards including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is held in deep respect within South Africa, where he is often referred to as Tata (“Father”). Continue reading “Nelson Mandela: Someone with the Balance of Power, Heart and Mindfulness”