15 Mar 2016 19:57 IST

Decoding emotional intelligence

Few other terms have stayed as popular as EI. But do you know what your EI is?

Few other terms have gained as much popularity as Emotional Intelligence. It is not jargon because everyone knows about it. Or is it just jargon because everyone knows what it is?

The best way to really know that you know something well is by putting it to test. How do you test it? By using it.

So let’s do it straightaway. You know what Emotional Intelligence (EI) is, and you think you have a high EI. But what does it mean?

Thought experiment

It basically means that you know about your feelings instantly or in real time. Why real time? Because if you recognise your feelings long after you’ve felt them, it isn’t useful.

A high EI is like a kind of running commentary in your mind — I am frustrated, peeved, upset, dismayed, annoyed, angry, mad, bored, curious, highly interested, deep in it, swayed, overwhelmed, blown over… you get the drift. But does such a commentary run in your mind? Of course not! And if it did, you wouldn’t be able to do anything else but be a nervous wreck.

You can extend the experiment to see if you know how others feel. “Oh, he is anxious, jealous, scared, arrogant”. Does such a commentary run in your mind? Now imagine if you’re in a meeting, and you have this super high EI. Can you figure how many running commentaries you will have to deal with? You will be washed away in those torrents!

So is EI to be trashed?

Not at all. You know now that too much EI, whether of self or others, is undesirable.

Let’s go further.

What happens when you have a high EI not all the time but only when things get difficult? That is, you know when to back off or step up; you realise you have to handle your anger before it clouds your reasoning; you notice your colleague or boss is distracted so you don’t push too much; you sense that your audience is all clammed up and that you need to take a different tack instead of mulishly going through your script; you feel the excitement about an idea around you, so you get going on it then and there.

So the logical correction of having too high an EI is to strike a balance. Emotional Intelligence is useful if it works in the background and lets you focus on the task at hand. It alerts you only when things start getting difficult for you or others.

Emotional Intelligence is helpful in relationships as well. “I feel comfortable with him, I trust her, I feel cared, I feel better when she is around” — such feelings help sustain relationships through conflicts. A good EI can also alert people about feelings like jealousy, envy, revenge, suspicion, or insecurity.

EI for leaders

If you are leading a team, you know that having emotional intelligence is an asset. But is that all a leader needs? No. Leaders with good EI and a poor agenda or no sense of where they are taking their team, will be known as just a soft and nice, albeit ineffective, leader.

There are also tests done by HR, that measure a leader’s EI. Most EI tests are built on your declarations. If you are good, you can manipulate or game them. Experts, however, will say that the questionnaire design takes into account the possibility of ‘gaming’.

But if you are clever, it is possible to guess correct answers. Even if EI is measured correctly, the ability to handle the situations mentioned above, is something that changes depending on where the interactions are taking place, with whom, and what state of mind you are in. Suppose you are very excited about your idea, you may fail to gauge a lack of enthusiasm in others. Or if you are tired, you will simply ignore how others are feeling.

Your EI zone

Your EI will keep bobbing up and down, and that is okay. All you need to do is be in the zone between a total emotional blackout and a blinding clarity of how everyone is feeling. Fortunately for you, this area is quite big, so you can easily find it.

If you think you get it wrong with some people, then that is only thing you need to work on.

Can emotional intelligence be improved? Yes, by you, and you alone. It is like growing — you take in experiences, reflect on them, try things and so on. Being with people of diverse backgrounds, reading on a variety of subjects and reading fiction can help.