Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the umbrella term given to a set of skills essential for effective influence. When building these EI skills within our clients, rarely do they have zero existing awareness of what EI is, but very few understand its components and the corresponding skills and techniques. Even fewer already practice those skills and techniques consciously. And, yes, they are skills, not natural gifts. Which means they can be learnt and improved upon.
For me, the most difficult EI component to understand and practice is is that of emotional self-management. It can be the most elusive and arguably the most personal and subjective. Its essence is the ability to control one’s emotional state; to use your emotions appropriately to trigger your own behaviours. It’s therefore a powerful tool for the purpose of influence. For instance, in our past lives in military intelligence, if my colleagues and I couldn’t manage our emotional state appropriately when speaking with an insurgent in Afghanistan to collect time-sensitive, life saving information, our chances of successful influence became much smaller, putting lives at risk.
So, what can be done to improve our emotional self-management? There are a range of techniques you can practice to improve this skill. For me, effective emotional self-management starts with the time you put into practicing it before the moment you need to manage your emotions, not just what you do in the moment itself. The best training I've found? Meditation.
This week marks my anniversary of taking up regular mindfulness meditation. I have few regrets in my life, but one of them is that I didn’t do this sooner. Personally I use one of the many apps that guides me through my 10 - 20 minutes of meditative mindfulness every day. It is something I now look forward to; a few minutes just to myself, focusing on my breath, my body, sounds, visualisation - whatever I've chosen that day.
As someone who has always struggled with a short attention span, the almost immediate benefit in this respect was simply astonishing.
But, most importantly, it has made me a better influencer. It has given me greater control of my emotional state and slowed the reactionary part of my brain as described in this HBR article. This means I can be more deliberate and precise in the behaviour I project, particularly in situations of high tempo or pressure; whether that is a high stakes meeting with a client or just a very busy day with many demands on my time. And, like all the skills we develop at AIG, emotional self-management will be improved with practice not theory; so who can't afford to spare 10 minutes a day to create such an advantage?
My suggested start point would be trying out an application like Headspace or Calm, and just giving it a go. Some excellent reading on the absolutely astonishing benefits of regular meditation practice and the science behind it can be found here:
Destructive Emotions: How can we overcome them? - Dalai Lama and Daniel Goleman
Joy On Demand - Chade-Meng Tan (who had the official title at Google of 'Jolly Good Fellow Which Nobody Can Deny')
In this way mindfulness practice decreases activity in the parts of the brain responsible for fight-or-flight and knee-jerk reactions while increasing activity in the part of the brain responsible for what’s termed our executive functioning. This part of the brain, and the executive functioning skills it supports, is the control center for our thoughts, words, and actions. It’s the center of logical thought and impulse control. Simply put, relying more on our executive functioning puts us firmly in the driver’s seat of our minds, and by extension our lives. One second can be the difference between achieving desired results or not. One second is all it takes to become less reactive and more in tune with the moment. In that one second lies the opportunity to improve the way you decide and direct, the way you engage and lead.