Opinion

Can emotional intelligence be learnt – or is it instinctive?

8 min read

19 February 2016

Does what we refer to as "emotional intelligence", "intuition", or that oh so familiar "gut feeling" need to be taught? This is a question that Ben Houghton, director and founder of Noggin, sets out to answer.

I read a fascinating article in the Independent recently. It suggested that if we have high emotional intelligence and use it to influence our behaviour, we can get more from our interactions with others. By high emotional intelligence, I mean being good at recognising our own emotions and the emotions of those around us.

As someone who delivers experiential coaching, helping others to build “in the moment” self-awareness, I’m often asked whether emotional competence is an innate skill or if it can be learnt? We also need to be aware that there is a difference between having emotional intelligence and being able to act upon it. I call this emotional competence.

Emotional intelligence is a powerful tool when communicating with others in the workplace. A number of studies demonstrate that emotional intelligence not only distinguishes leaders, but it can also be linked to strong business performance.

But there is a common and totally misguided view that “personal impact,” “gravitas” and “charisma” are innate characteristics that people are either gifted with or not. In my opinion, people who believe this only do so because they have yet to experience a process that shows them they can learn to be emotionally intelligent – authentically.

Having worked with many individuals and organisations over the years, I know that it is possible to learn emotional competence in a variety of business critical contexts, such as business development, people leadership, and leading change. But it takes a certain approach to get this right.

“Left brain” or “intellectual” awareness of emotional intelligence does not lead to behavioural change. It can sometimes even be a barrier to developing the required skill set. Research tells us that to be effective in developing emotional competence, the approach needs to:

  • Connect the learner to the brain’s limbic system, where habits are developed;
  • Be personalised and tailored to the individual; and
  • Involve reinforcement and repetition over a period of time.

I strongly believe that building an individual’s emotional competence is all about making it situational. That’s we need to rely on the “ABC” model. It’s all about helping people recognise and understand the need to be attentive, balanced and connected in their relations with other people.

Read more about emotional intelligence:

Being attentive is how much attention we give to others; not in terms of how we manage our time or who we invite to meetings. It’s about being “present” to what is going on in the moment with another person. At a behavioural level, it’s about eye contact, listening, awareness and acknowledgement of others. Get it right and others will feel important and valued in your presence.

Being balanced is the ability to structure your thinking logically and communicate intentions clearly for other people so that you can influence their thinking. It’s about balancing your intentions with those of others, making your communication two-way by achieving a balance of asking and telling. Get it right and you will both feel capable of handling your side of any interaction.

And being connected is about the depth of relationship we build with others. It’s about the rapport we feel with others and the quality and warmth of the relationship. It’s about being open about what you are feeling. It’s about having the emotional competence to feel the level of connection you have with someone and adapt your behaviour if necessary. Get it right and they are more likely to trust you.

An instinctive or intuitive sense of your current emotional competence needs support from some practical solutions to help guide you. I believe there are four skills that individuals need to continually develop and refine.

(1) Managing expectations – Making sure that you set up your interactions to gain buy-in from the outset. You need to tailor messages for different people and recognise that everyone is an individual.

(2) Precise listening and questioning – I am a firm believer that you should be “quick to listen and slow to speak.” You need to show an awareness of the other person in a conversation. This will enable you to find out what’s really going on with that individual. 

(3) Building rapport – This is all about being aware of non-verbal behaviour to create rapport, read others and maintain agreement in light of challenge. For example, if you don’t make eye contact when talking to someone, people find it unsettling. However, if you stare constantly, this is equally unnerving.

(4) Creating compelling messages – This is about how quickly you can construct messages that are psychologically compelling. At the same time, you need to make sure these messages provide clarity and most importantly avoid misunderstandings.

To be really successful, these “go to” behaviours or skills should be continually reinforced through repetition, observation and coaching, either during a short-term intervention such as a workshop or over a longer development programme. These techniques of influence should be tailored and explored to enable an individual to increase their personal range of ABC – their range of emotional competence. 

So, can you learn emotional intelligence? Absolutely, emotional intelligence can be learnt. It is not a magic trait owned by just the “golden gifted few.” And it’s a skill well worth learning. Turning emotional intelligence into emotional competence is an incredibly powerful ability. It will help advance your career and lead to deeper, more meaningful interactions with your peers.

Similarly, coined by world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, we unveil why mindset has become the word used in the boardroom and internal communication strategies to discuss the development of a business related “EQ”.

Ben Houghton is director and founder of Noggin.

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