This post was written by former HC intern, Brittany Bruner.
Emotional intelligence is often something I take for granted as necessary for positive human coexistence, until I encounter media or people who possess a shockingly low amount of emotional intelligence. Rita Balian Allen defines emotional intelligence as “our ability to identify and manage our own emotions as well as recognize that of others and groups. It requires effective communication between the rational and emotive centers of our brain—it represents the path between feeling and reason.” Sounds simple enough. It resembles what we cover in first-year writing: rhetoric requires a balance among ethos, pathos, and logos.
Yet emotion is often misconstrued as something negative, and some see sharing emotions as a sign of weakness. Others tend to think of emotion as something that overtakes rationality, that people act either out of sympathy, blind love, or fear when making decisions. This is notably prolific in political rhetoric, where rhetors tap into the assumptions and values of a core group to convince them to vote for someone who can fix the country with some flashy rhetoric and grandiose promises, whether the leader actually has any experience or wisdom to effect great change. These assumptions and values often tap into very vivid and visceral emotions like fear and empathy. And some argue that even emotions that are traditionally thought of as positive emotions, like empathy, can result in negative action. Paul Bloom argues in this video that “empathy blinds you to the long-term consequences of your actions.” He calls for a holistic approach to altruism that is not fueled by immediate empathic responses to sad situations, ultimately calling for a more pragmatic approach to altruism.
But altruism seems to lack purpose without empathy; empathy without thought can be dangerous, but empathy paired with keen emotional intelligence, rather than sheer disinterested pragmatism, can be powerful. In another approach to altruism, David Brooks argues, “In real life, the push of selfishness is matched by the pull of empathy and altruism. This is not Hallmark card sentimentalism but scientific fact: As babies our neural connections are built by love and care. We have evolved to be really good at cooperation and empathy. We are strongly motivated to teach and help others.” It is this natural tendency toward cooperation and empathy, toward love and care, that sparks our natural dispositions toward emotional intelligence. But just as we learn as children how to manage our emotions, so must emotional intelligence be learned and continually practiced.
Harvard Business Review published a video on emotional intelligence that argues that emotional intelligence involves self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. All of these skills are necessary to be effective business leaders, and as shown here and here, emotional intelligence is an important attribute to foster and discover in potential business hires. However, this important characteristic is often overlooked when people overvalue their own characteristics and sidestep those they work with because they are not emotionally aware of their surroundings. It has poisoned many business settings I have encountered.
Emotional intelligence, unsurprisingly, is an essential characteristic for humanities majors. They spend their studies analyzing emotions, motivations, social skills, and bigger societal problems in the texts and theories they read, analyze, and discuss. They practice argumentation both in papers and in class and learn ways to handle conflict effectively. In effect, they foster and develop emotional intelligence. Possessing high emotional intelligence is one reason that Steve Strauss says he loves to hire English majors.
But one thing I’ve realized as I’ve been put in new and foreign situations is that, while we have natural tendencies to do good for each other, emotional intelligence has to be cultivated like any other type of intelligence, especially in times of discomfort. It can be especially difficult in times when people feel threatened, oppressed, or unhappy with their situation, and selfishness becomes the motivation for actions, decisions, conversation, and public engagement. In these moments, emotional intelligence becomes vital but is often forgotten.
Developing emotional intelligence has become even more defining for me as I have moved to Jordan. Prior to coming to Jordan, I heard a lot of preconceived notions about the country and how I would need to act in it. I came prepared and did my research, but it is still a culture shock. I have never resided somewhere so foreign, and it has required me to look outside myself and adapt to a new culture, to observe, mimic, and attempt to understand how people act here and how I should act to fit into their culture. I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to understand why people act the way that they do and to align my actions with theirs, when appropriate. And in the process, I’ve learned a lot about the people in Jordan even in a short time, most notably how friendly and willing they are to help people acclimate to this foreign country, and in turn, how vastly uninformed I would be if I didn’t look to the people to learn how to act in their culture.
This kind of working together and acclimation to other ways of living is essential to help us continually develop emotional intelligence, but it can sometimes be forgotten when we are comfortable with our surroundings. This situation is helping me to realize even more how comfortable I have become with my own perceived emotional intelligence, which can make my interactions with others be less harmonious. Emotional intelligence is a fundamental characteristic of human nature that, if fostered and prized, could be a compellingly strong force for good in government, civil society, international relations, and personal relationships.