I should like to introduce you to two people. Both work with the public in healthcare, social work or the police. Both are people facing, hands on professionals and both see some difficult things in the course of their work – sadness, suffering and despair which lead to neglect, abuse and assault. Both are required to have high levels of emotional intelligence in their roles. 

One of these people has a calm demeanour, only  speaks when necessary, takes everything in their stride and has never shown emotion in the workplace. The other is far more chatty, asks questions and volunteers information, and is affected regularly by both the sad and the joyful side of the work. This person has cried at work, and shown anger, and has confided in colleagues about these emotions. 

Which of these two people is the more emotionally intelligent? 

Of course it is impossible to say on such little evidence, but in some workplaces, we may well think the first person is more emotionally intelligent. This may be on the grounds that they contain their emotions more than the second person does. But how do we know person one is aware of their emotions?  And if they are not aware of them, how can they then be aware of others’ emotions? How can they have empathy with people who may be displaying their emotions if they do not display theirs? Of course  we could also ask whether the second person is aware of their emotions, or just letting them out without such awareness? And if so, how can they recognise and understand emotions in others if they do not recognise and understand them in themselves? 

For there is so much more to emotional intelligence than how we behave. It is imperative, if we are to have emotional intelligence, that we look beneath the surface. Emotional continence does not equate to emotional intelligence.  We need to be able to understand and manage ourselves before we can understand and manage others and in doing both we need to understand the motivations, feelings, and communication styles of each of us and how we each impact on one another, trigger one another.

So what is emotional intelligence exactly? Ever since Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking book on the topic, the phrase has entered into common parlance and is used, not always totally accurately, in a range of contexts about a range of behaviours and people. Let’s go back to the  original work and remind ourselves of the definition of the term. 

Emotional Intelligence is the capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s emotions, and to handle relationships judiciously and empathetically. It is made up of five components: self awareness – the ability to recognise and understand my feelings; self regulation – the ability to manage my emotions; motivation – the ability to understand what drives me and you; empathy – the understanding and sharing of your feelings, or being able to put myself in your shoes; and social skills – the ability to interrelate with you. We can see already that keeping your feelings under control is only one aspect, of the overall concept.  

Emotional Intelligence is more than how a person behaves in isolation; it refers to the way we are with others. It requires the ability of reflexivity, or to paraphrase the popular ABBA song, it requires us not just to know me and to know you, but also to know me knowing you, and to know you, knowing me. Let’s explore this a little more deeply. 

We often confuse reflection and reflexivity. Reflection involves me looking back at what I did, or you looking back at what you did, or me looking back at what you did. As a learning process, it requires us to consider the event, review it, and to plan for it if it were to happen again, altering and improving it based on our looking back at it. Very often we ignore the role we have in it, except in terms of being the person who did the action we are reflecting on. Our reflections have often been along the lines of “I did x, and now I realise that this part didn’t work so well and this part did and so in future I will do x again but with y amendments.” This is a good starting point for the development of professional practice and regulation of that practice. What is does not include is any emotionally intelligent considerations. It helps us to ask, “what” and “how” questions about our practice.

Reflexivity, on the other hand is much more about the “why” and the “who”  behind the practice. It goes beyond reflection. It looks at cause  and effect and the impact on everyone involved.  It should still ask the “what” and the “how” questions but then it should progress on to look at why I did x, and what would have happened if I had done y; at the impact of doing x and y on the others involved; on my motivators for doing x rather than y; on the impact of the people involved on me as an actor. What was unconsciously or consciously facilitating or preventing my beliefs or values in making the choices I made? Reflexivity takes as read that we are subjective, emotional beings who act as we do for a wide range of reasons, that we are motivated by or live in fear of a multitude of factors we are not always aware of. You cannot be reflexive without having emotional intelligence, and you cannot have emotional intelligence if you are not reflexive. 

Both of these things require an immense amount of work. Both are painful. Both need us to self scrutinise, repeatedly, until we cannot stop. Both depend on our ability to see the world as subjective frames not an objective mono- truth. And recognising that is like realising Father Christmas does not exist. Only worse. But without both emotional intelligence and reflexivity, we cannot do more than provide a robotic, transactional service to those who have no choice but to rely on us. 

Let’s look again at our two colleagues at the beginning of this story. Do we really think that the first one is the more emotionally intelligent or are they in reality the more defended from their role, barriers built up to the eyeballs, blunting their judgement as well as their emotions? We don’t know, but it would be good to know, and so I would want to chat to them sometime, to find out a little more about their experiences and the way they view the public they work with. I would want to check out with them whether they are finding outlets outside of work for the difficult things they are dealing with, check out that they are not in danger of becoming ill, emotions all bottled up with nowhere to let them out?

Do the emotional displays of the second person reveal an emotionally intelligent person or one who is at risk from not coping?  Again we don’t know, but I would want to talk to them too, to find out what function the emotional outlets at work offer them. It may be that letting go of the sadness, the anger and the joy, in a safe environment, albeit at work, is the very practice that keeps them able to keep going. I might want to see if there are any other outlets for their emotions, but also recognise that sharing with colleagues might be all they have, or might be the most relevant way for them, as long as their colleagues are happy with that. Maybe this is a reciprocal arrangement that works for all involved. 

I guess I would also want to check in on myself, and ask how I cope, how I am affected by their different behaviours, and how the whole  team cope, and how they are affected by the two colleagues above. Both the quiet colleague and the more obviously emotional one may well be triggers for me of previous colleagues and family members, as they might be for other team members, so I might want to look at that and ensure I am being fair in my treatment of both. 

I guess that would be demonstrating emotional intelligence. 

What is missing from the definition of Emotional Intelligence, in my opinion, is honesty. Naturally, different people will display a range of behaviours, depending on the ways in which they recognise and deal with their own and others’ emotions and motivations. But without honest communication of what works for each of us, as well as the ability to review, reflexively how our respective emotional management impacts each of us, we will continue with the assumptions and judgments that make life easier – that emotionally continent people are more emotionally intelligent for one. What might we be missing out on if we did? 

I shudder to think. 

Or maybe I ought to have kept that to myself?