July 18th, 2012 | 1:00 pm

The Most Important Tool for Emotional Intelligence

filed under Ask A Career Coach

Contributed by CEO Coach Henna Inam

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a key driver of success in the workplace, perhaps the most important driver. Studies show that those at the high levels of emotional intelligence earn $29,000 more per year than those at lower levels, and 90% of high performers have high EQ. The good news is that emotional intelligence, unlike IQ, can be learned.

Emotional intelligence, according to a book and assessment tool Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is our ability to recognize and understand emotions in ourselves and others and our ability to use this awareness to manage our relationships. One tool that continues to be transformational for me in practicing emotional intelligence is what I fondly refer to as “the Pregnant Pause.” I see this as the gateway tool for emotional intelligence.

Imagine this scenario. You have a major presentation to senior management at your company.

You’ve been working on the 50-page power point for a month. If you’d kept track of all the versions you’d be at version 89. All the nits the management two levels above you pointed out have been corrected. It is show-time. You’ve had barely three hours of sleep and your nerves are on edge. You make what you believe to be a stellar presentation and are waiting for the standing ovation when Dave, a peer you’re not exactly fond of, asks a stupid question on slide 45 in the footnotes. Clearly, he’s just trying to make you look bad so you snap back with a sarcastic, “Well, if you’d read the pre-read deck, it’s all explained in detail there!” Ouch. Did that actually come out of your mouth?

This is what is called the emotional highjack. The emotions in your brain highjack the rational part of your brain that would have responded “Great question, Dave. Let me address that.” The Pregnant Pause is a leadership practice that causes us to notice when our emotions run high and to make a conscious choice to slow down and let our rational brain catch up. When we allow that, we discover what is really happening with a clearer lens, we truly listen to what others are saying, and are able to make better decisions. We can then give birth to the right solutions.

Here are five practices to make the Pregnant Pause part of your everyday life.

1. Anticipate your triggers. We each have different events or thoughts that trigger different emotional reactions. Start noticing and journaling about what triggers you. That makes it much easier to recognize as the trigger approaches. For example, I know about myself that if I get hungry and am not fed within 5 minutes, I start to get very irritated. I’ve learned to carry a snack with me at all times (mostly to protect others from my wrath). Other triggers could include situations or events that cause strong emotional reactions in you. Each of our brains is pre-programmed based on our thoughts and experiences for different triggers. It’s perfectly normal. Understand yours.

2. Start to notice triggers in your body. Before our emotions fully highjack us we can feel them coming on if we pay attention to our bodies. For some people as they get angry they feel it as redness or heat around their necks. For example, I feel fear in the pit of my stomach. Start to notice and journal about these so you can catch them before they fully catch you. Many times if we’re disconnected with ourselves, noticing what is happening in our bodies through a body scan (paying attention to different parts of our bodies) is easier than understanding our emotional state.

3. Check-In on your Emotions. Throughout the day, there is an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Do a quick check-in and ask yourself “how am I doing right now”? A great way to practice mindfulness and see how you’re doing is to take a deep breath and do the body scan now. It takes less than 60 seconds to place awareness in different parts of your body and just feel how they’re feeling. For me right now, as I did my body scan I noticed my left shoulder muscles contracted. I breathed into it, sat up to improve my posture and instantly felt better. It feels good to be kind to yourself like that!

4. The Pregnant Pause. As you see a trigger starting to take hold, take a deep breath. Take three. Count to ten if you need to. The wisdom of the three deep breaths and counting to ten is that it gives our rational brain time to get back in control. Our amygdala (the fight or flight part of the brain) evolved to react much faster than our rational brain as a survival mechanism to outside threats. Unfortunately our brain evolution has not caught up to differentiate between a lioness stalking us and Dave asking us a question about the footnotes on slide 45.

5. Release the Emotion. This is an important step to sustain and grow in our ability to be free from the emotional highjack. We often don’t acknowledge or deal with difficult emotions (anger, fear, shame etc) because they are uncomfortable. Over time as we either choose to “stuff” them inside or explode, these repeated emotional triggers literally cause “grooves” in our brains that make us more susceptible to these emotions. Different meditation techniques have been shown by Stanford researchers [PDF] to have impact on moderating the fear response in the amygdala. One other way to grow in our ability to be free of these emotions is to embrace them through the discomfort and release them.  I learned a simple and effective method of release in this blog post. I imagine the emotion passing through my body as a cloud passes in the sky. I take a deep breath, see myself expanding and creating the space for the emotion to pass and then just say, “I let my (insert negative emotion here) go,” to affirm my intent. Our emotions can be seen as temporary states. We don’t have to own them, dwell in them, or hide from them. We just need to face them and let them go.

As we start to practice mindfulness and the Pregnant Pause, it teaches us how to remain calm and keep our rational minds in charge in stressful situations. And the person who is able to keep a more objective view of reality, to manage themselves and others in productive ways in stressful situations, will surely be the stronger, wiser leader. And, I’ll let you in on a secret. You will experience a greater sense of well-being and lower stress levels as you practice this tool.

I would welcome your comments about how this worked for you. Be sure to journal about your successes as it will just reinforce your learning in this area. And of course, I would welcome connecting with you if you would like to grow in your own emotional intelligence.

Henna Inam is a CEO Coach focused helping women become transformational leaders. A Wharton MBA, and former C-Suite executive with Novartis and P&G, her passion is to engage, empower, and energize women leaders to transform themselves and their businesses. Sign up for her blog at www.transformleaders.tv.

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  1. Tony Goddard

    Hi Henna

    I agree with the points that you make here. Like you I am a coach and find that enabling clients to recognise their emotional trigger is a really powerful way of enabling them to control that emotional response. I do like your concept of the pregnant pause to allow the rational brain to catch up.

    By recognising the emotion that is triggered it is often helpful to give clients the time to reflect on what it is that evokes the emotional reaction and to deal with it.

    Tony

  2. Joel Dignam

    This is an excellent post. There are lots of shallow articles on emotional intelligence but you’ve gone further to talk about actual tools and how we can apply them. Thanks!