Books: Working with Emotional Intelligence

This is another book I got from the “Leadership” holdings in the library at the college where I work. I have heard of Daniel Goleman’s work on Emotional Intelligence for years, but this is the first time I have read any of his books.

I began reading with a good deal of expectation of how useful the information could be to me. I’ve known since I was growing up that I did far better with intellectual challenges than emotional or social ones (though as a child I preferred to simply dismiss the latter as less important). I’ve developed in my ability to recognize my own emotions, but not very well in managing them. I’ve improved in motivating myself in some areas, rather than depending on external forces to motivate me, but it’s still a struggle.

I would like to think that I have made some progress in recognizing and understanding other people’s emotions, but I know it’s still a big area for improvement. And as for managing others’ emotions (not in a manipulative sense, but in terms of generating enthusiasm or defusing conflicts), I can only wish for the ability to lead that I have seen in people I admire.

For the most part, though, I found the book more frustrating than helpful. The bulk of the material is an in-depth examination of various competencies and their impact in the workplace. Goleman offers case study after case study showing how people lacking a particular competency encountered serious problems, while though who had the competency excelled. In a number of cases, people’s behavior as adults was shown to be consistent with their tendencies when they had been young children.

What wasn’t shown was examples of people developing these competencies who had lacked them previously. Especially when Goleman was showing how brain chemistry was related to behavior, he seemed to be saying that this is just how people are, and I wondered what was the point in reading about it if I wasn’t going to be able to change it.

I nearly gave up reading the book halfway through, and kept going largely because I planned to write a blog post about it (and I wouldn’t want to offer criticism of a book I hadn’t finished). Finally I reach Part 4 (most of the way through the book), where Golemen offers hope that – unlike IQ, emotional intelligence can be changed. (Now that I have finished the book, I did find one paragraph at the end of chapter 1 where he said he was going to go over that.)

But the guidelines he offers are for companies considered how to structure training in emotional intelligence, not for individuals wanting to know how to change themselves. I also found, back in chapter 1, where he says that this is not a self-help book (of which he says there are too many and that they usually perpetuate misconceptions of what change truly demands). He says he does offer “guidelines for the real work of becoming more emotionally competent.” But where these are spelled out, I’m not sure, unless he means the guidelines for companies developing training programs.

I agree with him that much of the training usually offered is inadequate. I blogged previously on a class I took last spring on communication skills, and how little the class offered in terms of actually developing the skills through practice as opposed to just acquiring knowledge about them. Most training is a one-shot deal, where you go to a class, hear lots of information, maybe do a few simple exercises, and are sent away with hope for improvement but no concrete plan for carrying it out.

A big part of the difficulty, of course, is that developing these competencies almost always requires interaction with other people. (Even when it comes to learning to recognize your own emotions, the situations where difficult-to-deal-with emotions are stirred up tend to involve other people.) In order to get practice new skills, or to get useful feedback on how well one is doing with them, there has to be someone else who understands the objective – and preferably, I would think, someone who has good emotional intelligence already.

It also requires a time frame measured in weeks or months, as these skills take time to develop. Few training programs are set up to provide ongoing followup over that long a period of time. There is a cost, of course, to providing resources for practice and followup over that kind of time frame – but then, as Goleman’s many examples show, there is a far higher cost to having people functioning at lower levels because they lack these important competencies.

None of that helps me in practical terms, of course. I can take all sorts of classes, tuition free, since I work at the college, but I’m pretty sure they don’t have any on emotional intelligence. What I will do, and had planned on apart from reading this book, is find a new Toastmasters club to join (because my change in job this fall no longer makes it possible for me to attend the one I was in).

People think of Toastmasters as being about public speaking, and certainly it provides good training in that area. But it also provides opportunities to interact with people in a “safe” environment and on an ongoing basis. It involves giving and receiving feedback, not just on speeches but on whatever role you take at the meeting. It offers opportunities to serve as an officer, with the greater level of involvement – i.e. interactions with other people – that those roles require.

Besides, it’s one more place to make friends, and I can always use more of those.

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