Four Practices at the Core of Emotional Intelligence

Last Updated: Apr 10, 2021 | Executive Coaching, Leadership

By Nora Infante, PsyD. Drawing on my observations over many years of helping leaders improve their emotional intelligence, I’ve identified four core practices that are instrumental in emotionally intelligent leadership. They are: our relationship with time, our ability to broaden our perspective, our ability to gain balance and equilibrium, and our ability to effectively use all three to calibrate to the most helpful and useful action.  

Daniel Goleman speaks of four domains of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Each domain feeds into the next, allowing the sphere of emotional intelligence impact to expand. The first two, self-awareness and self-management (which includes competencies such as adaptability and positive outlook) allow for the presence of social awareness and relationship management (which includes competencies such as empathy, conflict management, teamwork and mentoring). A leader who doesn’t understand himself and can’t control his emotions, reactions and biases, will be limited in his ability to inspire and motivate his team. For more about the concepts behind emotional intelligence, see Arden Coaching’s post: “Lessons Learned: Emotional Intelligence is Essential.”

Managing our habits and instinctual behavior is not easy, and as a leader rises in influence within an organization, she must lead by example — demonstrating clarity and wisdom at all times. (Not that she won’t miss the mark on occasion, but she must recover quickly with agility and sincerity). People trust that she sees the bigger picture, which includes them, and can make the difficult decisions that will lead the organization forward.

I have been paying close attention and experimenting over the years with methods that facilitate the development of all four domains of emotional intelligence and have settled on four “practices” or disciplines that run through all four domains and their competencies.  As mentioned, these are the practices of Time, Perspective, Equilibrium and Calibration.   

Let’s take a closer look at these four core practices:

Time 

Our modern lives run at a pace which is not conducive to being truly thoughtful and deliberate about our actions. We have multiple windows open on our phones, computers and iPads, often carrying on more than one conversation at a time. We are in essence “addicted to distraction” — banished to a state of continuous partial attention. We “lose track of time” every day. The human brain wasn’t designed to function under these conditions. So, at the core of Time Practice is relaxed intentional observation. Time is relative. A tree may take 100 years to grow ten feet. When we sit still, are genuinely present, and intentionally observe, we experience time differently, it feels as if it slows down. When we “get lost” observing a butterfly float from flower to flower, or a shadow move across a building, we experience a type of timelessness that reduces stress and increases positive emotion. It is restorative to the brain. We breathe without pressure. Time practices are aimed at changing our relationship to time and result in our ability to slow it down, to listen and observe attentively, to watch with curiosity, and to sense what is happening around us. We slow down reactivity and impulsivity. We learn cognitive patience.  

Perspective 

Perspective is being able to look beyond our own biases and assumptions in order to assimilate into our point of view important overlooked data. Studies show that when the brain is in a relaxed state of intentional observation it is better able to arrive at creative and imaginative solutions, and take into consideration factors it had previously overlooked or dismissed. Studies also show that gazing over a panorama, or looking through a magnifying glass at something small, stimulates the imagination and opens one’s mind in unique ways. It’s been described as a state of wonder or awe and, more importantly, one which leads to a feeling of deep humility. Much of emotional intelligence depends on our ability to see beyond ourselves, which is related to our ability to enhance our perspective. This, in turn, provides us the ability to slow down time and turn our attention to the bigger picture, or conversely, the smallest detail. By staring at open landscape, perspective expands, impulsivity and reactivity decline and we are able to see why one course of action might be more beneficial — or worse — than another. Many of my clients have adopted the practice of taking photographs of small and unexpected details they would not have noticed before, often while simply out for a walk. This practice of teaching themselves to seek different perspectives in their immediate environment reminds them how to slow down and seek different perspectives as leaders.

Equilibrium 

Once we have slowed down and been able to observe and calmly absorb our surroundings, once we have gained perspective on ourselves and our challenges, we begin to want to move into action mode. Most of us have been trained to believe that drive and productivity are synonymous with action and fast results. However, right action must be preceded by equilibrium. Think of a ballet dancer, constantly shifting her body with precision, but somehow always perfectly balanced. She must feel her balance in order to control her movements. Emotional intelligence depends on a deliberate equilibrium of all our internal forces. By observing examples of equilibrium, we internalize into our bodies and minds — what it looks like, what it feels like — and we can practice equilibrium in all the many ways it can be useful.  Nature, for example, is constantly fine-tuning itself for equilibrium, just as we should be before making declarative statements or making impactful decisions. 

Calibration

One of the most fundamental laws of nature is constant calibration. Natural systems are constantly receiving feedback and adjusting and readjusting in response to the feedback. Nutrients get sent to one part of the plant versus another depending on its health. Flocks of migrating birds shift who is the lead based on who is most alert at any given time. If you observe carefully the details of nature in action, you will come to appreciate the important relationship between equilibrium and calibration. It is a constant circle of communication that leads to critical pivoting and results in adaptability and sustainability. Before choosing to say or do something, leaders wishing to act in an emotionally intelligent way, should be carefully calibrated to intended outcome. Their action should be preceded by a process of judgement and balance that comes from slowing down time — enough to gain perspective and achieve equilibrium within their emotional states.    

As a whole, these practices support emotional intelligence at all levels. I have found them very useful when leaders are working to slow down their reactions and take more measured control over their actions.  

Remember: slow your experience of time down, get perspective (or a diversity of perspectives) on the situation, find your personal sense of balance or equilibrium before taking action, and finally, consider the outcomes or consequences of your possible options. 

For more about developing the core practices of emotional intelligence and strengthening your leadership skills, schedule a consultation with Nora.

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