Ten Not Soft Skillsets of Emotional Intelligence

In the 25-plus years since the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman was published, people still misunderstand the concept. I see this frequently when I facilitate what companies sometimes refer to as ‘EQ’ or ‘EI’ workshops.

Many misguided concepts and ideas persist around what it means to have an emotionally intelligent team, or what it means to apply EQ practices within an organization, relegating EQ to the beguiling yet impractical “touchy-feely” domain. In part, these concepts endure because not much has been done to correct this thinking, but also because so many consulting firms that teach EQ to companies don’t understand the underlying basis of EQ, nor practice it internally. In other words, they don’t walk their talk. Providers and companies often succumb to the ‘check that box’ mentality, lightly brushing on superficial ideologies that do little to change the culture of an organization.

Another reason why EQ is so misunderstood has to do with our cultural conditioning. Like so many essential aspects of being human, the idea of emotional intelligence succumbs to the distorted lens of colonized thinking. The devastating fact about colonialism is that it pervades not just politics and economics, but consciousness. It shapes our mindsets and filters information. No single human on earth (except those indigenous peoples in the remotest of locations) is immune to colonized thinking. Within this thinking are negative notions around feelings and emotions. We imagine EQ to be about learning how to be nice, relational, or pleasant to work with. We imagine it to be fluffy, unnecessary, and––God forbid––feminine. We imagine it to be secondary to IQ. So when we hear a word like emotional, and a phrase like soft skills our conditioned brains warp the meaning, and shut down our receptivity.

For organizations like ours that teach EQ, we need to be mindful of these resistant headwinds we encounter that are driven by colonized mindsets––conditioned thinking that has preconceived ideas about what EQ is, what it is not, and how relevant it may or may not be to the rigor of running a business.

Let’s be clear: EQ is not soft. What’s soft is the popular thinking around EQ. Such soft thinking is limited, distorted, and influenced by outdated concepts and ideas about the whole human experience. It is ‘neck up’ thinking, rather than whole-body wisdom. Indeed, EQ in its truest form is fierce, robust, challenging, and game-changing.

As a reframe, consider this: EQ is really the methodology through which we build “capacity” in ourselves and others. By capacity I mean the ability to encounter, hold, experience, be courageous with, and creatively respond to enormously challenging things. Humans with capacity are brave, uncompromising in their values, and deeply compassionate. They create a culture of safety in working environments so that innovation may emerge. Humans with capacity tell the truth and don’t run from discomfort––the birthplace of new possibilities. Humans with capacity lead organizations out of psychological fragility and towards resilience, high productivity, uncommon excellence, and empowerment.

Many companies separate IQ and EQ as concepts to support the necessary learning of discerning between the two and building skills in both arenas. Yet this does the whole human (and whole organization) a disservice if the two are not ultimately integrated together. EQ and IQ are two sides of a complimentary pair, and their true genius only arrives when they are merged as one.

We see this integration of IQ / EQ successfully at work in natural systems. An extraordinary amount of evolutionary intelligence underlies the 3.8 billion years of nature’s success. In the horse herd––the system I study the most––the elegant interplay between the linearity of IQ and the nonlinearity of EQ creates an environment that is at once caring yet robustly challenging. An uncompromising set of rules persists around how to eat, drink, move, create, and relate. Certain strategic goals must be met each day to ensure the long-term success of the herd and each individual member. In a sense, the horse herd is no different from an organizational environment, except that the horses embody much more of what we would call EQ skills––they are keenly sensitive, present, relational, empathic, and, yes, emotional. It’s these so-called soft skills that contribute to their thriving as a species because they provoke behaviors that support instinct, intuition, awareness, the ability to rapidly pivot and respond, adapt to changing environments, set boundaries with bad behaviors, and sense the emergent future as it arises.

Lots of material exists outlining specific qualities of EQ. But nature gives us even more vigorous frameworks that turn mere mortals into EQ black belts. I wish to offer a few of them below that I have learned from nature, and nature-based wisdom, which I hope will bring more teeth into your embodiment of EQ:

1. Feel all feelings – In the herd cultures, each animal is highly porous, feeling every sensation that comes into its body and its awareness without filter or resistance. This allows them to receive all the information they need to appropriately respond. Yet we’ve been taught feelings are good or bad, drama-inducing, and basically feminine. This is a lie. Feelings are the body’s way of presenting important information to you. The sensation of anger tells you that a boundary has been crossed. The sensation of grief tells you that something is lost to you. The sensation of joy tells you that you are on the right path. The sensation of anxiety tells you something is not congruent.

In an organization, this skill supports people to use their whole body’s intelligence, bringing awareness to all the information that is available in the field of awareness at any given moment. EQ teaches us to feel feelings without overwhelming or reactivity. Companies that encourage this skill create efficiencies within systems because people are not expending energy contorting themselves into acceptance.

2. Tell the truth (to yourself and others) – In nature-based systems such as indigenous wisdom, the congruence of speaking the truth is a way of life. It maintains clarity and integrity and upholds the ‘right relationship’ to all things. Yet in modern culture, lots of creative energy is wasted around trying to do anything but just say it straight. We manipulate, lie, cover-up, fold, ameliorate, hide, contort, distort, and do all manner of maneuvers that simply create inefficiencies.

Organizations that encourage candor, directness, and speaking the truth support the whole system to become more intelligent because more information is available. They build a culture of trust and resilience and create working environments of safety.

3. Stay in the Fire – The natural world does not retreat from conflict. The robust encounter between two elements provides the threshold of new possibilities. Conflict supports events to re-align. Though frightening, nothing is resolved until it is seen all the way through. The encounter between two bull elk in the forest, the collision between the sea and the shoreline, and the friction of two geologic layers on a fault line are events full of life, energy, and possibility. The life frontier and struggle between two wrestlers, two colleagues, two ideas, and two beloveds are where innovation and new possibilities can emerge. Be brave in the face of discomfort and challenge (feel it, instead of run away from it). Don’t fold. Don’t attack.

When organizations create a culture that is not conflict-averse, yet skillful in the face of tension, they become brave in the face of external challenges, robust in the face of enormous change and innovation in the face of pressure to stay the same.

4. Conserve energy – In nature, energy means everything. Energy means the difference between escaping the lion and not, between getting to the watering hole and not. Energy is gold. But humans squander energy all the time with all their ‘artificial emergencies’, media creep, gossip, worry, saying ‘yes’ when they need to say ‘no’, and pretending. Manage your energy like a finite and precious resource.

Organizations that understand this principle create cultures that avoid energy wasters such as gossip, judgment, too many meetings, and unnecessary interpersonal drama.

5. Contain the energy – Related to the above, nature works with energy as a powerful resource to create, evolve, innovate, and respond. Containment of energy means not wasting it or dumping it unnecessarily and using it when and where necessary. Plants absorb sunlight and turn it into carbohydrates. Some of this is used to create seeds. Some are stored for other purposes. For example, over millions of years, these carbohydrates can turn into oil or coal.

But we humans have not been taught what to do with our energy. So much of our energy comes in the form of sensations we are not comfortable with such as discomfort, boredom, the unknown, awkwardness, and vulnerability, to name a few. But these sensations are part of the energetic creative domain. Lots are born in these places. Resist the temptation to ‘dump’ the energy through humor, taking jabs at another, haste, and rushing to solve something. When organizational culture normalizes uncomfortable experiences and sensations, the organization becomes robust.

6. Embody – All of nature is embodied. A tree cannot live in its head. A deer cannot be cut off from her feelings. All of nature (this includes humans) is designed to be highly sensitive, attuned, and intelligent through the elegant neurocircuitry that exists throughout our whole form. The fact that humans are able to be cut off from most of their bodies is not an evolutionary advantage. It is a setback. Shame has taught us to live from the neck up. Feelings, sexuality, body image, and age are a few of the places where shame is levied upon us. But our bodies contain a wealth of information. They are multi-lingual organisms that tell us many important things. Our gut brain and our heart brain have more neurons than our head brain and present us with wisdom and intuition.

When organizations understand the importance of having an embodied workforce they create retention, loyalty, intelligence, innovation, and strength. An embodied workforce is at home in the entirety of themselves and shows up to work present and attuned to the environment around them.

7. Care and challenge – When you look at ancient natural systems, such as the 56-million-year-old horse herd, you see that leadership is levied through care, and also challenge. Both belong together. When a boundary is set, it is set clearly, yet the connection with the other is not severed. Care is the foundational principle that keeps the system united. And challenge keeps everyone accountable. Challenge without care is disconnecting; care without challenge creates weakness.

We need to stay caring and connected to those with whom we work (and live) and at the same time levy responsibility through the courage to challenge. Organizations that lead through care (as opposed to subjugation) and challenge (as opposed to shame) create a power-with culture that is poised for the same evolutionary longevity as the horse herd, one of the oldest and most successful mammalian systems on the planet.

8. Don’t confuse safety with comfort – Traditional earth-based wisdom understands the difference between safety and comfort. Safety is a genuine respect that protects the emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual aspects from injury. Comfort is a luxury, and not necessarily positive. People often confuse safety with comfort. But they are not the same. You can have a very safe working environment, and still––if things are going well––experience a lot of discomfort, because discomfort is that necessary leading edge between the known and the unknown.

Organizations that know the difference create robust work environments that embrace and normalize discomfort, yet uncompromisingly uphold the safety of employees’ emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual spaces.

9. Normalize discomfort – When spending time in remote places in the natural world, you realize that nature upholds the balance and well-being of the whole, not the comfort of the individual. You learn to befriend and normalize discomfort to be a part of something infinitely larger. Discomfort is a symptom of pushing beyond your comfort zones, stretching into new territory, letting go of old narratives, and being willing to be vulnerable. It brings you towards larger aspects of yourself and connects you to something larger.

Discomfort is essential to an innovative organization. Companies that normalize discomfort rather than enable fragile egos, solve a problem too quickly, dance around conflict, and rush past difficult scenarios are responsive, resilient, intelligent, and exceptional.

10. Be Present – In nature, everything is deliberate. Nothing is by mistake. Every single flower, rock, grain of sand, mountain, and creature is there because it was meant to be there. Hence the presence of every single thing matters. It matters because it’s there for a reason. Humans have forgotten this. We think it is ok if we are not truly “there” with our presence. In fact, we celebrate multitasking and spreading ourselves thin.

Your presence matters––your attention, your responsiveness, your attunement, your beingness, your focus––matters. Your presence is your existential gift to the world. When you act as if your presence is of no consequence, then it deprives the space of you. This creates an incongruence within the space that has an impact. When you multitask, you have an impact. When you leave early from a meeting, it has an impact. When you say one thing and do another, it has an impact. When you are distracted, it has an impact.

Organizations that know this fact create cultures, processes, and procedures that support employees to be present. They initiate tech-free meetings where people silence cell phones, emails, and alerts during meetings. They encourage no multitasking. They hold everyone accountable for being fully present. The productivity of such an organization far surpasses that of the others.

Emotional intelligence creates exceptional capacity in humans, the humans that make or break an organization. It sets organizations apart from the rest and gives them a leading edge that others cannot access. EQ gives depth, breadth, and intelligence to our IQ. The more we bring it into daily organizational life, the more we create companies that can weather the coming times of change and challenge. The more we look to nature to inspire new ways of leading and living, the more we ensure our long-term evolutionary success.

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