What is emotional competence? And how can you improve it?

What is emotional competence? And how can you improve it?

Emotional competence is a skill that really does not get the attention it deserves.

In a society that has for so long rewarded the ruthless and cutthroat, there thankfully seems to be a renewed interest in being able to manage people and emotions rather than simple treating them like roadblocks and frustrations that you shouldn’t have to deal with.

Dealing with yourself first

The first element of being emotionally competent is to understand your own triggers and emotional reactions to things in your life. This of course isn’t limited to your working life, your personal emotions and work emotions are heavily intertwined, so take that into account as you try to be more introspective.

Feeling stressed
The natural approach, especially for high achievers, is to deny their emotions. If they feel stressed, they often ignore it so that the job in front of them can reach completion. That is a fine approach in isolation, but as more tasks and urgent things pop up then the delay/deny approach usually results in some sort of consequence further down the line. It may mean an inability to ‘switch off’ at the end of the day, or tension with your spouse or partner.

Try to deal with yourself first. You may notice, for example, that if you plan out your day and receive an urgent request from your boss, client or colleague, needing you to put everything aside to focus on something else, you get really frustrated. You panic a little inside because everything on your list is going to be delayed. The promises you just made to people about delivering work to them are now going to be broken. The promise to your partner about being home from work early is now a lie. Instead of denying your feelings and getting on with the job take two minutes (that’s all it takes) to contact:

  • Your boss, colleague or client to advise of realistic timeframes or other projects that will be delayed
  • Your spouse, but arrange for another time to come home early
  • Anyone relying on you – to reset the priorities and timeframes.

By noticing the stress you feel and taking specific actions to reduce it you are showing a personal emotional competence that will give you the headspace you need to perform well and feel better.

Emotional self-talk

The person you converse with more than anyone else is yourself. Your own mind delivers a constant stream of ideas and suggestions that directly affect the way you feel and behave. The good news is that you can directly alter the thought streams that pollute your emotions and adjust them with empowering thoughts and ideas.

For example, have you ever said to yourself:

“If one more thing goes wrong today I think I’m going to scream/yell/explode!”?

This kind of thinking will compel you to act out in a more frustrated aggressive manner. If you catch yourself thinking along these lines, try and replace it with something like this:

“I feel like I’m right on the brink of lashing out at someone. Time to take a sanity break before that happens”.

Again, the key to this is recognising that you are feeling emotional. It can be really hard to identify these feelings if you aren’t used to it. It can take a bit of time. To improve, you should regularly ask yourself “How do I feel right now?” and “What actions can I take to improve it”. Try a 5-10 minute walk away from your work, away from your computer, away from others.

Stating your feelings – it does wonders

Moving on from just managing your own emotions, let’s start to delve into interaction with others. If you start to get a sense that you are treating someone a little bit unfairly because of your own frustration, stress or anger it does remarkable things to actually state it. Try this:

“Sorry, but I’ve got a lot on at the moment and it’s making me feel really stressed. I’m aware I’ve been avoiding/cutting your off. Do you mind if we discuss your project a bit later – say 3pm?”

That is a much more productive way to deal with it rather than acting annoyed, irritated and frustrated at someone who is simply asking for some input or advice. Some people really worry that this will show an element of weakness that could work against them. This thinking compounds the problem and can actually fast-track you towards burnout.

If you are open about your emotions when you speak to your team you create a new level of honesty and openness. You want people in your team to be helpful and honest about work, why wouldn’t you want the same about emotions? A culture in which people are confident and comfortable to discuss how they feel is one that provides much stronger collaboration and creativity.

Here’s another example: a member of your team has just been rude to a client and failed to meet a deadline. What do most people say?

“You shouldn’t have been so rude to that client! We worked so hard to build that relationship and now you have done significant damage!”

This is an aggressive approach to a problem. Any manager would see the need to provide strong and direct feedback to a team member in this situation. But how about this:

“I’m really disappointed with how you treated that client yesterday. You ignored his urgent requests, you raised your voice and this really frustrates me because we have worked so hard to build that relationship. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough about responding to urgent requests. What can we do now to turn around any potential damage?

Note the use of the words ‘disappointed’ and ‘frustrates’. It communicates feelings and consequence. It describes the human element, which is a really important way of connecting with people in your team. The feedback should be specific and avoid blame, looking for solutions and taking some responsibility but also pushing responsibility to the team member. This approach is much less likely to get a negative reaction from the person you are talking to. It actually takes the conversation to a new place.

Understand others feelings, and show it

We should always seek to understand others before insisting on being understood. This is a really important element of emotional competence. By seeking to understand someone else’s position before your own you actually gain more information and can respond more appropriately.

Showing that you understand the other person’s position is a step that many miss. Often we will think to ourselves that the person we are speaking to seems angry or frustrated, but not actually acknowledge it. It is incredibly validating for people when someone recognizes how they feel. Try prefacing your communications like this:

“You seem a bit down today – is there anything wrong?”
“I know you are already really stressed, but I need to speak to you about a new project”.

The great thing about showing this kind of awareness in others is that it creates self-awareness for them. Perhaps they don’t realise how stressed they are, but your mentioning of it makes them conscious of the fact they’ve been snappy and should probably avoid that extra coffee. By creating a bit of self-awareness for others you improve the overall mood and interaction for the entire office.   

Know what to do

Most people think that ‘knowing what to do’ is an intuitive thing that only some people have. It is true that intuitively knowing what to do when others are feeling sad, stressed or frustrated is rare, but with a bit of thought and planning you can become very skilled at managing these situations.

If you can predict a situation, you can plan for it. Certain things in life are inevitable, and high stress periods of your life will need to be dealt with at times. Ask yourself right now, what things can you do to reduce stress when it peaks? If you work in accounts you will be familiar with the end of month rush. Can you realign your home or weekend activities around this so that you can cope better?

You know that people around you will become really frustrated at times. What can you do? Work out a way that you can address the situation for the better. Find something that is comfortable for you, but effective at improving the situation. It might be as simple as saying, “You look stressed, are you okay?” You might help in other ways.

Managing emotions is one of the biggest challenges we face, yet it probably gets the least amount of attention in career, management and productivity literature. Becoming aware of the emotions of yourself and others is the clear first step. Once you start to observe your interactions with that emotional overlay you can become a lot more effective at dealing with yourself and the people you need to work with.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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