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20 June 2023 | Blog
Emotional intelligence can be a tricky subject to wrap our heads around. This blog by member Dave Jarrold aims to help us both to understand and to use it.
Emotional intelligence can be a tricky subject to wrap our heads around. Instinctively we know what it means, and we know it’s essential, but ask a room full of people to give you a single definition and you’ll be waiting a while (trust me, I’ve tried it).
Rather than get hung up on definitions, I’m going to share a couple of concepts that I’ve found particularly useful in relation to emotional intelligence. The first one helps to understand it, the second helps us use it.
The Amygdala Hijack
You might not have heard the phrase, but I’m confident you’ll know what I’m talking about. The Amygdala Hijack is the process which happens when emotional intelligence fails us. It’s when we have a strong emotional response to a situation or event. The dominant emotion might be anger, it might be fear, it might even be unbridled joy, but whatever the feeling, the process is the same.
Think of the brain as having two sections (yes, I know it’s far more complicated than that, but bear with me). Firstly, we have our evolved neocortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for problem solving, critical thinking, complex processing, rational thought and language. Generally we use this section a lot. Then, lurking behind this, is our amygdala. This is our ancient chimp brain, and it’s responsible for emotions and decision making. It’s small but mighty. In fact, it’s far stronger than our neocortex. What’s more, things have to pass through our chimp brain before they reach our ‘higher thinking’ brain.
When the world is turning to our satisfaction and things are going our way, our chimp brain is happily letting things through. However, when something happens that provokes a strong emotion, our chimp wakes up and takes control. Rational responses go out of the window and we can react in ways we might not choose. We also become lost for words, dumbstruck, speechless. This is because we are feeling our responses but we can’t articulate them.
Understanding what’s happening is fine, but what can we do about it? My experience has been that this amygdala highjack, and the consequent loss of emotional intelligence, drives much of the workplace conflict we see. I’ve found this concept to be a helpful breakwater, if people are willing to accept and embrace it.
Everyone is doing the best they can with what they have (but sometimes what they have isn’t enough)
This statement is derived from NLP (but I’ve added the section in brackets). If we accept that people are doing what they can, and that no-one sets out to do a bad job, then this helps us to re-frame that strong emotional response. You might experience poor service, or someone might act in a way that seems dismissive or aggressive, or even offensive. However, if we accept our maxim then we can accept that it might be that they lack the training, knowledge or personal capacity to act in a more appropriate way. If we focus on what might close that gap it helps to depersonalise the issue and can take the heat out of it.
Despite having the hairstyle for it, I’m no zen Buddhist. I can argue and get annoyed along with everyone. But having this principle at my fingertips helps me to check that response more effectively and it has enabled me to avoid my own amygdala highjack. As a result I’ve been able to react more appropriately and constructively on many occasions, even when my chimp was screaming in the background. I hope you might find this a useful technique to quieten your own inner chimp.