The brain reading this article – your brain – is the most complicated structure in the known universe. According to brain scientists, you are blessed with roughly 100 billion neurons, each connected to 10,000 others, making your brain a tangled web of nearly 100 trillion connections. I find it amazing that humans marshal those neurons to think thoughts, move bodies, and communicate with other brains. It’s a miracle that anything gets done.
As I write, I look at my pen and wonder how many hundreds of people it took to get it in my hands. The designer, the manufacturer, the marketer, the truck driver, and the shop keeper. Everything we possess is the result of the efforts and abilities of countless people, each with the most complicated structure in the known universe sitting on their shoulders. The system that functions to deliver this pen to me is unbelievably complex, made all the more so by human emotions that underlie everything we do.
As a coach, the ways in which people communicate with each other has always interested me. Lately, I’ve been teaching and talking about Emotional Intelligence, the skillful handling of our own emotions and the emotions of other people. Living through the days of a pandemic has challenged me to go deep in my understanding of EI, and apply my awareness of how it shows up in my business and my life.
Last week, I had a one-hour business conversation over Zoom. As so often happens these days, the discussion opened with small talk about health, COVID-19 and its effects on life and business. Suddenly, we were off course, lost in a political and philosophical discussion of how to manage the disease, one in which we held radically differing opinions.
Hot anger rose in my chest as we spoke and I became more and more entrenched in my rightness, thinking less and less of the intelligence and competence of the person on the other side of the argument. After about 15 minutes, I noticed that we had strayed far from our agenda, our billions of neurons firing in opposite directions. At that moment, I wanted to hang up, write off the other person as an ignoramus and go about my day with the unsettling feeling that as a nation and a people we face an intractable problem.
But I remembered that at the start of the conversation the other person remarked, “I believe that we as human beings agree on 80% of things, and we fight about the 20%.” The truth of this statement was a lightning bolt of clarity. The way back was to get off that 20%.
I said, “We have just spent 15 minutes engaged in a discussion that is far from the intent of this call. We don’t agree and neither of us is likely to sway the other. How can we use the time remaining to address the items on our agenda?” Like magic, the question dissolved the spell of self-righteousness cloaking each of us, and we proceeded to have a productive conversation.
After the call, I replayed the conversation in my mind and recognized four ways that our use of emotional intelligence helped us get back on track:
- We acknowledged each other, although we disagreed.
- Neither of us insisted on being right.
- We used the 80% where we did agree as the foundation for moving forward.
- We had an agreed upon agenda that helped us re-focus on the goal.
The skills of EI are hard won for me. I am grateful to Daniel Goleman, whose book, Emotional Intelligence, brought an awareness of these skills to me. Practicing them makes my life better.
A few days after this conversation, I received an email from my son’s high school, announcing a special half day of classes to teach EI skills. I smiled to myself, gratified to learn that the education system is beginning to incorporate the teaching of emotional intelligence into the curriculum. The future is brighter than we think.