Simply put, emotional intelligence (EQ) is a person's ability to recognize and understand emotions (both his or her own and that of others), and use that information to guide decision making.
EQ includes demonstrating extremely complex qualities such as empathy, sympathy, and compassion. These aren't just "be nice to others" qualities. They give you the advantage to discern how another person receives your message, so that you can adapt accordingly.
For example, if you manage a team, you might realize that a specific communication style is effective with one individual, but is completely ineffective with another. Recognizing this difference will lead you to different strategies in your attempt to reach different persons. (If you're looking to improve your EQ, check out my recent list of 5 TED talks that will inspire you.)
In reality, though, most of us feel that the people we deal with on a daily basis show a severe lack of emotional intelligence. For example, the boss, business partner, or employee that shows zero concern for others. Or the spouse or partner that surprises us with a lack of empathy. And who can forget the guy who purposefully takes up two parking spots? Any of these situations may leave us exasperated, angry, and discouraged.
But what about us? We often don't realize that we do the same thing, in one way or another. Why? Because of something called the perspective gap.
The Perspective Gap
Adam Grant wrote about this common trait in his 2013 bestseller, Give and Take.
What's the perspective gap? Grant explains: "When we're not experiencing a psychologically or physically intense state, we dramatically underestimate how much it will affect us. For instance, evidence shows that physicians consistently think their patients are feeling less pain than they actually are. Without being in a state of pain themselves, physicians can't fully realize what it's like to be in that state."
To illustrate, I'll share with you a recent epiphany of mine. My wife, who is one of the hardest workers I've ever known, has the habit of removing a full trash bag without replacing it. We have two small children, so she often gets caught up in responding to some "emergency," just as she's about to replace the bag. But for the longest time, I just couldn't get it. I mean, it only takes a few seconds, right?
But I soon realized that I often do the exact same thing. My wife hates it when I leave the dinner table without taking my plate to the kitchen. I always assure her that I'll do it in "just a few minutes." The other day, though, I came across my plate an hour after I had finished eating. (Of course, this wasn't my first offense.) At that moment, I realized: I'm doing the exact thing that so gets on my nerves.
An experiment led by Northwestern University psychologist Loran Nordgren further illustrates the surprising nature of the perspective gap. Individuals were instructed to predict how painful it would be to sit in a freezing room for five hours. A first group made their predictions while immersing an arm in a bucket of warm water. A second group made their judgment while holding an arm in a bucket of ice water. As you probably guessed, those with arms in cold water expected to feel the most pain in a freezing room. But you might be surprised by what happened when a third group was tested.
This third set of individuals also stuck one of their arms in a bucket of ice water. Each then took the arm out and waited 10 minutes before estimating how painful it would be in the freezing room.
The result? Their predictions were identical to those in the warm-water group. These people had experienced ice-cold temperatures just 10 minutes earlier. But as soon as they were no longer exposed to that degree of pain, they couldn't effectively remember it.
The perspective gap explains why it's so difficult to put ourselves in a colleague's shoes, even if we've experienced very similar circumstances. If someone's situation is much different from our previous experience, our perception will probably be even worse.
How do we bridge the gap?
This is where emotional intelligence comes in.
When we demonstrate qualities such as empathy and compassion, we don't see another person's situation through our eyes. We try our best to see it through that person's. We may draw on our own experiences and history, but we have to go even further.
Showing true empathy means exploring the "why": Why is a change so difficult for this person? What is she dealing with that I don't see? Why do we feel differently than she does? If you can't effectively answer those questions, consider working alongside the person for a period of time to truly understand what's going on, as viewed from that person's perspective. Doing so will help you see your team and family members, not as complainers, but more accurately for who they really are: struggling individuals that need help.
This is important, because at one point or another, every one of us goes through our own struggle. When we develop a practice of understanding and helping others, they will often do the same for us.
By the way: Just so you know, I've been trying really hard to take my plate to the kitchen as soon as I finish eating.
Let's say it's a work in progress.