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How to Harness Emotional Intelligence to Ensure Success

By Dena Lefkowitz
The Legal Intelligencer, a journal for lawyers
July 30, 2015

The new animated movie "Inside Out" takes the audience inside the brain of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, where her responses to situations are governed by five emotions personified. They are Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, and they vie for command of the internal control center to influence Riley's behavior. When her family moves to San Francisco from Minnesota, where she was a happy part of a community, hockey team and circle of friends, Joy and Sadness get lost. Difficulties with the move ensue and all of the developments are seen through the lens of Fear, Anger and Disgust. Riley behaves accordingly, to the consternation of her parents, who are used to seeing their daughter with Joy primarily at the helm. They don't understand or know how to respond to her new attitude.

The movie beautifully illustrates aspects of what Daniel Goleman wrote about in "Emotional Intelligence." Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is a key set of characteristics described in his book as "abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one's moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope." Goleman categorizes the realm of emotions to include anger, sadness, fear, enjoyment, love, surprise, disgust and shame; a few more than "Inside Out" explored.

Many years ago, I was accompanying a partner, senior associate and client to depositions in a case I knew nothing about. I was invited along to observe and learn. Things took a nasty turn when I asked who was being deposed and the senior associate said "just our client." The partner, who thought he would be taking depositions as well as presenting his client to be questioned, flew into a rage, dressing down my colleague in front of me, the client and most of downtown Philadelphia. As he turned purple, pointing his finger in the senior associate's face, I tried to walk the client away from the scene, feeling horrified by the display and the thought that I had unwittingly set a match to gasoline by my innocent question.

In those days, it was common in the professions to manage by fear, yelling and intimidation. It is still happening today, but many lawyers, doctors, accountants and others are learning that they can be far more successful and influential if they develop emotional intelligence. As Goleman says in his later book, "Working With Emotional Intelligence," "We are being judged by a new yardstick; not just how smart we are, or by our training and expertise, but also how well we handle ourselves and each other." People tend to leave jobs because of bad bosses and turnover impacts the bottom line.

What happened to the partner in my scenario was most likely an "emotional hijacking" where, without thinking, we respond to things that feel like threats. Inside our brains, like Riley's control center, sits the amygdala. Goleman describes it as a warehouse of emotional memory. More importantly, it can beat our strategic brain to the finish line in coming to a decision. "Incoming signals from the senses let the amygdala scan every experience for trouble. This puts the amygdala in a powerful post in mental life, something like a psychological sentinel, challenging every situation, every perception, with but one kind of question in mind, the most primitive: 'Is this something I hate? That hurts me? Something I fear?' If so—if the moment at hand somehow draws a 'Yes'—the amygdala reacts instantaneously, like a neural tripwire, telegraphing a message of crisis to all parts of the brain." Feelings precede thought and an immediate, inappropriate response occurs.

Professional journals in law, medicine and accounting have seized upon research that suggests as much as 80 percent of success is linked to EQ rather than IQ. The American Bar Association, for example, published an article titled "The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Law Firm Partners" by Ronda Muir. Muir writes: "Law firms usually have a number of criteria for choosing who to invite into the partnership, but a traditionally sacrosanct factor is technical competence. In other words, the main concern is that partners be very good lawyers. So most firms try to hire the smartest law school graduates and then make the smartest of them partners, hoping thereby to secure the firm's reputation and future. Corporate America, however, has realized for nearly two decades that there is another type of competence involved in producing the highest bottom-line performance in organizations and it is not intellectual or analytical expertise but relational skills—in essence, managing emotions."

Indeed, professional practices today have less toleration for berating, belittling and bullying behaviors. Unlike our IQ, which remains stable over a lifetime, EQ scores can be measurably improved. Coaches use assessments, such as the EQ-i 2.0, to determine areas of strength and those needing development, which are very useful, especially if there is lack of awareness regarding unwanted behaviors in a partner or employee. An assessment provides data and you can then choose an area to focus on.

Success in the arena of emotional intelligence begins at home, with you. Once you acquire familiarity with your own emotions, begin to recognize and label them, you will have better facility reading emotional reactions in others.

What could the partner have done to manage his anger and respond in a more thoughtful and strategic way to the dilemma presented? Here are some strategies to handle an emotional highjacking (do try this at home):

  • Pause before reacting. You want to choose your response rather than get carried away by an initial emotional response. Take a deep breath and exhale slowly.
  • Reflect on what is behind the emotion. Is there a threat? Is it a true threat or is it your ego?
  • Choose appropriate thoughts or actions that will make for the most favorable outcome.

Anger is only one emotion and impulse control one competency that makes up your EQ. There will be more to come on other aspects including self-regard, independence, assertiveness, empathy and problem-solving. Start scanning your internal landscape and ask yourself what competencies you need to be successful in the emerging phase of your career. Just like the movie title, this work goes inside out.

Dena Lefkowitz is a certified professional coach who works one-on-one with clients to help them achieve their practice goals, implement marketing strategies and achieve career satisfaction. She is a member of the International Coach Federation and a prior board member of the Philadelphia chapter. Lefkowitz attended the College of Executive Coaching. She is also a lawyer and practiced for 26 years in private firms and in-house.

Originally published in "The Legal Intelligencer" here.

Reprinted with permission from the July 30, 2015 edition of "The Legal Intelligencer" © 2015 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, reprints@alm.com or visit www.almreprints.com

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