ATD Blog

Handling Tough Situations with Emotional Intelligence

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

 “We have paid a drastic price—not only in our organizations, but in our own lives—for trying to disconnect emotions from intellect.” Responding with empathy and intelligence to other people’s situations, with their implied or stated emotions, has to be one of the most important skills any person can have.

People need emotional intelligence (EI) to build relationships and engage with each other. We need EI to understand our own emotions and take some control over our own emotions.

Having emotions is not enough to lead to success. Emotional intelligence drives us to acknowledge and value feelings—in ourselves and in each other. Emotional intelligence drives us to respond appropriately to feelings; to effectively apply the information from the emotion; and to harness the energy from the emotion for useful work that benefits us, our team, our company, and our customers.

A Broad Definition of EI

Emotional intelligence is a set of competencies demonstrating the ability one has to recognize his or her behaviors, moods, and impulses. After self-awareness, one needs self-control. Typically, EI involves:

  • showing empathy
  • attending to and identifying one's emotions
  • recognizing of the emotions of others accurately
  • managing your control over emotions
  • responding with appropriate emotions and behaviors in various life situations
  • balancing honest expression of emotions against courtesy, consideration, and respect (ie, showing good social and communication skills).

Emotion is a signal of information. As such, emotion is an opportunity to seize that signal and forge a better relationship. Nature gives us energy with emotion. It is the fuel we need to act. When we walk in the woods and see a snake, fear grips us and chemicals are released. The chemicals give us the energy we need to respond—hopefully appropriately.
Components of EI

There are five basic components to emotional intelligence:

  1. self-awareness
  2. self-regulation
  3. motivation
  4. empathy
  5. social skills 

Three of these components are related to personal competencies: self-awareness, self-regulation, and motivation.
The component of self-awareness is “tuning in” to the sensations you feel and being able to name which emotion is happening at any given time. People experience an average of 27 emotions every waking hour. Rather than ignoring a feeling, the goal is to move toward it, into it, and eventually through it.

For many of us, when we react to situations, we don’t always recognize what’s behind the reaction. It’s important to stop and ask, “why do I feel so tense?” and to identify the feeling behind it.

For example, when you get a lot of emails, a project team member doesn’t complete an assignment on time, or you have to make a presentation to an important group of people—what are the emotions that these situations elicit in you? Sometimes it is helpful to maintain a journal over a period of a month to record your emotional state at various points during the day or when you are in difficult circumstances. The journal will help you become more attuned to your body and give cues about your emotional state.


Meanwhile, self-regulation is your ability to use the awareness of your emotions to stay flexible and direct behavior positively. This second step is to regulate feelings and manage them so they do more good than harm, to yourself and others. Our passions can be contagious and energize others, but ranting and raving can damage work relations beyond repair. When angry, we often sound more upset than we really are because we’re allowing raw emotions to surface unchecked.

When angry, we often sound more upset than we really are because we’re allowing raw emotions to surface unchecked. Finally, motivations for most people are usually the external facts, such as salary figures. However, the motivation we need for EI is an internal factor. The key phrase here is "to achieve." Daniel Goleman writes in The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights, "Those with leadership potential are motivated by a deeply embedded desire to achieve for the sake of achievement."

Likewise, self-motivation is essential to be proactive, setting goals and to achieve what we have proposed. Self-motivation also enables us to establish short-, medium-, and long-term goals and accept partial results without losing sight of our main objectives.

However, to some, sociability is the most important element of EI. It is defined as the ability to have a good relationship with others. It can be developed by having good communication with others and an ability to work as a team.

EI Blind Spots

Recent research on how our brains work reveals a collection of “mental shortcuts” we use in making decisions. These tools are used daily, yet typically, they remain invisible to the user. Some researchers call these shortcuts heuristics or biases, but they may be thought of as mental “blind spots.”

Even with strong EI, you need to watch out for such blind spots, as your self-awareness may not offer insight into them. Even with strong EI, you need to watch out for such blind spots, as your self-awareness may not offer insight into them. You will need the coaching and mentoring of someone who cares for your growth and development. That coach and mentor can help you see if you have one of the following:

  • Blind ambition: Need to win or be right at any cost.
  • Unrealistic goals: Overly ambitious, unattainable goals for a group.
  • Relentless striving: Compulsively hard work at expense of all else; vulnerable to burnout.
  • Driving others: Pushes others too hard; takes over instead of delegating.
  • Power hunger: Seeking power for self rather than the company.
  • Insatiable need for recognition: Addicted to glory; takes credit for other's work and blames other for mistakes.
  • Preoccupation with appearance: Needs to look good at all costs; craves material trappings.
  • Need to seem perfect: Enraged by or rejects criticism; cannot admit mistakes.

These blind spots are part of how the brain works and cannot be completely avoided. We should become more aware of their influence on our decision-making processes.
Avoid Emotional Hijacking


Daniel Goleman uses the term “emotional hijacking” to describe what happens when our emotional brain takes over our rational brain. The lower and more primitive part of our brain triggers fight, flight, or fright as a survival response to a physically dangerous world. The response is like a reflex—no thinking necessary. This response might be fine if someone wants to take your money and push you down, but unless you are about to hurt yourself with your ballpoint pen, it is not helpful when handling a colleague.

You can employ the following techniques to address emotional hijacking situations:

  • Control your breathing. Breathing is one of the few things we do that is both involuntary and voluntarily changed. Most of the time breathing works by itself, but we can slow it down if we think about it enough. Here’s the connection: anxiety = fast, shallow breathing; calmness = slow, deep breathing. Regardless of which comes first, one can change the other. By taking slow deep breaths, you tell your body it’s calming down. With practice, this technique works.
  • Counting down. Count backward slowly from 10 or even 20. Connect each number to your slowed breathing. You should self-talk each number in a calm and boring way; this suggests relaxation. If you get good at this, you can use a speed technique of counting just before or even during a test.
  • Visualization. This is a slightly more difficult task for some people, but it is extremely effective. By creating a mental picture, you mobilize both cognitive and affective factors. Relaxation images are of your favorite places to be calm like the beach, the woods, a stream, walking, and so on. For instance, images for success may be of you taking a test calmly and confidently.

Take Aways

Research has proven that when we meet someone, we determine whether we like them and trust them within three to five seconds. It’s that fast. The rational brain has no time to get involved and deliver intellectual proof until later. I hope, though, that by developing traits of EI, we are successful with tis and more.


Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition; Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam; 10 Anv edition (September 26, 2006).

Goleman, Daniel. The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights. More Than Sound; 1ST edition (2011).

Bacon, John; Heward, Lyn. The Spark: Igniting the Creative Fire that Lives Within Us All. Doubleday; 1st edition (2006). 

About the Author


Bruno Neal is a scholar and a learning and development authority. He has written dozens of articles on learning and development, two Infoline issues on Informal Learning and Quality in Learning and Development, and one TD at Work™ on Learning and Development in Healthcare. He is a Certified Professional of Learning and Performance (CPLP), and currently works as an L&D leader for Indiana University Health. He has been appointed to the 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 Board of Examiners for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, a judge of the 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 Association for Talent Development (ATD) BEST Award, and Chair of the award committee since 2014. 

Neal was awarded with the highly esteemed American Society of Training & Development BEST Award in 2009, and part of the team awarded with the same achievement in 2011. He also was awarded with the Champion of Learning Award Certification for his contribution to learning and professional development in 2011. In 2015, Neal received the Global Training & Development Leadership Award at the World Training & Development Congress in Mumbai (India) for his contributions to the international learning and development community.

Neal also serves as contributor for ATD’s T+D Magazine. In addition, he has spoken at ATD International Conference & Exposition, local chapters of ATD across the United States, Cancer Treatment of America, Training Magazine conference, the Training and Education chapter of the National Association of Electric Distributors (NAED), Medical Users Software Exchange (MUSE), and ATD’s Learn from the BEST conferences.

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