Always room for growth: Emotional intelligence is a lifelong learning process


Living emotional intelligence is hard work. Just when we think we’ve got it, a situation or person comes along that reminds us that demonstrating EI is a lifelong learning process.

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage one’s emotions. It is the capacity to create meaningful relationships, recognizing and influencing the emotions of others. Based on more than 30 years of research, Emotional Intelligence is found to be twice as significant as IQ and technical/functional skills combined as a predictor of success. Emotional Intelligence impacts our capacity to think. We have daily opportunities to strengthen our Emotional Intelligence by managing our emotions in difficult situations. Emotions drive behavior.

shutterstock_222849004Driving can evoke emotions

A few weeks ago, I was driving to West Bend on Highway 41. I was traveling in the left lane, going a bit over the speed limit when I noticed a car behind me nearly on the bumper of my car. Clearly frustrated with my “slow” speed and my inability to move into the middle lane, the driver quickly darted into the far right lane, passed the cars in the middle lane, and moved back into the left lane right in front of me. At a speed of 70-plus, he hit the brakes. Thankfully, I was able to slow down and avoid a possible collision. I didn’t appreciate that his behavior was intentional until he did it a second time, gave me the finger, and then sped over to the right lane to exit.

Ordinarily, a situation like that would evoke both anger and fear in me. It wouldn’t be uncommon for you to hear me swearing, screaming or howling, and perhaps you would see me return his unkind gesture. However, in those moments, I remained calm. With lots of good breathing, I was able to appreciate the toxic energy that consumed that man in those moments. I even had the ability to whisper a prayer for him.

I was quite proud of myself and shared this story with colleagues and friends. I considered it a breakthrough. I was riding high on my belief that I had somehow “gotten it” and from that day forward I would manage my emotions in an emotionally intelligent way… until… last week.

Others can drive your emotions

I needed help transporting materials from my room to the conference center at the Kalahari Resort in the Wisconsin Dells, where I was to deliver the opening session in Emotional Intelligence for members of a social service association. I was feeling anxious about the session and as I waited for the bellman, my anxiety increased. “Would I offer something of value?” “Would the group be responsive and engaged?” “Would I meet, or perhaps exceed, their expectations?” The clock ticked…10 minutes, 15 minutes…and now: “Was I going to be late?”

You might imagine my state when the bellman, dressed as a safari guide, finally arrived. I blurted out my frustration, asking him where he had been; did he know I was waiting nearly 20 minutes; that I was anxious about my session… blah, blah, blah… Jerry listened intently. Once he realized that I had “cooled down,” he quietly said: “You know, I learned a long time ago that it’s really important not to sweat the small stuff.” He said it with such kindness, authenticity and compassion. I could feel myself melt. And then he said: “I have been working here a long time. These groups don’t hire people unless they are really good at what they do.” Jerry demonstrated a high level of Emotional Intelligence. I, on the other hand, had allowed my emotions to get the best of me. I was on my way to teach, and I met the teacher along the way. He offered exactly what I needed at the time. His calm and kind demeanor influenced my emotions. He connected. I am not likely to see him again, but I will not forget him. I shared this story with the session participants, asking them to thank Jerry, my safari guide and teacher, when they saw him during the day.

No matter how far we think we have come in our own development, there is, thankfully, always room for growth.

When was the last time the teacher showed up just when you needed her? Have you learned ways to manage your emotions under stress? What difference has it made in your capacity as a leader?

“ I am still learning.”
— Michelangelo, at age 87

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Karen Vernal is executive vice president and chief dreamer for Vernal, LLC (, a Milwaukee based leadership and human resource firm, dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” As an executive coach/consultant, she was recognized by the Green Bay Packers for her guidance in their organizational planning process. She was also the recipient of the 2011 Marquette University Leadership Excellence Award.

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