My friend and fellow EQ enthusiast Shigenori Takekoshi runs a successful Project Management training company in Japan. He is teaching PMs about how to be more effective and how to leverage emotional intelligence.
When Shigenori came to visit me last fall, ostensibly to learn about emotional intelligence for PMs from me, he taught me an important lesson about emotional intelligence. That is the ability to separate an incident, action or circumstance from my feelings about it. That is, he taught me that something happens, and then immediately after it I have a feeling about that something. The feeling I have is a result of both the thing that happened as well as my interpretation of the thing that happened.
If we were to map it out, it might look like the diagram below. Situation, interpretation, then feeling. First we have the something that happens, the situation, circumstance, or event. Then we have our thoughts and interpretations of that situation, which will likely be unconscious. This is the filter through which we see the world. Finally, we have our feelings that result from the situation and our interpretation. The feeling may be sad, angry, scared, happy, excited or tender.
This lesson from Shigenori was very helpful to me. It crystalized the concept in my mind. I had been very focused up to that point on the feelings but hadn’t spent as much time on the interpretation and situation.
Feelings are still very relevant because they provide the starting point, the awareness or realization. Every emotion highlights for us that something is going on beneath the surface and in that sense, they provide great information. Remember that Peter Salovey said that all "emotion is information".
The point that my friend made was to show that once we begin to separate our feelings, our interpration, and our situation, we empower ourselves to change our emotions. Perhaps Shigenori learned this from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet, obviously well trained in emotional intelligence, said:
"…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
– Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Consider the following example. How do you feel when it rains? Many people feel sad when it rains. It is usually dark and rain limits our outdoor activities. Think about how you would feel if you were a farmer with crops that need to be watered. You might feel happy and excited. Or if your house was in an area where wildfires were burning out of control, you might be happy to see rain. So our feelings about the situation are affected by our interpretation and our thoughts.
By changing our interpretation of our situation, we can change our emotions. If we feel scared or angry about something, we can explore the thoughts and interpretations and change those so that we feel happy and excited.
The challenge is that many of us are not aware of either the emotions or the thoughts and interpretations that led to those emotions. As a result, we create unnecessary sadness, fear or anger in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
Here is an example of something that recently happened to me. I have been working with a training company to produce a distance learning course for emotional intelligence. I sent the draft of the course to my contact at the company and waited patiently to hear back from him. After a week went by, I sent a followup note asking him what he thought of the course and I also left a voicemail. I still heard nothing back. How do you think I was beginning to feel at that point? Here is what it might look like if mapped out:
This particular event would fall in the category of cognitive disorder, specifically, filling in the blanks. Faced with a particular situation (no response from my colleague), I chose to fill in the blanks with a very negative interpretation of the situation. That led me to feel scared and sad.
Imagine my relief a few days later when I did reach my colleague and he told me that his mother-in-law had passed away and he had been out of town. He liked my work and was excited to move forward. I was excited! Not that I was happy about the loss of life, but I was no longer filling in the blanks with my own interpretation of the situation.
This is just one example of a phenomenom that goes on all the time with all of us. As I continue to learn about emotions and to get coaching and feedback from others, I see that these thoughts and interpretations of mine are more often my enemy than my friend. They are robbing me of joy and replacing it with anger, fear, and sadness. It is as if I have been programmed to be miserable. Fortunately, I am learning and growing and that empowers to me make the necessary shifts in awareness.
I would love to hear your experience in this area. Cheers!