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Turning the dial on Emotional Intelligence

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

For those familiar with the world of comics, there is a superhero in the X-Men world called Cyclops who has laser eyes that obliterate anything he looks at. The problem is that the only way he can control it is to wear special glasses. It’s either all or nothing, no in between. However, Superman (from a very different superhero universe) also has laser eyes, but he can control them. He can turn it off and on at will, and measure the intensity of the laser beams appropriate to the task at hand. Which would you rather – all or nothing, or complete control? I find this is a great analogy when talking about emotional intelligence. We all have this emotional superpower, but to actually realise its true potential you have to be the master of it. You have to be able to see it, understand it, and choose the intensity level appropriate to the circumstance. Even more amazing is when you can start to influence the emotional temperature of the people around you. But you can’t control something you don’t understand, and the beginning of all understanding starts with language.

To understand anything, you first need to build a language around it. Words are conceptual vessels, cognitive architecture that we need for our brains to make sense of anything. Try thinking about something that you don’t have a word for – it’s almost impossible. To articulate is to think. However, it’s more than simply having an increased vocabulary, you need words to have specific meaning in order to create mental frameworks. For instance, it is one thing to be able to articulate that you are angry, but simply saying you are angry gives no indication of how angry, or how aroused you are. Within the bucket of angry emotions, you could be annoyed, irritated, frustrated, fuming or furious. Each of these have a different level of cognitive arousal, a different level of control.

Creating a language of emotions that indicate arousal level is key to building your EI. This will help you dial it up and down as is appropriate to your context. Learning to consciously control your level of arousal turns your emotion from a weapon of mass destruction to a superpower of success and influence. To get started, it can be very helpful to use the Decida 5-level emotion wheel, which helps put language around the common emotion buckets of scared, anxious, happy, excited, angry and sad at different arousal levels. Sad goes from disappointed to despair, happy from peaceful to ecstatic, and so on.

Emotion Wheel

When you do this, you intuitively stop seeing emotions as good or bad, and start to consider to what extent you’re in control of them. Anxiety is okay (even useful) when it is kept at a level of concerned or apprehensive, but move into panic or overwhelm and you’ve lost control and are unlikely to make good decisions. The toilet paper craze when the pandemic first hit is a classic example of our irrationality when we panic. Cyclops only saw the destruction his superpower caused, so he spent his whole life suppressing it, hating it. Superman knew how to use it, and so it became simply a tool for him to use when the situation called for it.

Interestingly, when we give in to moments of high arousal, when we ‘flip out’ or ‘lose our head’, our brain releases chemicals such as endorphins and dopamine which can actually feel good in the moment. This makes us euphoric and self-justified when we are exploding. It’s only when we calm down and regret starts to kick in that we realise how foolish we may have been. Learning the language of arousal is key to control. When you are anxious, it is much more useful to think about being concerned about the thing that is stimulating a panic response, rather than suppressing it. Articulating emotion at a lower level releases it’s intensity. Suppressing it adds pressure until something bursts. Scientific studies show that suppressing emotion can rob us of 20-40% of our cognitive capacity, with our subsequent performance equally diminished. High performers know how to manage their emotions, and can dial things up and back very quickly and with great ease.

Once we can manage our own emotion, we can then use the emotion wheel to build cognitive empathy with others. We all know how ineffective it is to tell an angry person to calm down, or a grieving person to cheer up. Better to be irritated at the thing someone is angry about, or discouraged at the thing someone is grieving the loss of. By expressing a lower arousal version of the emotion being felt, the other person feels validated, heard, more connected with, and things settle down.

The ability to be able to dial it up and down can be trained like any other muscle. At first it will hurt, but over time it gets easier as you become more proficient. Practice, like many things, makes perfect. Understand and harness your superpower. It will literally change your world.

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