I Hosted Reddit’s First “Ask Me Anything” on Emotional Intelligence and Got Some Truly Amazing Questions. Here’s How I Answered.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from one of the moderators of the 20-million-member “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) community on Reddit. He had recently read some of my work and asked if I’d be willing to host a session on emotional intelligence. 

I jumped at the chance to join the likes of former President Barack Obama, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, NASA astronauts and even Cookie Monster to expound on a subject I’m extremely passionate about. And although I consider myself more of a student than an expert, I was looking forward to my first experience with Reddit’s extremely engaged community.

With my first AMA experience under my belt, I wanted to share some of the highlights with Inc.’s audience of entrepreneurs and business owners.

But first, a little context.

Basically, emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions. This includes understanding how emotions affect your own behavior (self-awareness), how they affect others’ behavior (social awareness), and how to manage emotions from both yourself and others (self- and relationship management).

Put simply, I like to describe emotional intelligence as making emotions work for you, instead of against you.

If you’re still a little hazy on exactly what emotional intelligence is, don’t feel bad. It can be an abstract concept that’s often misunderstood. Which is why I enjoy using real life examples and stories to show what emotional intelligence looks like in the real world.

So, here are a few of the best questions I received, along with my answers. (I’ve edited for brevity and clarity.)

What are some quick tips or EQ hacks which can be turned into habits and used to better our lives?

Here’s my favorite one. I learned it from an unlikely source: comedian Craig Ferguson.

Ferguson once said in an interview:

“There are three things you must ask yourself before saying anything:

  • Does this need to be said?
  • Does this need to be said by me?
  • Does this need to be said by me, now?”

Ferguson jokes it took him three marriages to learn that lesson. 

Now, this may seem almost too simple, but believe me–I use this trick every single day (often multiple times a day). I use it at work. I use it when speaking to my wife. I use it with my kids. And it saves me from lots of fights over stupid stuff. It also helps me to be a better listener.

To be clear, there are times when the answer to all three questions is “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Which is also great, because it allows you to say what you need to say with confidence, and be more sure you won’t regret it later. (Usually.)

Here’s another one: It’s called “disagree and commit.”

The principle of “disagree and commit” was created in the 1980s, and popularized by Intel. It’s a management principle that encourages healthy discussion and disagreement during the decision-making process, but that requires full support for a decision once made.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos further popularized the principle in a letter he wrote to shareholders:

This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this, but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?”

Bezos further explained that to disagree and commit doesn’t mean thinking your team is wrong and missing the point. Rather, “it’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way.”

The beauty of this principle is people might agree to go your way, but they then sabotage the decision by not supporting it or through passive-aggression.

But if you can do the opposite, if you can show your partner you’re willing to go all in, you can strengthen the relationship.

So, how can you apply this in real life? You can probably think of lots of ways. But here’s an experience of mine I once wrote about to illustrate.

When should we know that we need to invoke an emotional response and how? There are situations where an emotional response would lead us to our goal, others where we it might have repercussions.

You’re absolutely right–this actually involves one of the major misunderstandings about EQ. Some think it’s about taking emotions out of the equation, but that’s completely wrong. Our emotions affect everything we say and do; it’s part of what makes us human.

The problem, of course, is when we allow temporary emotions to cause us to say or do something permanent that we later regret. So, to answer your question, I think in most cases a “pause” can help. In other words, if you feel an emotional reaction, take a pause before you act on it. It could be a few seconds, a few minutes, or even a few days depending on the situation.

To illustrate, I like to use the “angry email” example. We get what we interpret as an angry email, and our instinct is to respond in kind. But if we write the email and don’t hit send, chances are we come back to it an hour later and say to ourselves, “What was I thinking?” 

After we’ve gotten the chance to cool down, we would write the email a completely different way.

You’ll rarely go wrong by using the pause, even if it’s just a pause of 10-20 seconds.

Often times once I feel stable emotionally, a random problem pops up and throws me off for weeks. 

Is there a scientific reason why our emotions hold more power over us than our rational thinking? Can you could suggest some simple techniques to help improve my emotional response in such situations?

I’ve collaborated with some great neuroscientists over the years who have taught me a lot about how the brain works. 

Of course, the brain is an amazingly complex organ. But one reason for the situation you explained is that when we’re in an emotional state, the amygdala (the emotional processor) often overrides the prefrontal cortex (the more rational thinking part of our brain), at least initially. That’s why we often make emotional decisions we later regret. (So, you’re not alone for feeling the way you do.)

As far as being thrown off for weeks, part of the problem could be what you choose to think about.

Remember, a thought is simply a chemical running through the brain. Those thoughts influence our emotions, the way we feel. Of course, we can’t always control an initial thought or emotion. But we can control how long we dwell on a thought. 

My hunch is once you’re “thrown off,” your tendency is to dwell on negative thoughts that relate to the problem. So, the key to breaking free from harmful emotions is to break free from harmful thoughts.

But how do you do that? If you tell yourself not to think about a pink elephant, guess what’s going to happen? You’ll only be thinking about pink elephants.

Instead, you have to try and replace harmful thoughts with positive ones. You have to focus on things you have control over, including what actions you can take. You have to spend time with people who handle problems like yours effectively. And if you don’t know anyone like this personally, you should spend time reading or watch examples of such people, and thinking about what you can learn from them.

This is just the beginning. But it will help you to start to think the thoughts you want. And those thoughts will eventually become actions–all of which will influence the way you feel.

What are your thoughts on the growing body of evidence that concludes that “emotional intelligence” isn’t really all that it is cracked up to be?

I actually agree with what a lot of the critics say about emotional intelligence. Here are a few thoughts:

Whenever a concept becomes popular, people are going to try and hijack it for their own good. That doesn’t make the original concept untrue or any less valuable, but you have to be discerning about where you’re getting your guidance.

Some scientists say you can’t measure “EQ.” I tend to agree. What I mean is, there are tests that can help you identify weaknesses and point you in the right direction of improving your ability to understand and manage emotions, but they’re very imperfect. It’s also very difficult to validate and measure EQ because much of it is subjective.

A lot of people misunderstand what emotional intelligence is. (One of the articles you cited is by John Mayer, one of the “founding fathers” of the concept of emotional intelligence as we understand it today–in the article he explains some of these misunderstandings.)

Emotional intelligence isn’t only the “feel-good” stuff. It’s the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions to reach a goal. Like what we might consider traditional intelligence, it can be used for good or bad.

So, in summary, I don’t think you always have to view emotional intelligence through the lens of scientific study. (Although sometimes it’s helpful.) And you don’t have to call it “emotional intelligence” or “EQ,” which some people have a problem with.

But everyone has to acknowledge that emotions have an impact on our behavior. And, that you can learn to understand and manage that impact.

Those that refuse to accept that are only putting themselves at risk.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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