Emotional Intelligence is Not Optional. The Value of SIY in VUCA Times

VUCA is a concept from the military that originated to describe the post-Cold War world: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. It’s a term we use in the Search Inside Yourself program, and one that perfectly describes this current moment and the unknown long-term impact of this global pandemic across sectors and layers of society.

We’re aware that this level of ‘VUCAness’ forces many to focus on basic survival needs, as our most basic safety and survival needs for health, food, shelter, job security, and connection are being threatened (and for some more than others, as we recognize the disproportionate impact this world event is having). In turn, we have less capacity and resources available, both as individuals and organizations, for what are typically thought of as higher level self-actualization needs.

Yet, these are exactly the required skills to meet our basic needs and today’s challenge in a new way that is beyond survival mode or burning out. Instead, we can navigate the unfolding challenges and changes in a way that is sustainable, effective and resilient. This requires increased emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence has always been an important skill, but the need for it is all the more acute right now; it’s simply not optional.

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Why Emotional Intelligence?

This is universally a time of heightened emotions, with unprecedented levels of stress, overwhelm, isolation and disconnection. While many of these emotions are challenging, emotions are actually essential for decision-making and for connection, and when ignored we miss out on valuable information. Even fear and anxiety can be valuable when we understand how to work with them skillfully, enter Emotional Intelligence.

Put simply, emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware of our own emotions, to manage them deliberately, and manage our relationships with empathy and compassion. Emotional intelligence (or EQ) includes self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. At SIYLI, we use mindfulness-based practices to train awareness as the foundation for the other EQ competencies.

During this time of uncertainty and disruption, we especially see the benefits of developing our EQ for: increased calm and focus, managing emotions and making skillful decisions, increasing resilience, enhancing creativity and innovation, and building connection and collaboration. We also suggest some simple practices to develop each of these benefits.

Increase Focus and Calm

Given the current levels of uncertainty, our mind may tend to “fast forward” with a lens of catastrophic thinking, or become overwhelmed by the overload of information, or distracted as many of us hold more tasks and roles than ever before: working from home, planning big shifts at work, while becoming an expert in public health and homeschooling your kids. Mindfulness helps us stay in the present moment, and notice when we’ve strayed from it, which can help us concentrate on our tasks and be more present in our various relationships. It also helps build our capacity to observe thoughts and emotions, or even incoming information, without getting consumed and carried away. In doing so, mindfulness practice builds our meta-awareness, or awareness of where our attention is, which can help us discern which things are most important to give your attention to- especially important when there are so many things vying for your attention. This often results in greater clarity and calm, which helps down-regulate our threat response, and allows our higher order thinking and executive functioning to engage, equipping us to more skillfully manage our tasks and lives.

Manage Emotions & Make Deliberate Decisions

With changes in our day to day routines and how the world as a whole is functioning, we can’t rely on our reactive or autopilot behaviors. Instead, we need to be able to choose our response to best meet the evolving situation. From a foundation of focus and calm, mindfulness becomes more than a relaxation technique – it’s a tool to increase our awareness of our emotional states and resources, and our ability to manage and employ them effectively in order to respond to situations (in EQ terms: to build self-awareness and self-management). In times of stress, when we’re utilizing more internal resources just to get by, we tend to default back to our automatic or habitual patterns, many of which may be ineffective or unsustainable. Increasing our mindfulness and self-awareness brings consciousness to our internal state, habits and resources, allowing us to deliberately choose a different, and more effective, response. In addition, we can feel helpless in response to this magnitude of change and uncertainty, but developing the skill to make a conscious choice gives us a sense of agency and empowerment, leading the way to increased resilience.

Increase Resilience and Avoid Burnout

As we each face new challenges and changes daily, increasing our resilience is critical. We have to maintain our effort to meet our needs and goals over an ongoing, and in this case unknown, period of time. Especially right now, resilience entails both adaptability and preventing burnout. Self-management and deliberate decision making allows for response flexibility and adaptability, and the EQ skill of self-awareness helps us identify when our physical, mental, or emotional bandwidth is at capacity. Having this awareness lets us know, in advance and when things are still manageable, that we need to pause and recharge, rather than getting to the point of burnout and becoming unable to function at all, let alone effectively.

We can also burn out from being overwhelmed by the suffering of others, known as empathic distress. Compassion, a critical part of emotional intelligence that builds on empathy, is an antidote to empathic distress and burnout. Empathy and compassion allow us to connect with the common humanity of our experience, and brings to life the current sentiment that we’re all in this together, while also being able to acknowledge that we’re each impacted and experiencing this in unique ways.

Enhance Creativity and Innovation

It’s called the novel coronavirus because we haven’t experienced anything like this before, and we can’t simply apply previous solutions to this unprecedented situation. This time necessitates a NEW response to the situation, and also to our ways of working and being. Creativity and innovation are essential, and they require us to be calm, focused, and have the capacity to shift out of autopilot. Furthermore, when we effectively utilize our internal resources to manage our emotions and tasks (a key skill of self-management), we have capacity for more complexity and creativity. In other words, emotional intelligence is necessary to foster new and creative responses.

Furthermore, creativity and innovation thrive in work environments that allow for new and diverse ideas to be voiced and heard. This requires adapting ways to structure meetings and share information in our virtual/distanced set up, but more importantly requires trust and psychological safety which is supported by improving the quality of our connection in relationships, facilitated by developing our EQ.

Build Connection and Collaboration

In this time of “social distancing,” we need to actually focus on physical distancing but enhancing connection. Humans are social species and connection is a basic need that not only feels good, but gives us a sense of safety and security- essential in a time of increased insecurity and fear. When we connect deeply and feel understood, it regulates our threat response, and in connection we co-regulate to manage the intensity of our experience.

This type of connection also supports trust and psychological safety, which is essential for effective collaboration and team functioning. When we know we’re going to be understood rather than judged, it allows us to be more honest about how we’re feeling in this difficult situation and adjusting to our new roles and ways of working; as a peer it allows us to motivate and give feedback with empathy and compassion, both taking in and expressing understanding of the situation and the experience of it.  Connecting from where we really are allows us to move forward, and work and create, more effectively together.

Emotional intelligence skills are necessary for this type of connection: mindfulness allows us to be more present with others, to listen in a more nuanced way, and give others a sense of being heard and understood. Awareness helps us be conscientious of the impact we have on others, and how our actions may support or decrease the sense of psychological safety among our colleagues. Self-awareness  also allows us to be attuned to our own experience and emotions, which in turn builds our capacity for empathy. Empathy is the ability to take the perspective of others, to feel for what they might be going through, and understand that they are coping in their own way (even if it might be challenging or frustrating for you, as a family member, partner, or even coworker). Compassion then builds on empathy, asking what you and others need, and what would truly be of service in our lives, work and world.

How Search Inside Yourself Can Help

We take a unique approach to building emotional intelligence by using mindfulness as a foundation to cultivate self-awareness, which is then the foundation for all the other EQ competencies. Especially when cultivated in this way, emotional intelligence is highly trainable. Assessments of over 1,500 program participants provide evidence that the Search Inside Yourself program leads to improvement in a broad array of EQ skills, including ability to manage stress, increase resilience, and empathy.

We’re proud to offer the Search Inside Yourself program in a virtual format, with the power of the live program delivered online during this time of limited physical contact. We have also developed a new Adaptive Resilience program to focus on skill building in areas of most acute need. In all of the programs we run, whether online or in-person, we value bringing people together for interactive and transformational experiences and to connect meaningfully with others.

What To Do Now

We have always been confident in the power of tools and practices that build emotional intelligence, and now more than ever we’re leaning into them like a good friend. Emotional intelligence is essential; we need to learn to connect with and manage our internal experience, and to turn toward each other with empathy and compassion.  This is a time for us to come together globally, as the interconnected and interdependent community that we are. Remember that when I is replaced with We, Illness becomes Wellness.

Please also consider sharing these resources and skills with others and create communities to practice together in your life, community and/or workplace: