BY: JEANNE SEGAL, PhD
Dr. Segal is a leader in the emotional intelligence
field. Her books include Feeling Great: Enhancing Your Health
& Well-Being (Unity, 1981), Living Beyond Fear: Coping
with the Emotional Aspects of Life-Threatening Illness (Ballantine,
1989), and Raising Your Emotional Intelligence: A Practical
Guide for Harnessing the Power of Your Instincts and Emotions
(Holt, 1997). She lives in Santa Monica, CA.
"Emotional intelligence" (EI) is essential for social and
spiritual competency in any field, and nowhere is it more important
than in health care, where feelings affect individual
as well as institutional health. The leaders charged with providing
high-quality health services to patients also serve the emotional
needs of staff members in the hospital, clinic, or office.1
These two functions are more closely aligned than is commonly
recognized. Health care leaders who are emotionally intelligent
can improve the health of their institutions on many levels.
And in faith-based communities, where spiritual connection and
compassion are emphasized, emotional intelligence reinforces
the ability to bridge mind and body with spirit.
Although EI is now accepted as a core attribute of success,
the term refers only to the observation of an end product. Good
research lies behind the recognition that people who are self-aware,
compassionate, able to read others, and capable of both experiencing
and containing strong emotions are more successful than those
who lack those qualities, even though the latter may have greater
intellectual capacities. Research suggests that at least some
people are born with a high degree of personal and interpersonal
competency.2 That's wonderful for the emotionally
endowed. But the important question for the rest of us is, "Can
EI be learned by those who are not lucky enough to have
come into this world with an abundance of personal and social
skill?" My answer is yes, though the methods for teaching and
learning this set of skills are sharply debated. I believe that
EI can be learned — but not in the way we are normally used to
EI is physiological as well as psychological in nature. Its
source lies in the core feelings and sensations that originate
in the oldest part of our brains, the brain stem.3
These core feelings, sensations, and emotions, which may begin
even before birth and are developed by the second month of life,
are the source of our individuality and our personal and collective
instinct for survival.4 The self-awareness, self-control,
insight, and empathy toward others that define EI are rooted
in these core instincts. Trauma can create a barrier to self-awareness
and our survival instincts,5 but healing through
reconnection to these core instincts and the EI they provide
is always possible.
Because EI is an instinctual resource that can be blocked
but not eliminated, emotionally intelligent leadership is a
skill that can be learned and taught throughout life. When we
are courageous enough to learn from the pain of the mistakes
we have made in dealing with others, we become emotionally intelligent
leaders through trial and error. Our errors in judgment become
our teachers, and we grow in our ability to manage others and
ourselves. But a sometimes quicker way to learn EI leadership
is through the day-to-day example of an emotionally intelligent
mentor — someone with the willingness to be generous with himself
or herself and candid about his or her experiences. Educators
agree that there is no more effective way to learn, or to teach,
than through the example of someone we trust with our feelings
and look up to.6
The following are suggestions based on some of the characteristics
and competencies that make a person emotionally developed and
a good leader. These particular suggestions have been tailored
for senior leaders in a faith-based ministry.
Tune in to Your Core Instincts
Take reflective time every day to tune in to your core instincts.
We learn to do this by slowing down enough to comprehend messages
that our bodies are constantly sending us via our physical and
emotional feelings. The sensual physical language of the body
is nonverbal. Deciphering it takes time and effort. The slowing
down needed to attune to our feelings and sensations can be
accomplished through prayer or meditation, when the focus
of such practice is internal discovery. This is particularly
important if you lead a pressured life. Pressured lifestyles
can activate endorphins in the brain that induce in a person
a drugged-like state of false well-being while actually reducing
that person's awareness of feelings and needs and even blunting
his or her instincts for survival.7
The instinctual knowing that constantly keeps us informed
of our most pressing problems and deeper values also informs
the critical ability to know when we don't know — when
we don't have enough information, or the right information,
to make a good decision. Because emotionally intelligent leaders
draw, in their decision making, from both thought-based intellectual
resources and intuitive sensory-based resources, they have a
greater amount of data from which to draw. This makes their
communication more effective and their decisions sounder.
Connect Thought and Feeling
Make an effort to inform your thoughts with your feelings and
your feelings with your thoughts. Unfortunately, the nonverbal
language of the body can be, and often is, shouted down by the
mind. Then you can't hear yourself at an instinctual level.
At other times, such as when some kind of unresolved trauma
remains an issue in your life, the body and emotions can have
more sway over your life than conscious thoughts do, a condition
that can result in panic attacks; outbursts of anger; and physical
symptoms such as migraines, stomach disorders, or backaches.
People who make an effort to maintain a connection between what
they are thinking, saying, and doing, on one hand, and what
they are feeling, on the other, bring the wisdom of their core
instincts to their decisions and actions.
Listen to Feelings
Listen to feelings as well as to words, so that the people
you serve and work with will feel understood. The capacity to
listen in a way that makes others feel understood is also tied
to this ability to integrate information and instinct. Recently,
at a hospital, I experienced firsthand the difference between
being listened to and feeling that I was really being heard.
My 90-year-old father lay dying following brain surgery. The
medication he was taking had caused blood vessels in his brain
to rupture. It could no longer be used, for obvious reasons,
and yet it was needed to keep his heart pumping regularly.
I had his power of attorney, clearly stating that he did not
want heroic means used to merely keep him alive, but that was
what was being done. All the half-dozen attending physicians
were excellent practitioners and, I sincerely believe, deeply
caring people. Every one of them listened to me as I repeated
my father's wishes but only one heard that my father
and his family wanted the tubes that were keeping him alive
removed. It took an agonizing two days to finally be heard — not
that I don't understand the pain felt by people who have dedicated
themselves to life on those occasions when they are forced to
submit to death.
When leaders add to their training an awareness of their own
instinctual feelings and a sensitivity to the experience of
others, they come more quickly to wiser, more fully informed
Practice Nonverbal Communication
Good communication, especially that done with sick or frightened
people, is almost entirely nonverbal. Notice how a really good
physician or nurse will make eye contact, smile, comfort the
patient, listen to his or her concerns, and physically touch
him or her in a gentle way. Then look at the opposite, the health
care professional who is cold, businesslike, or unaware of what
the patient or staff member he or she happens to be dealing
with is feeling.
Experts recognize that emotional contact, most of which is
nonverbal, has the power to mitigate both physical and emotional
trauma, whereas a lack of emotional contact can make it worse.8
Emotionally intelligent leaders who are in tune with their
own and others' nonverbal communications can both transmit and
receive information that goes well beyond words into the realm
Develop Your Capacity for Empathy
Work on developing your capacity for empathy. Empathy is the
ability to gauge a situation through another person's eyes,
and heart, whether you agree with that person or not.
Empathy is the ability to be so secure in your awareness of
your own thoughts, feelings, and values that you can also perceive
opposing points of view without losing sight of your needs.
If you lack empathy, you cut yourself off at the knees in many
kinds of negotiations, particularly those that involve conflict.
It's a matter of connection versus isolation: Connection to
others through genuine openness to their perspective gives you
insight and understanding that is impossible to attain without
empathy. In addition, when you can successfully empathize with
how other people perceive and feel, you are also much better
at understanding what they need and meeting those needs. People
generally feel more loyalty to, and are willing to work harder
for, those who make an effort to "tune in to them." When interest
is shown in what people feel, need, and care about, as well
as what they do, a deeper level of satisfaction results.
Your employees sense the difference between real and superficial
interest in their well-being.
Contain Your Emotions
Learn to contain your emotions. Emotional containment is another
skill that can be learned once you become willing to rationally
explore your internal landscape. Emotionally intelligent leaders
have the ability to contain their emotions. Containing emotions
is not suppressing or ignoring them but being in charge of when
and how you express them. Leaders, no less than others, experience
the most difficult of feelings, including anger or grief. At
one time or another, all leaders feel like shouting or crying,
but emotional awareness helps them maintain appropriate behavior.
By keeping their emotions current and keeping old feelings separate
from new ones, they can often avoid overreaction — the pitfall
of taking problems or conflicts too "personally." Indeed, it
is precisely because such leaders are not afraid to experience
their emotions that they avoid losing control of themselves,
on one hand, or stressing their bodies by avoiding their feelings,
on the other.
Treat Challenges as Unique
Respond uniquely to every challenge that confronts you. EI
is the polar opposite of a knee-jerk approach to life. Circumstances
change and can bring about significant changes in individuals.
Emotionally intelligent decisions are based for the most part
not on rules, but on judgment that is a mix of head/intellect
(What is the task? How important is it? What is needed now?)
and heart/instinct (What does my intuition tell me about the
effect of this decision? What do I feel about the long-term
consequences for all concerned? What do I sense may be missing
in the way I am thinking about the problem?).
Emotionally intelligent leaders focus their attention in present
time, responding to whatever is going on as it is going on.
They don't clutter up their attention with assumptions or "could
have/should have" thought processes. Every situation is different
and deserves a unique response. Doing so builds flexibility,
adaptability, and, indeed, unflappability. Of course, uniform
principles of management and good practice do exist: We can't
use double standards in the way we treat employees. But each
person's situation really does require a unique and personal
response. People know the difference between a caring leader
and one who merely applies the rules "by the book." A real leader
is not a perfectionist, but someone who recognizes that it is
possible to expand one's education in human nature every day.
The leader who claims to be authoritative and refuses to budge
or negotiate is not likely to wear well with others over the
Emotionally intelligent leaders are fully aware of how important
other people are to their personal and professional well-being
and are not afraid to acknowledge this debt. Emotionally intelligent
leadership is not lone leadership. Interdependence should not
be confused with enmeshment or emotional dependency. It is,
rather, a genuine appreciation of what other people have to
offer and do. A strong motivator for loyalty and consciousness
is the feeling of being seen and appreciated. And when the people
who work for us work well, our job is easier.
Today one of the biggest problems in institutional health
care settings is the fact that there is more work to do than
qualified people to do it. Many staff people, and nurses in
particular, feel overburdened and overwhelmed. Emotionally intelligent
leaders understand that recognition and sincere appreciation
mitigate stressful situations. This is especially true in health
services because they tend to attract people who genuinely want
to be of service to others. Human connection counterbalances
stress and inspires the best in people. Connect to your staff
in a way that lets them know you understand and recognize what
they actually do. Pick up the phone and make the time to listen.
You can be interdependent with no loss of authority or respect
and unburden yourself of stress at the same time.
Trust Your Body's Wisdom
Empower your spiritual work with your body's wisdom and intuitive
understanding. Faith and spirit are accessed through the body
of an emotionally intelligent leader. EI is the result when
you find the spiritual connection between your body, your beliefs,
and the work you are devoted to doing. Spirituality is not a
dogma; it's an experience. Our "talk"(our intentions, beliefs,
and creeds) and "walk" (our actions and behaviors) should be
consistent. When they are not, when the leader's mission is
inconsistent with what is practiced, those who look to leaders
become confused. This lower level of consciousness results in
a low level of spirituality.
EI Results in Healthier Lives
All skills discussed above can be learned. Once learned, they
will lead to a healthy state of focused, unflappable competency
that allows leaders to sustain leadership positions for long
periods of time.
EI is a blend of instinct and intellect. We are born with
feelings and instincts that develop alongside intelligence.
Unresolved traumas limit our ability to be in touch with our
instincts and limit our ability to think rationally. Cultural
conditioning that places mind and body in opposition to one
another also disrupts EI. But because EI is the product of learning
and instinctual resources that are never truly lost to us, it
can always be enhanced. EI is not, however, an intellectual
quality that we can acquire from books or testing protocols.
Those of us who teach it teach how, not what.
Those of us who learn it find ourselves slowing down, breathing
more deeply, focusing on our bodies, identifying core instincts,
and curing our traumas through brave and open avenues to other
hearts. In this way, we use EI to create healthier, more satisfying
and meaningful lives for others and ourselves.
- Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Bantam,
New York City, 1995, pp. 165, 184.
- Howard Gardner, "Rethinking the Value of Intelligence Tests,"
New York Times Educational Supplement, November 3,
1986; Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple
Intelligence, Basic Books, New York City, 1983, p. 9;
see also Howard Gardner and Mara Krechevsky, "The Emergence
and Nurturance of Multiple Intelligences in Early Childhood:
The Project Spectrum Approach," in Howard Gardner, Multiple
Intelligences: The Theory in Practice, Basic Books, New
York City, 1993.
- Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and
Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Harcourt, New
York City, 1999, pp. 234-276.
- Daniel N. Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant:
A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology,
Basic Books, New York City, 1998, pp. 69-72.
- Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The
Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences,
North American Books, New York City, 1997, p. 91.
- Jack P. Shonkoff and Deborah A. Phillips, eds., From
Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Child Development,
National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2000, pp. 3-14.
- Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: A Guide
to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping, W. H.
Freeman, New York City, 1994, p. 170.
- Bessel A. van der Kolk, et al., eds., Sraumatic Stress:
The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body and Society,
Guilford Publications, New York City, 1996, pp. 331-378.
Copyright © 2002 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.