Right in the center of your brain sits your amygdala. This small, almond-shaped set of neurons is one of the most important pieces of your brain.
On first thought, we might wonder how something so small could be so important. The amygdala is part of your limbic system, which is responsible for what essentially amounts to our humanity—our emotions. This part of our brain controls our emotions, our long-term memories, our motivation and our behavior. This is literally the center or core of who we are.
Within this little almond structure is our sense of fear—our apprehensions, our foreboding and our concern. In fact, in studies, rats who had their amygdala removed or damaged no longer displayed any fear in laboratory settings, even among predators. Their fear instinct was gone. This didn’t work out very well for the rats, as you can imagine.
Fear, just like sadness, anger, joy and hurt is a vital emotion. Our fear protects us. The amygdala is responsible for much of our emotional response, but most importantly, it’s responsible for fear. It keeps us safe.
It also helps us read, connect, and engage with others.
In humans, this center of our brain controls our emotion intelligence or E.Q. We’ve all heard of I.Q.—we’ve all met the jerk who brags about his high I.Q. and how he’s a “borderline genius.” In truth, if his E.Q. were as high as his alleged I.Q. he wouldn’t be bragging because he would be sensitive to how off-putting bragging about your intelligence is to others.
Those with high E.Q.’s on the other hand are natural leaders. They are motivators and they’re sensitive to those around them. They understand what drives people and what speaks to them (and also what offends them). They’re “street smart” or “people smart.” They get it.
We’ve all met the classic “nerd” who was super brilliant, but socially awkward, right? These intellectual-types might be able to explain astrophysics, but they bore their audience or dinner companions to tears because they can’t pick up on the cues that others are putting out. They are often rigid—dispassionate, unemotional, even void. This is the typical sign of someone who is intellectually gifted, but emotionally stunted.
On the flip side, we’ve all known a boss, politician, coach or salesperson who was a great motivator but wasn’t getting into Mensa anytime soon. These guys are good because they know how to read people. In fact, many people with a high E.Q. are so good at reading people that they can gloss over and hide any of their intellectual shortcomings. In many ways, a high E.Q. will serve you better than a high I.Q. will.
The Power of Emotional Intelligence
So much of our focus in school, work and training is on building skill and intellect. We graduate students with 4.0 GPAs who don’t know how to engage with others, lead a team or be successful.
When Shell Oil wanted to increase their safety and productivity on their Ursa oil platform, they took an unconventional approach to training the roughnecks. Rather than the typical safety protocol training they went through, they instead brought in a leadership coach and consultant, Claire Nuer.
This consultant assessed that it wasn’t training that the men were lacking in—it was emotional connectedness. They weren’t safe, because they weren’t emotionally connected and invested in each other’s protection. They weren’t listening to each other and they weren’t engaging.
So instead of training these big tough guys on more safety, she got them to talk about their feelings. She got them to dredge up their personal pains and discuss their vulnerabilities. This intensive sharing and coaching went on for months. Now, some would look at this investment and wonder what on earth Shell was thinking, right?
After one year, they had experienced an 84% decline in accidents—across the board. This kind of reduction was unheard of! It was because the men increased their E.Q. and learned how to connect.
“And just what is emotional intelligence? We define it as emotional awareness and emotional facility—knowing what you are feeling and having the skills to read, utilize, manage and express your emotions. Emotional intelligence isn’t just relevant for new-agers or sensitive types. Daniel Goleman’s article on emotional intelligence has been the most requested article from the Harvard Business Review in the last ten years, leading HBR to conclude: ‘Emotional intelligence isn’t a luxury you can dispense with…It’s a basic tool that, deployed with finesse, is the key to professional success.’”
—Transformed! The Science of Spectacular Living
We might be afraid of putting our emotions out there. We might be scared to engage. Emotions make us vulnerable and open. Emotions can be painful and tough to deal with. When wielded correctly and openly though, emotions unleash our own personal superpower.
Back to the Amygdala
So knowing what happens to rats when they have a damaged emotional center, does the same thing happen to humans?
In short, yes. In studies where humans have had tumors or damage to their amygdala they end up becoming so incapacitated by the lack of emotion that they cannot make even the most basic decisions.
For example, one man who had damage to his amygdala could spend literally 8-10 hours getting dressed. Why? Because when you lack an emotional response to things it’s impossible to choose. It’s impossible to make any decision or choice at all, in fact—what to wear, what to eat, whether to move, to get up, to function. Our emotions truly control everything we do, even if we feel they don’t.
The next time someone says, “You’re so emotional,” or “Stop getting upset about it,” tell them thank you. Being emotional is a great trait—it’s important because it means we’re engaged. We’re invested. We care and we listen to others.
As you strengthen and fortify your E.Q. you will learn how to be more aware of the emotions others are displaying. Emotionally intelligent people are great listeners and are sensitive to the reactions and feelings of those around them.
Emotionally intelligent people also know how to regulate their own emotional response and understand the effect of their emotions on others. They have the capacity to “up” or “down” regulate to meet the cues of those they interact with.
We’ve all been around the person who was way up or had a flat effect, even though others around them were the opposite. We might describe them as socially awkward or uncomfortable. Why? Because mirroring emotions is an important part of interaction. We don’t laugh when a friend says her dog died or she’s losing her job, right? But there are some people who do—people who have a difficult time with emotional regulation.
Emotional intelligence takes work to build, but it is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal. Emotionally intelligent leaders make for safer workplaces, more motivated employees, and a happier work environment. Emotionally intelligent people have wider social circles, but are more deeply connected to their good friends. They don’t need to be everybody’s best buddy, but they’re empathetic and caring.
For more on building your emotional intelligence, visit us at the Wright Foundation. Go forth and ignite your world, engage, and connect with those around you!
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The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.