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Living and leading with emotional intelligence

Suppressing emotions can lead to physical and mental illness. Feeling and managing one’s emotions and that of a team is a leadership skill

A healthy individual is one who feels all the emotions and returns to a tranquil state after. (Pexels/Andrea Piaquadio)

By Hariprasad Varma

LAST PUBLISHED 02.01.2024  |  08:00 AM IST

How do you relate to your emotions? Here is a simple test to help determine that. As you read the question I next have for you, make a mental note of where your focus and awareness are shifting. The question is: How are you feeling right now?

Take a pause. Pay attention to yourself and write down the 3 words that came to your mind in response to the question. If the words you jotted down weren’t the typical ‘okay’, ‘better’, ‘think’, ‘tired’, or ‘hungry’, you are among the few who are able to identify their feelings without intellectualising it. You’ll be surprised to know how many people end up ‘thinking’ and articulating their thoughts even when invited to share how they are ‘feeling’.

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“Emotions are energy in motion. They need to move through us, be felt fully and expressed. Otherwise, they get stored in different parts of our body, and repressed emotions, over time, affect not just our health but also our relationships, work, and the ability to enjoy and live life fully," says Akanksha Thakore, a mental well-being professional and founder of Ripple Effect in Mumbai. “Unfortunately, as a society we are neither taught emotional intelligence nor encouraged to practice it," Thakore says.

Emotional intelligence is broadly defined as a person’s ability to recognize and contextualise their emotions and the emotions of others. It is, therefore, both intrapersonal intelligence and interpersonal intelligence. While our rational intelligence focuses on facts and logical reasoning, emotional intelligence relates to how we apply those facts and reasoning. The cornerstones of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness.

Understanding Self-awareness, Self-management, Social awareness
American organisational psychologist Tasha Eurich found in her research that 95 percent of people think they are self-aware, but only 10-15 percent actually are. She found that working with team members who are not self-aware can cut a team’s success in half leading to high stress and low motivation levels. Self-awareness needs to be complemented with self-management, which can be described as a conscious cultivation of the ability to respond to emotions that arise in us in different contexts.

In the absence of this response capability, one could end up reacting to situations in a manner that would lead to dysfunctions in relationships and organisational spaces. Leaders who lack this capacity often show up as reactionary to their peers and associates at the workplace. 

Social awareness or contextual intelligence is the ability to tune into and understand the emotions of other people around you and the organisational dynamics. What is described as an experience of empathy by people is often a consequence of practising social awareness.  This ability allows a person to make a choice by being aware of both how they feel within themselves, as well as a sense of the other person’s emotional location. This is especially critical for leaders to help them create a resonance with everyone they engage with.

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Feel the ‘Nava Rasas’  
I was introduced to the power of the emotional landscapes within me through a set of programmes designed by my mentor Raghu Ananthanarayanan, a behavioural scientist and co-founder of Ritambhara Ashram in Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu. The programmes enabled me to discover the deeper connection between emotions, healing and well-being within myself. It also introduced me to practices from yoga and Nātya śāstra, which transformed the way I looked at emotional intelligence and well-being.

Over the years, I’ve observed both in therapeutic as well as coaching engagements that many ailments in people often begin as a result of repression of their natural feelings. Social conditioning during our growing up years plays an important part in this. Children often introject certain social norms. This leads to them giving (an unconscious) permission to themselves to experience certain emotions while blocking certain others. Some of the most common ways in which this kind of repression happens is when elders in the family or authority figures in educational institutions make statements such as “Boys don’t cry", “Girls don’t laugh out loud" or “To show anger is to be a bad person".

Both yoga and Nātya śāstra encourage one to celebrate and feel all the rasas or emotions. In Indian aesthetics, nava rasas or nine emotions are proffered as a lens through which to look at the world of feelings and emotions. According to Nātya śāstra, the eight primary emotions have their base in the ninth, śāntam. The nava rasas are vīra (courage), śrngāra (love), raudra (wrath), bībhatsa (disgust), hāsya (mirth or humour), kārunya (compassion), adbhuta (wonder), bhayānaka (fear), and śāntam (tranquility). 

An alignment between one’s inner experience with the outer expression is necessary to experience greater response capability and choicefulness in action. Renowned yoga achārya T. Krishnamacharya said, “A healthy individual is one who is able to feel all the rasās as it arises in them and return to a state of śāntam after the emotional experience."

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Access Emotions through Arts  
Performing arts like music, arts and theatre can help us access our emotions at a deeper and subtler level. During the covid-19 lockdown years in 2020-21, I designed an inner work programme with musicians Shruti Bode and Aarti Sivakumar, where we explored different rāgās of Indian classical music and the emotions they evoked. The programme enabled participants to work with the patterns of their emotional expressions and experiences and discover new possibilities. 

“I found myself going through a plethora of emotions ranging from ecstasy to deep melancholy. I realised how freeing it is when you explore the patterns in life from a space of curiosity, rather than fear," said a participant who did not wish to be named. But no one could have put it better than eight-year-old Zara who’d tagged along with her mother for the retreat. “When you have too many big feelings, your emotional brain takes over. It does not function like our ordinary brain. If you feel something, the feeling goes through your emotional brain and comes out as action," said Zara, sounding wise beyond her years.

Emotional Intelligence at Work
Research shows that in a corporate setting, every unaddressed conflict can waste about eight hours of company time, every day, in gossip and other unproductive activities that lower employee morale and resources for the firm.

“Getting in touch with the sensations of your body, labelling your feelings, creating a safe space for yourself to vent the emotions, and validating and accepting what you are feeling before thinking how to deal with them, are some simple practices anyone can adopt in their daily routine to nurture emotional intelligence," says Thakore. In a globalised world where most of us are exposed to culturally diverse contexts, nurturing emotional intelligence is critical in building trust and developing deeply nourishing human connections.

Hariprasad Varma is a leadership coach & yoga therapist based in Hyderabad. He posts on X as @ZenseiHari.

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