Regarding Emotional Intelligence
November 21st, 2023
I first encountered meditation in my mid-twenties. Surprisingly perhaps, it was while working at the international management consultancy firm, McKinsey & Company. I was part of a project which was analysing how the performance of executives was impacted by how they spent their time. With the key caveat that correlation does not always equate to causation, the most striking finding for me was that almost all the top performing executives meditated. Furthermore, they didn’t just meditate before/after work, or at weekends, it was incorporated into their working day.
Work at McKinsey is largely project based, so there is a continual cycle of working with one team, and then moving on to work with another. A year or so into my time at the company, I joined a team which seemed ‘different’. It was calmer. Although work was still conducted at a fast pace, it was more relaxed. Deadlines were still set and met, but the atmosphere was ‘loose’ rather than ‘tight’. It turned out that everyone on the team (apart from me) meditated regularly.
Up until this point, I’d had a very narrow/biased view of meditation. To me it belonged in Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, or to the counter culturalists who wanted to ‘Turn on, tune in and drop out’. Now I was seeing it in the ‘mainstream’, and it appeared a useful aid to performance. So, for the last 20 years or so, I’ve ‘dabbled’ with meditation. In a good week, I may meditate five or six times for around 10 minutes each time. More typically, I manage three to four 10-minute sessions and a smattering of ‘micro-meditations’, where I pay attention to the inhale and exhale of 10 breaths.
I’ve persisted though; in part, because my experience at McKinsey established a belief that mediation aids performance. Given my desire to perform well in various areas of life, I therefore felt it was something I should do. It’s also piqued my curiosity. I find it intriguing that something that appears to be so simple;
‘Just focus on your breath’
can be so difficult to achieve, on account of distractions by thoughts, feelings and other sensations.
Over time, I’ve come to appreciate that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ meditation. The very thoughts and feelings that prevent me focusing on my breath are often ones that I’ve been unaware of or have tried to dismiss too soon. Creating the time to meditate allows me to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings and either accept them more fully, or attend to them more constructively. On the rare occasions when prolonged focus on the breath is achieved, I perceive that I’m subsequently calmer and able to think more clearly.
So, with this ‘amateur’ interest in meditation, how did I end up at an intensive, week-long meditation retreat at the Samye Ling Centre (the largest Buddhist monastery in Western Europe, situated in the rural lowlands of Scotland)? Well, old friends will tell you that a personal motto of mine is;
‘If you don’t have a go, you’ll never know.’
Having just gotten over a potentially life changing illness, my (often naïve) enthusiasm for new experiences has been reenergised. Added to this was a growing interest in Buddhism. My perception that it advocates universal compassion on the one hand and emotional non-attachment on the other, interests me in relation to both intimate and professional relationships. I’m also a great believer in the inherent value of immersing yourself in a completely different way of life (even if just for a few days). Doing so invariably broadens my perspective and helps me appreciate what I truly value. If I’m lucky, it can also make me aware of, and then question, truths I’ve (often unconsciously) developed in my ordinary life with respect to ‘how life is’. In terms of the retreat, each day was structured around six 60-90 minute sessions, so 42 sessions in total. The first session on each day started at 5.30am and the last finished at 8.30pm.
The first session felt quite auspicious, around 140 people were assembled in what to me was a very elaborately decorated temple: lots of gold and hundreds of statues of the Buddha. Then our teacher for the week, a purple- and orange-robed lama, who had flown in from Nepal, entered the temple with his translator. Gongs sounded, chants were made and the more ‘serious and knowledgeable’ attendees (of which I was not one) performed a series of prostrations and genuflections. An overview of the week and some very basic rudiments of meditation were then outlined.
Of the remaining 41 sessions, 40 of them basically involved non-directed meditation, or the lama sitting at the front of the temple and (via a translator) telling the assembled that we could NOT learn ‘real’ meditation because;
“you are fixated with happiness and most of you have mental health problems.”
Instead of teaching meditation, he gave what, to me, were very different perspectives on some fundamental human characteristics. For example, in his view;
“Kindness is understanding your stupidity and then showing continual endeavour to reduce it. The general Western approach to kindness is spoiling the individual.”
From my perspective, time was also given over to publicly criticising the monks and nuns of the monastery and hours were spent talking about a yearlong retreat which only a handful of people seemed remotely interested in. Questions could be asked, but they had to be submitted in written form. There was also some sporadic, but very in-depth analysis of (what seemed to me) an obscure Buddhist text.
In short, it was bizarre. People were leaving early and many (including myself) were asking why a meditation retreat had been organised, if it was not considered possible for us to meditate. The need for a translator compounded the frustration, as there could be over 20 minutes of incomprehension before the lama stopped speaking and the translation began.
And then came the 42nd and final session and the lama’s answer to the final question; ‘Can you give some insights into how to meditate?’.
The lama proceeded to introduce the six Buddhist perfections:
He stated that the order of the perfections was very important. He then proposed that many of us may well have found the week frustrating, because it was uncomfortable sitting for hours and not understanding what was required to meditate. If so, this was good, as this was developing the third perfection of patience. By sticking at it, and returning to the temple, session after session, we had also been developing the fourth perfection, energy, grit, forbearance and perseverance. These are the key precursors for meditation: you can’t hope to meditate without patience and energy. Finally, at the very end, he gave a 10 minute insight into how to meditate and then it was all over! As a trainer and facilitator, I had deep admiration. On the basis that the lama’s approach was intentional, in my view it takes real resolve to try and frustrate 140 people for almost an entire week, in order to illustrate a point.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. Ultimately, it gave me some valuable insights for meditation, which was my primary aim for the week. Like with so many memorable experiences though, the most valuable insights were unexpected. Firstly, it was a privilege to gain a completely different perspective on fundamental issues such as kindness, happiness and suffering. It highlighted that certain ‘truths’ I have are WEIRD: they are based on experiences and research from largely Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic countries. Alternatives exist.
Secondly, it provided a valuable reminder that cognitive understanding is not the same as knowledge. Experience and the emotions that come with experience are crucial too. For example, before the retreat, I understood and agreed with the value Buddhism places on accepting unpleasantness. I cognitively accepted that it is often my response to the event (rather than the event itself) that creates the most suffering. When I suffer the most, it’s due to the effort I’m making to resist the way things are, because I want things to be different. However, experiencing almost a week of persistent frustration made me really know this to be true. For me, the author Arnold Bennett summarises it well;
‘There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.’
Finally, I valued experiencing a series of dichotomies in relation to my emotions. During the week, I felt: • Pride, hubris and humility • Frustration, boredom and the energy/motivation that comes from gaining insight • Loneliness and connection • Confusion and clarity • Dread and excitement • Resentment and admiration • Sadness and happiness • Guilt and compassion In short, by the end of the week I felt a fuller, more authentic human being. Going forward, it will be interesting to discover the extent to which this fullness can be retained, back in my ordinary, WIERD world.View comments >
April 13th, 2021
If you’re dealing with a big challenge, you’re often drawn to its physical or practical issues. This blog encourages you to also consider your mindset. If you want a book (or audio book) to explore mindset in more detail, I strongly recommend any one of the following three:
- The Chimp Paradox, by Steve Peters
- Positive Intelligence, by Shirzad Chamine
- Mindset, by Carol Dweck.
In different ways, all three articulate the view that our brains have two main parts:
1. The Growth Mindset aka Our Best Self, or Sage
As the names suggest, this part of the brain is ‘us on a good day’. It’s wise, empathetic, forgiving and discerning. It understands that things may not be as they first appear; that things are rarely black or white, good or bad. It accepts ambiguity and that very little is certain. It thinks before acting.
2. The Fixed Mindset aka Our Chimp, or Saboteurs
This part of our brain makes immediate judgements, sees things as good or bad and others as either friends or enemies. It’s fuelled by emotion and acts before thinking. It ensures your basic needs are prioritised and its tendency to worry and remain vigilant keeps you safe. Indeed, its evolutionary importance explains why it is often stronger than the ‘best self’ part of your brain. It’s also stubborn. If it decides it’s not going to do something, it’s unlikely that your ‘best self’ will be able to persuade it otherwise. This is why willpower alone rarely leads to sustained change.
So what can you do? Firstly, you need to accept that you can’t change your chimp’s nature; but you can manage its behaviour. To manage your chimp effectively, I recommend bringing in the A-Team. No, not the 1980s characters of BA, Murdoch, Hannibal and Face, but the A-Team of:
The first ‘A’ of managing your chimp involves being really aware of what it’s feeling. It’s easy to know when your chimp is dominating your thoughts and feelings; it’s anytime you’re having thoughts and feelings that you don’t want to be having. However, your chimp needs to feel listened to and understood. To do this, it helps to identify the specific emotion that’s causing your unhelpful thoughts. So if you’re not looking forward to the next part of your challenge, try and get beyond the common first response of ‘I just don’t feel like it’. Is it stress in relation to other things that need to be done today, or fear as to whether you’ll be able to manage it?
For example, during a recent personal challenge, going beyond the ‘I just don’t feel like it today’ made me appreciate that I was actually feeling feeble and inadequate, as I was struggling to do something I’d been able to do before.
By identifying the precise emotion, your chimp will know you’re aware of how it’s feeling and this will comfort it. It’s not uncommon to struggle with finding the precise feeling you’re feeling, so choosing from a list can be useful. One such list can be found here.
Once you’ve identified your emotion, the next ‘A’ is to accept it. If you’re not feeling a particularly positive emotion, this can be hard to do, but feeling bad about feeling bad is even worse. Accepting the emotion prevents this from happening, as acceptance takes the ‘heat’ out of the emotion. Negative emotions like lurking in the shadows. Acceptance brings them out into the light where they can’t last long. In my case, accepting that I was feeling feeble and ‘naming it’, helped avoid any sense of shame in feeling this way.
With the emotion not feeling as powerful, you can move onto the next ‘A’, attendance. Here the goal is to attend to your chimp, by finding simple statements that it will accept.
I give my chimp a name - it’s called Sparky. By trial and error, I’ve learnt Sparky accepts that;
“Everyone, including me, is allowed to have one bad day.”
Reminding Sparky of this during my challenging situation, helped calm him down and stopped him berating himself and me.
What will your chimp accept? Work out the short and simple statements that it will hear and accept.
The final ‘A’ is activate. Here the goal is to activate your chimp’s more positive attributes. So in my case, Sparky responded well to;
“I know you’re not enjoying this, but as soon as we get home you can have a nice hot bath, with a beer and some peanuts.” [Sparky loves peanuts!]
As soon as Sparky heard this, he was bought into getting the challenging situation done as quickly as possible.
With Sparky occupied and engaged, it also allowed me to activate some of my best self. I was able to empathise with how I was feeling and remind myself about why this challenging situation mattered and was worthwhile. In doing so, I was able to give my challenging situation a better narrative.
The narrative we construct around what happens to us is ultimately up to us. I hope being mindful of your two brains and using the A-Team of Awareness, Acceptance, Attendance and Activation, helps you construct the best possible narrative for you.View comments >
May 5th, 2015
A national newspaper used to run a column entitled; “If I were king for a day”; where guest contributors outlined what law they would decree in such an event. The broadcaster, Jeremy Paxman, chose to banish open-plan offices. In his usual indomitable style, he outlined the case against such offices;
“An open-plan office is a way of telling you that you don’t matter…..it tells us precisely what our bosses think of us – that we are employed to fulfil a mechanical task and that we are all interchangeable. Deliberately inventing an uncreative environment is one thing. But it is worse than that…..because the space belongs to no one, it is noisy and grubby…there is nowhere for a quiet chat.”
Open plan offices can be particularly difficult for introverts, but by their very nature, they are disinclined to voice their views when the layout of offices is considered. In personality terms, an introvert is not someone who is shy; they simply find solitude revitalising and social interactions tiring (even if they are very enjoyable). With extroverts, it’s the other way around. Since extroverts readily communicate who they are, they can be easily understood by introverts. It can be more difficult for extroverts to understand introverts, but there are advantages in doing so. Consequently, if you’re an extrovert, click here to find out how. While introverts are often encouraged (often for good reason) to be more ‘extrovert’, there are others who (quietly) outline the benefits to extroverts of introspection, particularly when it comes to creativity. A prime example is the book ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain. For this reason Quiet is mch’s ‘Resource of the Quarter’. To access more resources on a range of development topics, go to mch’s free Resource Centre. Another interesting resource which provides good practical advice for introverts attending social functions can be found at Anne Keery’s blogView comments >
December 23rd, 2014
Due to my background and career choices, I’ve been interviewed more than most. A common reflection on so many of them has been the emphasis placed on experience and technical competencies, rather than an appraisal of me as a person, or on how/if I will fit in. In short, the focus has often been on whether I could do the job, at the expense of exploring whether I will do the job effectively (i.e. my motivations and fit with the team). On numerous occasions I’ve been told that my lack of success was primarily due to an insufficient number of years of experience. The quality and the learning of the experience I did have seemed secondary to an arbitrary number. On other occasions, I was told that while I outperformed other candidates in the ‘softer skills’, I lacked a key piece of technical ‘know how’. At times, this seemed short-sighted, as technical competencies can often be mastered far quicker than the emotional ones.
As mch’s focus has moved into staff development, I have fewer interviews. Indeed, I’m now more likely to be the interviewer, than the interviewee. However, given that management training and emotional intelligence form a core part of mch’s staff development work, my interest in recruitment has remained. Consequently, it was great to read a recent article about the housing and care charity, The Abbeyfield Society. The article highlighted that many of their job descriptions include emotionally intelligent additions such as; “time for talking and building an emotional connection.”
Sadly, I sense The Abbeyfield Society remains in a minority. However, if you are aware of more examples, I’d love to hear about them.View comments >