Sunday, August 13, 2006

Review: Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman. Highly recommended.

You know the feeling—your spouse says something that strikes you the wrong way, and involuntarily you tense up. You can almost feel your blood pressure rise. Without thinking, you respond emotionally, and soon what may have been intended as an innocuous comment has sparked a full-fledged marital battle that may leave as its aftermath lingering feelings of anger and resentment.

In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes the physiological processes that drive and are driven by emotion and their purpose, the ability of emotions to hijack rational thought and the short- and long-term physiological and psychological effects, and the personal and social benefits of teaching and learning how to manage the emotions.

In the opening chapters, Goleman discusses in simplified terms the complex interactions of the brain when emotion-causing stimuli are perceived, with the emotional mind reacting more quickly than the rational. For example, the sight of a snake may start the fight-or-flight response; the structures of the emotional brain prime the body to strike out at the snake or to flee from it. Then, after the body is tensed, the rational mind notices that it is a harmless garter snake. The efficiency of the brain circuitry, along with its emotional memory and associative abilities, helps to explain the power of the emotions. Citing research, Goleman suggests that the ability to recognize and manage emotions and emotional response, primarily learned from parents, family, friends, school, and the community, is a greater indicator of success in relationships, work, and society than intelligence tests. It is not necessarily how well you learn or what you know, but indeed how well you play with others.

Goleman covers a variety of topics: depression, mania, anxiety, PTSD, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, relationship issues, abuse, and others. For example, a feeling of sadness can be transformed in the brain into a lingering mood and ultimately into a full-blown clinical depression. He shows how emotional intelligence can be used to control the brain's circuitry so that pathological conditions like depression, mania, and PTSD can be managed or at least controlled.

Citing an increase worldwide in indicators of emotional and social problems, Goleman focuses on children and the importance of pilot programs that teach such skills as empathy, assertiveness without aggression, self-awareness and self-control, conflict resolution, and so forth. He discusses several studies that show measurable, long-term benefits of such programs, and the negative results when children do not have the opportunity to learn these skills at home, at school, on the playground, or in the community.

Goleman does not always seem trustworthy. His description of the 1963 "Career Girl" murders, intended to illustrate an emotional hijacking, does not match other accounts in key areas. He also leaves out facts, such as that several knives were used, instead saying that the killer "slashed and stabbed them over and over with a kitchen knife." He does not mention the sexual assaults in "those few minutes of rage unleashed." The crime he depicts fits his picture of an emotional hijacking, but other accounts show it to have been a more deliberate crime of longer duration. In a section on empathy, he says that one-year-olds "still seem confused over what to do about [another child's tears]," citing an instance where a "one-year-old brought his own mother over to comfort the crying friend, ignoring the friend's mother, who was also in the room." There is no confusion here, but a logical, pre-verbal assumption: "My mother is comforting to me when I am upset; therefore, she will be comforting to you, too." This kind of thinking is not limited to one-year-olds; for example, how many times has a friend recommended an action movie or horror novel to you, saying that you will "love it," even though your known preference is historical romance or another completely different genre? Even adults assume that "what works for me will work for you."

Goleman also discusses school bullies and outcasts in detail. He places so much emphasis on the probability that their peers are reacting to their lack of emotional intelligence that he misses some important exceptions and nuances, such as children who are social outcasts for socioeconomic and racist reasons or because they are nonconformist individualists, in which cases it is the other children who display a lack of empathy and emotional intelligence. On the flip side, there are children (and adults) who are not empathetic or emotionally intelligent but who are well liked, even popular, for other reasons, tangible and intangible (e.g., socioeconomic status, influence, some mysterious force of personality or charisma). Many successful, popular people exhibit little emotional intelligence, which Goleman could have addressed. In addition, while Goleman cites a wealth of research supporting his arguments, he does not present any dissenting opinions, or whether any exist. This weakens his presentation.

Emotional Intelligence is an insightful, enlightening look at how awareness of the emotions and their physiology can help us to manage them when they affect our lives negatively or when they become pathological (e.g., depression). I found the book to be a practical guide to recognizing when I am reacting rather than listening to others or hearing them correctly. It has helped me to cope with colleagues who are lacking in emotional intelligence and to give them subtle guidance. While most of Emotional Intelligence is intuitive to a perceptive mind, the book serves as a guide and reminder that even a little emotional intelligence can make relationships, situations, and life more positive, more productive, and less stressful.

Sunday, 13 August 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

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