LEARNING SERIES: Emotional Intelligence and its Impact on Your Ability to Learn

This is Post 2 in a series about how we learn and how it’s related to mentoring. The first installment is here:

Renowned experts in Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Travis Bradberry and others that indicate there is a strong link between emotional intelligence and our ability to learn. Emotional intelligence employs self-awareness and introspection to allow us fully retain the learning experience, because there is a real connection to our minds through the effects we feel with our emotions. Not to mention it, through the employment of empathy, we learn to connect ourselves with others connect with them socially and learn from them.  “WHA?!” you say. “What does emotion have to do with learning? Can’t we just enable the firewall and let our nearest mobile communication device do all that..that…mushy stuff?!”

“Afterwards there was less cynicism – people had gained an understanding of colleagues differences.”  – FIT Emotional Intelligence

Let’s say that you are someone who is essentially very positive, an always glass-is-half-full kind of person. You might approach a situation in which you don’t know something as a great opportunity to learn something new, to grow or to gain awareness. Your coworker or friend, on the other hand, struggles. He or she feels overwhelmed not only with what is not known, but also how much there is to know. There is a sense of dread and a never-ending fear of falling further behind. If you each take on a learning task, there is an immediate point in which your mental state sets the stage, in part, on your ability to absorb information and actively put it to good use.

Pain, fear, happiness all play a part in our ability to learn. Think about those self-deprecating blockades we install in our way, “I’m never going to be able to figure this out,” or “This is way over my head,” or “I’ve never done this before.” Those voices are in almost everyone and have effect in the ability we have to learn. Many of us don’t even recognize the devil on shoulder, because the little gnome has been there for so long, self-sabotaging our progress and ability to change.

It stands to reason that before we can remove the negative obstacle to our own learning, we have to become aware of its presence. Emotional intelligence may help us to hear that voice as an alien or unwanted presence, because it essentially disrupts the normal state of self-awareness. Just like the fact that some of us see or hear better than others, there are some people more attuned to self-awareness of emotions more than others. Fear not, though. Emotional intelligence is something that can be improved upon with attention and some repetition. While, I’m not going to discuss that part here, you can read a fantastic article that I’ve found produces great results with some practice. The important take-away is that we can set a healthier stage for learning by being mindful and aware of ourselves and our tendencies. This helps us connect with others, because our social walls come down some to allow other experiences (and other people) in.

“Knowing others and knowing oneself, in one hundred battles no danger. Not knowing the other and knowing oneself, one victory for one loss. Not knowing the other and not knowing oneself, in every battle certain defeat.” 

–Sun Tzu, The Art of War  

When I mentor someone, I invariably work with someone who is a highly-skilled professional, or a highly-capable individual. In both instances, I have found that the individual is perfectly capable of successfully completing a specific activity that has come up in a session, and that the mentee believes that it is a “blocking” item to their growth. These people are fully competent and capable and smart as whips, yet they ask for help in struggles that prevent them from realizing success. How is this possible?

I’m not an expert on emotional intelligence, and in fact am still in the “WOW!” phase of learning it. It amazes me that this is just recently gaining so much traction, because it is so important to understanding how to get the hell out of our own way. When I mentor others, I have found that the learning we do in a mentoring session is electrically charged with things that aren’t on any agenda. Investigation into handling a difficult customer, managing up to a supervisor, tackling new domains or achieving vision goals are all able to be achieved by the person writing the agenda. The struggle is the person’s emotion tied to the item, which effectively either halts a person in their tracks or clouds their judgment of their own ability. Something trigger an emotional response. Bringing it up in the mentoring further re-triggers it, so it’s not uncommon to set the written objective aside, while we speak about why achieving it is perceived as unreachable. This can be tough stuff to discuss, most especially when it wasn’t planned for and two people are treading on “trust boundaries” in talking about it with one another.

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.”
— William James

This is one of the reasons mentoring is such a special learning experience, as well as extremely powerful. We spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on academic and corporate education that provides knowledge and certificates to indicate we have accomplished something.

Few of us, though, invest in learning about why we struggle to do the things we really have a hard time with. The mentoring environment provides a safe haven, or “safe zone”, as I have referred to in other writings. This is critical to allowing the mentee to get some raw emotion out onto the table so it can be dealt with.

“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we have a clear picture of it.”
— Benedict Spinoza

Only when there is trust between mentee and mentor can this occur, because there is recognition that great damage can occur without it. The experience that comes of this can be a huge leap forward in personal growth, and that is when the door opens wide to learning.

I’ve learned, too, that I am a student of my own recommendations. As a mentor, I learn by teaching and actually have to stop in the middle of doing so to remind myself of the need to listen and absorb.

Next post, I’m going to hit you with another stage gate of emotional intelligence and learning. What Happens When Strong Emotional Intelligence Encounters a Watershed Moment in Self-Awareness?

1 How to Increase Your Emotional Intelligence ― 6 Essentials
Preston Ni M.S.B.A. Psychology Today. October 2014. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/communication-success/201410/how-increase-your-emotional-intelligence-6-essentials

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