The Connection Between Emotional Intelligence and Trauma (Part 2)

The Connection Between Emotional Intelligence and Trauma (Part 2)

I really do like people. Honest. I’m such an introvert, though, that focusing on others can leave me feeling drained.

However, it’s hard to be a leader without accepting the responsibility that leadership is about serving and empowering others – not yourself.

Leadership is about relationships and relationships require trust.

Relationships also require an ability to focus on others. Uh oh. I’m seeing a circular pattern here. I’m already feeling drained!

Daniel Goleman wrote in his Harvard Business Review article, “The Focused Leader,” that leaders who focus on others are people “who find common ground, whose opinions carry the most weight, and with whom other people want to work.”

That sounds about right. However, in order to focus on others, we need to understand and have a high degree of emotional intelligence.

In my last article, we discussed emotional intelligence in the context of focusing on yourself. In this article, we will discuss emotional intelligence in the context of focusing on others.

In his article, Goleman breaks down the components of empathy into three categories: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and empathic concern.

Cognitive empathy is “the ability to understand another person’s perspective.” Emotional empathy is “the ability to feel what someone else feels.” Empathic concern is “the ability to sense what another person needs from you.”

Leaders demonstrating cognitive empathy have an “inquisitive nature.”

Goleman says we see the trait of cognitive empathy in people who are lifelong learners, who want to better understand people, and who are interested in how other people think.

If I heard him correctly, a leader with an “inquisitive nature” is someone who shifts their focus from the question, “What’s wrong with you?” to the question, “What happened to you?”

In other words, leaders with cognitive empathy want to know what a person’s life or background was like that led him or her to act or think a certain way. Unlike leaders with low emotional intelligence, leaders with cognitive empathy do not assume the worst about a person.

Leaders demonstrating emotional empathy have an ability to “mentor people, manage clients, and read group dynamics.”

According to Goleman, this ability comes from the parts of the brain which we know can be directly affected by trauma: the amygdala, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the frontal cortex.

When we are demonstrating emotional empathy through effective listening and communicating and by engaging our interpersonal skills, we are calling upon the parts of our brain that allow us to “feel someone else’s pain” and we have an “open awareness of that person’s face, voice, and other external signs of emotion.” (Cue up the polyvagal theory conversation!)

If our childhood and formative years were defined by physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; by physical, or emotional neglect; or by a stable of household dysfunction, then being able to effectively listen, communicate or engage in a positive way is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Since good relationships require a high degree of trust, people who don’t have a history of being able to trust other people aren’t going to magically trust their co-workers or leaders just because they are now adults and have a job.

Leaders demonstrating empathic concern place a high value on other people’s wellbeing.

If we have a healthy balance of empathic concern and care for others, then we can better understand what other people need from us. However, if our brain is screaming, “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!” then as a leader we may become overly anxious and try to regulate our emotions by distancing ourselves from others. That sounds like the antithesis of a good relationship.

Goleman provides a practical example for leaders in summarizing his thoughts on being empathetic. He explains that someone who is not able to build relationships or build trust because they lack empathy is like a:

CFO who is technically competent but bullies some people, freezes out others, and plays favorites – but when you point out what he has just done, shifts the blame, gets angry, or thinks that you’re the problem – is not trying to be a jerk; he’s utterly unaware of his shortcomings.

If we are going to be the leaders people need us to be, then we are going to need to understand our own and other people’s traumatic experiences.

As leaders progress up the ladder, the tendency is to focus inward or to be open only to the most senior people in the organization. Successful leadership requires us to build trust (or rebuild it if we have lost it) by taking a trauma-informed approach to leadership and being emotionally open and available to all people in the organization.

Leadership and being trauma-informed go hand in hand.

For more information on “(Re)Building Trust: A Trauma-informed Approach to Leadership,” please visit my website

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash