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Home » How We’ve Been Misled by ‘Emotional Intelligence’: Kris Girrell at TEDxNatick (Transcript)

How We’ve Been Misled by ‘Emotional Intelligence’: Kris Girrell at TEDxNatick (Transcript)

Kris Girrell

Here is the full transcript of author and executive leadership consult Kris Girrell’s TEDx Talk: How We’ve Been Misled by ‘Emotional Intelligence’ at TEDxNatick conference.


You know, we’d all be a whole lot better if we could just learn to speak in equations. That’s what a scientist once told me, once when I was working with him on his leadership skills. Of course, you and I know how awful that would be, because most of what we receive in communication happens beyond the words we speak, in the form of the cues that we pick up from each other. And people who are able to pick up on those cues are said to have emotional intelligence.

Research also tells us that great leaders are also good at emotional intelligence. But my question is: what if you’re not so good. Is something that you can learn? Is there something that opens up that emotional can of worms inside and helps us better understand what’s going on inside us and our friends and our co-workers?

Well, about five years ago, I experienced a perfect storm of three things coming together that opened this conversation for me. And I’d like to share with you what happened in the process.

The first was, I had just written a book called A Married Man’s Survival Guide, which was based on having interviewed a bunch of men who had been monogamously married for 35 to 60 years. So I had a fresh set of clues that perhaps I was not the only man around who had a fairly skimpy emotional toolbox.

The second thing was, I had begun researching a theological principle called the dark night of the soul which is that scary place where everything that you hold to be true in explaining how the world works no longer explains your current situation. I’ll get to that in a minute.

The third thing was, I was hired by a pharmaceutical firm to come in and work with their senior R&D managers on the topic of emotional intelligence. And it’s there that my story begins.

Now I’m sure a lot of you watch television and you’re familiar with the Big Bang Theory, and therefore the character of Sheldon. Imagine a whole roomful of Sheldons. Guys — and they were all guys, who had been hired because of their intelligence each of whom thought he was the brightest in the room. And then we’re promoted for those same skills and now we’re being moved into senior leadership. But the only problem is at that level you can’t leave by being the brightest kid in the room, it actually comes across as abrasive and arrogant.

But at the same time I just couldn’t walk in and start talking to them about emotions, because it wasn’t part of the equation that any one of them had ever learned. I was just a little bit upset and curious about where to start, because most of these guys were, when I would classify as emotionally binary, that is to say – if you asked them how they felt, they’d either say good or bad.

So I was struggling with how to come up with a way to talk to them about emotions, and the fact that perhaps frustration wasn’t the same as anger. And that managing people in different emotional states was actually something that required different skills.

And then one day I was having lunch with a friend of mine and he noticed that she had a poster up on the wall of vegetables, only it was arranged in a periodic table like that thing that we had to remember in high school chemistry.

And I thought what if there was a periodic table of human emotions? Well, a quick search of the web found nothing so I created one and it looked like this. Now relax, there’s not a quiz at the end. But if I borrowed something as technical as Mendeleev’s periodic table, it had better be as robust or it and I would be thrown out. So you’ll find things on it like the lighter emotions are towards the top and the heavier and more complex emotions towards the bottom, with the radioactive sequence as being replaced by passions and depressions, which are not only heavy and complex but highly unstable.

And it also progresses from the more visceral or gut emotions on the left towards the more lighter and heady and spiritual emotions on the right. And then to make it look more scientific, each emotion was given a chemical symbol and an atomic weight. And then I started playing with it — to make it fun because after all these are guys. And we have to play.

So you’ll find things in it that kind of reflect that, like for example, relief is expressed as a prescription. Pleasure was… love was given the weight of pi, because love makes the world go round. And how about gratitude 24/7? The heaviest of all the emotions was dread; it was given the estimated weight of the world six times 10 to the 24th metric tons, geek alert.

Of course, denial doesn’t believe it has any weight so none was listed. And it was fun — it was fun getting them to see those things and having them work through that. And it accomplished my task of getting them involved in a conversation about emotions but it’s not emotional intelligence. At the end of the day it was just an academic discussion.

But I had to start there because after all these are guys, and forgive me for being politically incorrect. But 35 years on a men’s team and doing a lot of men’s work and having written the married man’s survival guide, I had a lot of information that we’re not all that good at emotions. In fact, many of us have been taught not to feel.

So you have to kind of start with the vocabulary first. But as they said at the end of the day it was just an academic discussion and it would remain an academic discussion until the stuff hits the fan. Like when leaders find out that they can’t leave just because they’re the smartest kid in the room, or like for you and me when the rug gets pulled out from underneath us and we do a total faceplant in the mud, those humbling and often humiliating experiences trigger the dark night of the soul. It can look like this.

Last year in the span of just a couple of months, I experienced the death of my best friend, a man who even after he’d moved to Florida 15 years ago he and I had a phone call every Thursday morning at 5:00 a.m. and he was suddenly gone. And right on the heels of that a man on my men’s team passed away. It was given six to twelve months by his doctors, time to get his affairs in order. And five days later he died.

But those weren’t the killers. The real crusher came when I had to decide to close a business that I was running. But it wasn’t just the business; it was an early childhood education center for which we couldn’t find enough teachers and that lack of stability isn’t healthy for kids, so we had to close it.

I wanted to make sure that all the children had a place to go that Monday after we closed, so we decided to out place them into all the other schools in the area. And that Tuesday night of the last week, I was alone in my office, photocopying records to help with the transition. It was about 7:30 at night. I was surrounded by stacks of yellow folders when it hit me. This isn’t paper; these are children that I loved, that I promised their parents that I would defend with my life and I started to cry. That just sniffles in watery eyes, I mean full-out boohoo tears. And I couldn’t stop.

I cried the whole way home and I ran into the bedroom and I buried my head in the pillow and I just screamed. It hurt that much. And after four hours of convulsing sobbing, I fell asleep. And I woke up the next morning like this. I looked kind of much the same but inside it was totally different. I changed. I was open.

There was a hole in my chest you could have driven a Mack truck through. It was the dark night of the soul. I had read about it. I had studied it for the last five years and I just completed my thesis on it in May. But I had no idea what it was like to be ripped open and turned inside out. And out of that hole flowed all kinds of emotions, some that weren’t even on the chart and driven by grief, that truck full of emotions put me in touch with compassion.

You know, Brené Brown says that regret is the birthplace of empathy, and I parallel that and say that grief is the birthplace of compassion. Compassion — literally defined it’s the ability to suffer with and to bear with another person’s feelings because you know compassion is the stuff of relationships. It’s the glue that holds us together when everything around this is falling apart and it’s the function of the dark night of the soul to tear down the ego and teach us compassion.

Being inside out — having compassion first for yourself allows you to see it in other people. The dark night literally rewires and reconnects us to each other through emotions. Now your dark night doesn’t have to look like mine. In fact, I’m pretty much guarantee that it doesn’t.

It can be a big bang or it can be a hundred little things that all roll up. But at the end of the day it’s something that opens you up and put you in touch with your emotions, and being wide open like that allowing yourself to feel and see the feelings in other people, when you’re intimate with your feelings you know you’re completely different, the relationship changes.

Being — maybe we’ve been misguided a little bit, though, by calling it emotional intelligence when, in fact, it’s emotional intimacy. When you’re intimate with your emotions it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or Jewish or Muslim or old or young or male or female, the one thing — the one thing that all seven billion of us have in common is the capacity to feel all those emotions, and the feeling — the dark night feeling might be different for you. It might be as one CEO said to me, waking up in the middle of the night knowing that he had the lives of a couple hundred people in his hands and feeling not the least bit worthy of that; or it could be as simple as seeing a picture of a Syrian man in total agony as he holds the limp body of his lifeless child.

But here’s the bottom line: emotional intelligence isn’t about memorizing a whole bunch of words or ascribing some arbitrary weight to them to get their gravity. It’s just the ability to connect with another person on an intimate level. It’s the ability to know what’s going on here and see it in another. And when we do that we change the relationship totally.

With all my studies, I was just another Sheldon with knowledge about emotions but pretty much not attached to them. It seems some of us need a perfect storm or a dark night to get in touch with our emotions and that kind of brings me back to the beginning, only let me paraphrase my scientific client who wanted to speak in equations.

You know, if we could all just learn a little bit of this — this emotional intimacy stuff — the world would indeed be a whole lot better and we would become a blessing to each one that we meet.

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