Little did I realise the following situation would make me think deeply about using my emotional intelligence to change a habitual reaction but to stumble upon the principle of replacing reaction with a measured response.

A few years ago, I picked a business colleague and friend up from our local train station after battling the morning rush traffic, which was an emotional feat in itself.  I got to the station only to discover there were significant building works. I managed to get into a space at the side of the station, which had lots of car parking spaces.  There were displayed some big “no parking” signs because they belonged to a local hotel.

I had arranged to pick my friend up from the pick-up point at the front of the station. I was already late. Therein lay my dilemma. I didn’t have his mobile number to hand, I couldn’t get to the front of the station, and if I had driven away, I had no way of letting him know what was happening.

A sense of injustice

Acutely aware he would be wondering where on earth I had got to, I decided to jump quickly out of the car and wave to him to signal where I was. I got out of my car and took two steps onto the path. My friend spotted me after a couple of waves.

As I turned to go back to the car, a private car parking attendant was writing out a ticket. “You have got to be kidding,” I said. He smiled eerily and said, “No, you’ve left the car unattended; you can see the signs”, as he proceeded to stick a ticket on my windscreen. Completely astonished, I watched helplessly as he proceeded to take photographs of the empty car, no doubt to back up his actions.

Years before that incident, I would have reacted badly to the sense of injustice, anger and frustration of being so unfairly treated.  I managed to say with great disdain, “I don’t know how you sleep at night“. My colleague and I then got into the car and left.

Emotional frustration

I managed to forget about the incident until a few evenings later when I came upon the ticket in my handbag. The emotional annoyance and frustration came rushing back. The sense of injustice made me look to see what right of appeal I had to the ticket. Awareness of my dislike of the parking attendant made me pause and think about why I disliked him. My interpretation of the event made me dislike him and the perceived hassle I felt I now had by pursuing an appeal.

I knew I could interpret the events in several ways. He was only doing his job. He must need the money badly.  I did not know what pressure he was under to “catch perpetrators”. I had choices about how I would respond. It might have been easier to pay up and to learn the lesson for next time.

Owning my emotions

One of the most annoying habits for others I have learned over the years of developing self-awareness is my understanding of the power and responsibility of owning my emotions and the ability of others to do so also. My kids do not appreciate me rationalising their anger with others when I suggest they may look at the situation in a different way, a vital key to emotional intelligence.  They want to blame others; after all, it makes them feel better.  That is the whole issue of the blame game and why spiritual leaders talk about forgiveness as the only way to be in those situations.

Viktor Frankl

We always have the power to choose how we will react or respond to any situation. In an extreme example Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, recounting his experience in the concentration camp, said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way”. Viktor’s story is fantastic; he chose to see his guards and captors as imprisoned as he was himself and honed his emotional intelligence to the degree that he incredulously could even see the good in some of them.  Even in one of the most gruesome events in history, Viktor was aware that he could choose how to interpret his experience.

Choosing your response

Understanding one’s power to choose one’s reaction to what is happening is one of the keys to outstanding leadership and emotional intelligence.  You only have to read about the hardships faced by Gandhi, Mandela and others like them to know that these great leaders possessed well developed emotional intelligence, which should be included in more leadership development programmes’.

At work, too, choosing one’s response when you feel angry, scared, anxious or even gloriously happy is essential if you are going to navigate your way through and win hearts and minds. That’s not to say you never show your feelings or become a sterile shadow of your authentic self; it means you choose when appropriate to act on with emotional intelligence about how you are feeling. In the sage words of Aristotle, “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

Interpreting emotions

The reason it’s not wise to act on one’s feelings or emotional reactions, always, is because they are often inaccurate.  As human’s, we can misinterpret the simplest of things. An employee goes off sick after they’ve been asked to do something differently. You assume they are emotional and angry when you find out they’ve been suffering from depression since their mother died. An employee raises a grievance, and you feel threatened and mad at them because you think they are out to get you until you discover that they have challenging circumstances at home and no one has taken the time to understand them. Even when the evidence overwhelmingly justifies the way we feel, we can always still choose a response.

Your emotional guidance system

The trick is to use your emotions as a guidance system. They are simply giving you some information about what you are experiencing.  Sometimes taking action on emotions is the right thing to do, and sometimes it’s not. As a leader, emotional awareness is a key to making win/win decisions, taking charge of difficult situations and tapping into your intuition. If you let your emotions take control of you, then you can blindly forge into situations and create irreparable damage.

In my journey, owning my emotions and not blaming others for how I feel was one of my most challenging lessons.  Honouring feelings while choosing an appropriate response is the key to owning emotions. Only with this knowledge can you reclaim your power, both in life and as a leader.

I still don’t like the fact I got a parking ticket, but I knew I had choices about how I would respond.   As it happened once the emotional sting had gone out of my experience, I found the relevant regulation that allowed situations like mine to be exempt ultimately and my appeal against the ticket was allowed.  If it hadn’t have been, I would have paid up and been appreciative of the fact that I was in a position to.

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