Asian Americans and Emotional Intelligence

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Five Keys to Enhancing Your EQ

Emotional Intelligence (EQ or EI) can be defined as the ability to understand, manage, and effectively express one’s own feelings, as well as engage and navigate successfully with those of others. According to Talent Smart, 90% of high performers at the work place possess high EQ, while 80% of low performers have low EQ. Emotional Intelligence is absolutely essential in the formation, development, maintenance, and enhancement of close personal relationships. Unlike IQ, which does not change significantly over a lifetime, our EQ can evolve and increase with our desire to learn and grow.

Asians and Asian Americans often experience culturally-specific challenges in relation to emotional intelligence. The tendency to respect authority and accommodate those in ingroups can prevent one from being more assertive, the focus on negative criticism as a means of motivation can induce lower self-esteem, and in certain Asian societies verbal and physical expressions of love, affection, and grief are restrained.

Below are five keys that can enhance one’s emotional intelligence:

1. The ability to deal with one’s own negative emotions

“We become what we think about all day long.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Perhaps no aspect of EQ is more important than our ability to effectively manage our own negative emotions, so they don’t overwhelm us and affect our judgment. In order to change the way we feel about a situation, we must first change the way we think about it. Neuro-psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen developed an easy to practice exercise called “ANT Therapy – Killing our Automatic Negative Thoughts,” which helps us examine the nature of our negative experiences, and relate to it in such a way as to reduce our negative emotions. Click on this video link (www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SGDnL1j7lw) to see Dr. Amen explain ANT Therapy (from 01:04 to the end of the clip, and at the very beginning of the next sequence).

The ability to kill Automatic Negative Thoughts is a crucial skill for Asians and Asian Americans, as many people of Asian descent are from families, schools, and other environs where negative criticism (such as shaming, unfavorable comparisons, and not being good enough) as a means of motivation and evaluation is considered a norm. I once heard an Asian American parent say: “If I don’t constantly criticize my children, won’t they become lazy?” Such a statement neglects the possibility that, properly encouraged, young people can find motivation within themselves. A predominantly negative and critical environment can induce many ANTs, and affect one’s sense of self-confidence and self-esteem. Killing one’s ANTs on a daily basis clears the way towards greater self-worth, and the progressive realization of one’s true potential.

2. The ability to stay cool under pressure

“Trouble comes from the mouth.” – Chinese proverb

Most of us experience some level of stress in life. How we handle stressful situations can make the difference between being assertive versus reactive, and poised versus frazzled. When under pressure, the most important thing to keep in mind is to keep our cool. Here are some quick tips:

A. If you feel angry and upset with someone, before you say something you might later regret, take a deep breath and count slowly to ten. In most circumstances, by the time you reach ten, you would have figured out a better way of communicating the issue, so that you can reduce, instead of complicate the problem. If you’re still upset after counting to ten, take a time out if possible, and revisit the issue after you calm down.

B. If you feel nervous and anxious, put cold water on your face and get some fresh air. Cool temperature can help reduce our anxiety level. Avoid caffeinated beverages which can stimulate your nervousness.

C. If you feel fearful, depressed, or discouraged, try intense aerobic exercises. Energize yourself. The way we use our body affects greatly the way we feel. As the saying goes – motion dictates emotion. As you experience the vitality of your body, your confidence will also grow.

D. If you feel overwhelmed, confused, stuck, or uninspired, go outdoors and clear your head. Go into nature and surround yourself in colors of green and blue, which have a calming effect. Find a panoramic view and look out into the distance. Walk. Take deep breaths. Empty your mind. Come back with a fresh perspective.

3. The ability to read social cues

“We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” – Anais Nin

People with high EQ are generally more accurate in their ability to perceive and interpret others’ emotional, physical, and verbal expressions. They also know how to communicate effectively to clarify intentions. For Asians and Asian Americans, this is particularly important, as the Asian style of communication is often more indirect than specific. Emotions are often hinted rather than verbalized.

Based on the writing of Ronald Adler and Russell Proctor II, here are a couple of tips to increase the accuracy of reading social cues:

A. When we see an expression from someone that we don’t understand fully, come up with at least two possible interpretations before jumping to conclusion. For example, I may be tempted to think my friend’s not returning my call because he’s ignoring me, or I can consider the possibility that he’s been very busy. When we avoid personalizing other people’s behaviors, we can perceive their expressions more objectively. People do what they do because of them more than because of us. Widening our perspective on the situation can reduce the possibility of misunderstanding.

“A negative look from someone else may mean nothing more than they’re constipated!” – Daniel Amen

B. Seek clarification when needed. If necessary, inquire with the other person for clarification on why she’s behaving the way she does. Ask opened ended questions such as: “I’m just curious, can you tell me why…,” and avoid accusations and judgments. Compare that person’s words with body language and behavior to check for congruency.

4. The ability to be assertive and express difficult emotions when necessary

“Being who we are requires that we can talk openly about things that are important to us, that we take a clear position on where we stand on important emotional issues, and that we clarify the limits of what is acceptable and tolerable to us in a relationship.” – Harriet Lerner

There are times in all of our lives when it’s important to set our boundaries appropriately, so people know where we stand. These can include exercising our right to disagree (without being disagreeable), saying “no” without feeling guilty, setting our own priorities, getting what we paid for, and protecting ourselves from duress and harm. Some Asians and Asian Americans struggle with being assertive in situations when it’s important to speak up, project strength, and have one’s views and feelings heard. This is particularly true when dealing with authority figures, or accommodating expectations from those in ingroups.

One method to consider when needing to express difficult emotions is the XYZ technique – I feel X when you do Y in situation Z. Here are some examples:

“I feel strongly that I should receive recognition from the company based on my contributions.”

“I feel uncomfortable that you expect me to help you over my own priorities.”

“I feel disappointed when you didn’t follow through when you told me you would.”

“I feel frustrated when you continue to not take our finances seriously.”

“I felt hurt when you made fun of me at dinner last night.”

Avoid using sentences that begin with “you” and followed by accusation or judgment, such as “you are…,” “you should…,” “you need to….” “You” language followed by such directives put the listener on the defensive, and make them less likely to be open to what you have to say.

5. The ability to express intimate emotions in close, personal relationships

“We live in the shelter of each other.” – Celtic saying

The ability to effectively express and validate tender, loving emotions is essential to maintaining close personal relationships. In this case, “effective” means sharing intimate feelings with someone in an appropriate relationship, in a manner that’s nourishing and constructive, and being able to respond affirmatively when the other person does the same.

A person’s “heart withers if it does not answer another heart.” – Pearl Buck

Psychologist Dr. John Gottman calls the expression of intimate emotions “bidding.” Bidding can be any method of positive connection between two people desiring a close relationship. For example:

Verbal bidding: “How are you doing?”, “How are you feeling?”, “I love you,” “I appreciate you,” “I like it when we talk like this,” “I’m glad we’re spending this time together,” “you’re such a good friend,” “I’m sorry.”

Body language bidding: positive eye contact, hugging, smiling, patting the elbow, arm around the shoulder.

Behavioral bidding: offering food or beverage, a personalized card, a thoughtful gift, a needed favor. Empathetic listing. Engaging in shared activities that create a closer bond.

The Asian style of emotional expression is often behavioral rather than verbal or physical, and in certain societies highly restrained. An Asian student once said to me: “My parents never hug me or tell me they love me, but I know they care because my mother wakes up early to make my breakfast, and my father saves money to support me though school.” An Asian American student remarked: “When my grandmother passed away, no one in my family cried.” Sometimes I hear a desire among Asians and Asian Americans to communicate love and intimacy more explicitly with those whom they care about. When it’s all said and done, the combination of verbal, physical, as well as behavioral bidding can only strengthen the bond between loved ones.

Dr. Gottman’s research reveals that close, healthy relationships bid with each other in ways large and small up to hundreds of times a day. The words and gestures can be a million variations, all of which say, in essence, “I care about you,” “I want to be connected with you,” and “you’re important in my life.” Constant and consistent bidding is crucial in the maintenance and development of close, personal relationships. It’s the vitamin of love.

“When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.” – Billy, age four, defining love, as reported on the Internet

For an extensive list of references and recommended readings in relation to this topic, search this article in my blog at www.nipreston.com/blog.

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Preston Ni is a professor of communication studies, Fortune 500 trainer, executive coach, and organizational change consultant. Write to Preston at commsuccess@nipreston.com, and access free resources at www.nipreston.com.

© 2010 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Preston Ni is a professor of communication studies, Fortune 500 trainer, executive coach, and organizational change consultant. Write to Preston at commsuccess@nipreston.com, and access free resources at www.nipreston.com.