Think of a time when you were in flow. Either on your own, or in a group or team. One of those times when things just seemed to happen really naturally and easily. When you didn’t have to put much effort in and yet you were making great progress, or getting great results.
Now compare that to the definition of emotional intelligence:
“the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s)”
When you were in flow, to what extent were you doing any of the things in that definition?
My guess would be not very much, if at all, and certainly not consciously. Not with intellectual effort.
This is because when we’re in our natural state, we don’t need strategies and tactics. We don’t need breathing and centring, or visualisations of the best version of us, or mantras about listening to understand not to reply.
And this is because, in our natural “flow state”, we aren’t paying attention to the thinking going on in our heads. We’re not grabbing hold of thoughts and believing them. We’re not analysing why someone’s said what they said, or why we ourselves are getting frustrated by something, and crucially we’re not trying to manage ourselves out of an emotional response we think we shouldn’t be having in that moment. We’re keeping our intellectual, egoic, personal thinking out of the way and we’re accessing a much deeper space of wisdom and intuition.
Why aren’t we in flow more?
For years we’ve been teaching people (me included until recently) that we need to intellectually manage what’s going on for us emotionally. That we need to use our brain muscle to fix ourselves, that we need to practice and repeat to build new habits and new neural pathways, all so we can be better versions of ourselves more of the time because we’ve been led to believe there’s some version of us which is not good enough and not acceptable to society right now.
The trouble is, the application of our intellectual capabilities to these emotional management tasks, takes valuable energy away from our ability to generate fresh new thoughts and ideas in any moment, from our ability to listen and hear others, from our ability to connect and collaborate.
Remember that flow state? All those things just happened naturally there because you weren’t stuck, caught, or getting tangled in your thinking. And I’m not saying that in flow everything is about positivity and full agreement, with permanent grins on everyone’s faces – but you and others will have felt able to express any frustration or concerns without it seeming like a big deal. In fact the complete opposite. Any such insights will have been gratefully received and discussed, leading to an even better way forward.
So if we’re not “managing” our state through emotional intelligence tactics, how do we get to this state of flow more of the time?
We understand how our human system really works.
What we’ve been doing with emotional intelligence is explore:
the “what” – the content of our thoughts, labelling the emotions we’re feeling,
the “why” – what’s triggered you to get to that response. Often then examined to be re-framed or replaced with a more helpful thought.
This different approach understands the “how” of our underlying system. Think of making a car go. There is no benefit in commenting on the shape or design of the bodywork (the “what”). And there’s also no benefit in polishing the paintwork to a high shine to make it look nicer (the “why”). Neither of these approaches is going to get the car going. You must first understand “how” all the parts of the engine work and fit together to make the thing move forward.
The exact same here.
So how does our system work?
There are two areas where we can see the system working the way it always has and always will.
Everything works inside-out. Everything you’ve experienced, ever, in your whole life has been experienced through your thoughts. There is no other way. Nothing on the outside can “do” anything to you or “make” you feel anything. It’s all seen through the movie projector of our experience. “We’re the writer, the director, the producer – and in fact the audience”*.
Our system rights itself. Without intervention from us, our thinking moves on, our feelings change and we move to a different state. Automatically. In fact, I might go so far as to use the new word I recently learnt “automagically”! We “think” we’re so clever and we’ve been taught all our lives to be clever: in education, by parents, and in work. The message we’ve received is that intellectual capabilities are THE most important capability we have. And it’s not that intellectual is unimportant, but it’s the fact that this is not all there is. In emphasising our intellectual, we’ve denied and hidden the rest of what makes us whole; the true source of our brilliance and innate wisdom. We’ve been so busy fixing ourselves to be better we forgot that we didn’t need fixing in the first place.