Emotional intelligence is a set of skills that helps us recognize, contain and communicate our emotions. Many people who struggle with keeping relationships have low levels of “emotional intelligence.”
What does attachment have to do with emotional intelligence?
The ways we have experienced connection or disconnection with others, going as far back as early parental relationships, shapes our expectations and way we relate to others.
Attachment relationships play a large role in the development of the brain. The security – or insecurity – of a child’s early attachment relationship shapes their view of themselves, others and the world around them.
If you didn’t have early (and later) relationships where you felt nurtured and satisfactory levels of emotional safety, here are some of the ways your adult relationships may be impacted:
* You don’t know how to work through differences without getting mad or tuning out.
* You often feel betrayed by others.
* You’re in a pattern of unsatisfying relationships.
Five tools of emotional intelligence:
According to Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. and author of The Language of Emotional Intelligence, there are a number of ways to communicate in an emotionally intelligent manner. She calls them:
* The Elastic
* The Glue
* The Pulley
* The Ladder
* The Velvet Hammer
Let’s take a closer look at Tool #1: The Elastic (Stress Busting):
According to Dr. Segal, “Our capacity to regulate our own stress is the elastic that provides us with a feeling of safety, giving us the ability to be emotionally available and engaged with other people, as well as to resolve relationship difficulties by returning communications to relaxed, energized states of awareness.”
The first step in managing relationship stress is to identify what your triggers are. The next step is to learn how to manage the physiological reaction (think, “fight or flight”). Ways to decrease stress in the moment are deep breathing or taking a “time-out.” A properly executed “time-out” allows the partner to get their stress response under control.
Couples who learn how to make use of the “elastic” tool will find they argue less. And if conflict arises, as it always will at some point, it will be managed in a much more productive way.
Let’s explore Tool #2: The Glue (Emotional Communication):
“The glue that holds the communication process together is the emotional exchange triggered by primary biological emotions which include anger, sadness, fear, joy and disgust,” she says. “These emotions, essential for communication that engages others, have often been numbed or distorted by misattuned early relationships, but they can and must be reclaimed and restored to attract and preserve relationships.”
This facet really gets into the area of my work that I love the most – how people react to each other based on earlier important relationships. Our emotional responses to our partner can be less about what’s going on in front of us and more about old wounds being triggered. It’s not to say that our partners might be behaving in an unhelpful way – but the experience may be magnified to us.
People who get in touch with their family of origin wounds (if they exist) will be better able to identify when “old stuff” is getting triggered in their relationship and be able to think more clearly about it.
Now for Tool #3: The Pulley (Nonverbal Communication):
“It takes more than words to create and secure productive, exciting, safe and fulfilling relationships,” says Dr. Segal. “Nonverbal communication is the pulley that attracts and holds the attention of others.”
Examples include eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice and intensity. What messages do you send to your partner? Do you accurately read the nonverbal communication of others or do you misinterpret signals?
Couples who are good at nonverbal emotional communication can better manage and avoid conflict. Additionally, poor stress management (as discussed in part 1) can negatively impact the use of nonverbal communication.
Let’s briefly explore Tool #4: The Ladder (Playfulness and Humor):
“Playfulness and humor, the naturally high ladder, enable us to navigate awkward, difficult and embarrassing issues,” she says.
Couples who can use humor in times of conflict are much better getting through it. It reduces stress, wards off depression, creates a shared experience and generally improves relationships. However, be aware that not all “humor” is helpful. Sarcasm can be experienced as thinly veiled criticism.
And the final tool, #5: The Velvet Hammer (Conflict Resolution):
The ability to manage conflict and forgive is referred to as the velvet hammer. Couples who are able to hear each other, assist in problem solving, and avoid harsh, critical language are more adept at building trust between each other. Additionally, people have different needs regarding feeling emotionally safe. “Everyone needs to feel understood, nurtured and supported but the ways these needs are met can vary widely,” she says.
In my couples therapy practice, the issues that people present often times end up being less about the “issues” and more about a lack of emotional safety and ability to manage that (emotional intelligence). The good news is that emotional intelligence can be learned and couples can have a closer and more loving relationship.
Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT is the creator of The Toolbox at LisaKiftTherapy.com, with tools for marriage, relationship and emotional health. She is the author of The Premarital Counseling Workbook for Couples – and The Marriage Refresher Course Workbook for Couples.