By John Schorling
In last month’s Monthly Musing, I wrote about the relationship between mindfulness and the first two aspects of Emotional Intelligence (EI): self-awareness and self-management. These provide the basis for the other two components of EI: social awareness and relationship management. The former is the topic for this month.
Social awareness refers to paying attention to others, especially their emotions. Being aware of others emotions is central to empathy, which has been defined as the capacity to understand and share another person’s emotional experience. Empathy is the principal competence underlying social awareness, and can be cultivated by both paying attention to others when we are in relationship with them, really listening, and also paying attention to what we are feeling when we are in the presence of others. When we give someone else our full attention we can better connect with what they are feeling. Especially in helping professions, this can sometimes be problematic as paying attention to and being open to what others are feeling when they are in distress can become overwhelming and lead us to withdraw and close off. This feeling of being overwhelmed has been referred to as empathic overload or empathic distress.
In addressing this, it is important to understand the difference between empathy and empathic awareness. Empathy is feeling what another person is feeling. Empathic awareness is being aware of what another is feeling, without holding on to the feeling. When we are in the presence of another person who is experiencing a difficult emotion such as grief, we might find ourselves feeling sad. If we are paying attention, we can notice this, acknowledge it, respond appropriately to the other person, and then let the emotion go, knowing that the sadness is arising from our relationship with another. If we don’t acknowledge that this is happening, we are more likely to carry the difficult emotion with us. Being with difficult emotions is hard, even if we can let them pass, so it is important to be kind to ourselves and not beat ourselves up because we think we should be tougher or better at it.
In these situations, it can also be helpful to respond to another person’s difficulty with compassion. Compassion is recognizing another’s suffering or distress and having the desire to alleviate it. We often cannot fix what another person is going through, yet we can still listen and offer support. This is responding with compassion. Useful steps for practicing compassion include: first, pausing to center ourselves; second, paying attention to what the other person is feeling and also noticing what we are feeling (practicing empathic awareness); third, considering what the best thing we can do is in this circumstance; and fourth, actually doing it, recognizing that we do not have to hold on to the other person’s distress once we have done what it is we can do.
The second competency related to social awareness is organizational awareness, understanding a group’s emotions and relationships. This too is based on paying attention and on listening. It is easy to get caught up in our own concerns, and when this happens we are less likely to be observant of others. It is important to notice when this is happening, to acknowledge that worrying is occurring, and to see if it is possible to let the worrying go and pay attention to the current situation. It can be particularly important to notice the guiding values and unspoken rules that operate among people. Individuals tend to focus on what has meaning, and understanding this can help people achieve their goals by linking them to what matters most.
From social awareness we can move to relationship management. Relationship management refers to using the awareness of our own emotions and those of others to optimally manage interactions. This will be the topic of the next Musing in this series.
Filed Under: Monthly Musings