8403 Colesville Rd., Suite 1100
Silver Spring, MD 20910

The Business of Emotions: Why emotional intelligence matters in your work and mine

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell


Being “smart” is one of the most commonly used memes in relation to success. We want to look smart, make smart decisions, and be smart about our careers. However, being a mediator has taught me that being ‘smart’ means more than we often realize.

This newsletter builds on broadly acclaimed author Daniel Goleman’s work to remind us that intelligence cannot be separated from the blessings and curses of human emotionality – and that this is a vital insight in the workplace.

In the mid 1990’s psychologist Daniel Goleman caused a stir with his book Emotional Intelligence. Intelligence Quotient (IQ), argued Goleman, is an impoverished way to understand intelligence – no matter how much we value rational faculties, anyone performing them is still human, and being human means having to deal with the messiness of emotions. Accomplishing tangible outcomes with our rational skills – publishing a book, closing a business deal, making a good decision – will automatically put us in contact with emotional boosts or complications, whether our own or those of the people around us. As Sandy Hollis and Debra Clapshaw put it, “Emotional intelligence is the partner of rationality.”

Traditional rational concepts of intelligence related to IQ miss the crucial component of emotional intelligence.
Traditional rational concepts of intelligence related to IQ miss the crucial component of emotional intelligence.

Part of Goleman’s intervention was simply arguing the “soft skill” of emotional intelligence (EI), and its importance, into popular discourse. But the other part of his genius was to point out that rational and emotional intelligence are actually wrapped up in a complex “dance” which enables (or disables) “thought itself.”[1] In other words, our emotions can facilitate our rational capabilities, but conversely we can also apply our rational capabilities to affect emotional outcomes. Understanding this relationship and being able to demystify the role of our emotions, thereby developing our sense of personal agency, characterizes emotional intelligence. Put handily by Fred McGrath, EI means having “an adept relationship between feeling, thinking, and acting.”

Emotions: in or out of place?

Goleman’s argument unseated common sense notions about the skillsets necessary for occupying high-powered roles in, for example, law or business – and anywhere confrontation and antagonism are likely. Earlier truisms assumed that emotions were purely inconvenient intruders in these spheres: the best emotional face is a ‘poker face,’ the symbol of suppressing emotionality in lieu of rationality. These assumptions are still being unraveled.

The relevant insight here from conflict resolution is that emotions can never be removed from any process in which divergent interests are involved. Emotions are internal to the process of reasoning itself, and they are likely to become more influential and relevant as more is at stake. Convincing yourself that your field doesn’t require EI because you use a lot of ‘hard skills’ could be a huge mistake.

Emotional Intelligence in the workplace

McGrath states that EI is “the key to improving client building, existing relationships, negotiation techniques and leadership skills” –  which makes it extremely relevant to nearly any private or public sphere occupation today. And the statistics back this claim up:

A study of 515 senior global executives found the most successful exectuives had the strongest emotional intelligence. In fact, EQ was a better predictor of leadership and success than relevant business experience, previous academic achievement, or IQ” (emphasis added).

Similar statistics reflect that hot-shots who burn out quickly in their career are likely to lack emotional and not technical skills. And even beyond the workplace, emotional intelligence has a whole slew of positive side effects, including avoiding depression, better interpersonal relationships and – you guessed it – less destructive conflicts.

The Emotionally Intelligent Mediator

Even in the field of conflict resolution, a lot of practitioners feel that emotions can hinder the process of conflict transformation or resolution. Daniel Bierknes and Kristine Paranica, however, ask us to reevaluate whether that assumption actually matches up with reality. Is it really better to emphasize the thinking and not the feeling, and does that really reflect your experience of conflict resolution?

In the first place, Bierknes and Paranica emphasize that, using Goleman’s argument, EI about our own responses is paramount to developing our capacity for empathy. If we cannot be reflective about how we feel when someone gets angry or sad, it is unlikely we will be able to manage our own emotional responses well enough to help facilitate the conversation in the room. Second, they remind us that any resolution itself is an emotional process. Overemphasizing rationality in conflict can leave important emotions unacknowledged.

A mediator has to be comfortable dealing with emotion, and emotional expression. A “lack of comfort with emotion” can induce a “perceived need to control it.” And those controlling actions can be felt as “disrespectful, disempowering, uncompassionate, and sometimes shaming for the parties…if your emotions were ignored, how would you react?” This is an important reminder for conflict resolution practitioners as to how crucial EI is to this field.

The Good News

The best part of all this is that, while we often think of IQ as an expression of innate capabilities we are born with, EI is undeniably an attribute which we develop as a lifelong journey.

[1] Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ (London: Bloomsbury, 1996).


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

Leave a Reply