George A. Harris, Ph.D. is a well-known psychologist and author. I interviewed him this week on the subject of emotional intelligence.

Transcript

Don Crawley (00:00):
Welcome to the Compassionate Geek podcast and videocast for IT professionals who are interested in improving their customer service and communication skills. My name is Don Crawley and today I’m honored to have a chance to visit with Dr. George Harris. We’re going to talk about emotional intelligence. George Harris is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Kansas City, Missouri. In addition to counseling with individuals and families, Dr. Harris provides psychological evaluations for high-risk occupations such as police and fire departments. Dr. Harris has written books and articles for lay and professional audiences, including Broken Ears, Wounded Hearts, which was selected as the book of the year by the president’s committee on employment of the handicapped in 1984. Dr. Harris, it is so good to have a chance to visit with you and to have an opportunity to hear your thoughts on emotional intelligence. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Harris (00:48):
Hi Don. Good to see you.

Don Crawley (00:50):
It’s good to see you too. So we’re talking emotional intelligence and this is a popular buzzword. It has been for what the last 20, 30 years in business circles. People love to talk about emotional intelligence and throw the term around, but what exactly is emotional intelligence?

Dr. Harris (01:06):
I thought I might start with a story that gives an example of emotional intelligence or maybe the lack of emotional intelligence. I think about this sometimes when I think about why I got to be a psychologist. I was probably 10 or 11 years old and my family went to visit my aunt sort of impromptu and it was on a Sunday afternoon and we showed up at my aunt’s house and we had a nice time. I liked my aunt and we were all very friendly. As we were leaving my aunt who was Aunt Tressie said, well thank you all for coming. And my mom said, well we didn’t have anything better to do. Even at the age of 10, I knew that was really awkward. So I had the ability at age 10 to understand social communication and understand that there wasn’t something quite right about it.

Dr. Harris (02:09):
And I felt anxious about it. I don’t even remember exactly what happened after that. We laughed and there were no long-term damages to the relationship with my aunt. But emotional intelligence is the ability to understand emotional exchanges between people. It’s also the ability to do something about them and to regulate one’s own emotions. So if I had been a highly emotionally intelligent 10-year old, I might’ve been able to come up with a comment that would have diffused the tension there that was initiated by my mom’s kind of awkward comment. Or I might just have laughed internally about it and said to myself, “Ooh, this is awkward.” Let’s see how my mom gets out of this. But, but at age 10, I didn’t have the ability to do that. I just felt sort of frozen like a deer in the headlights.

Dr. Harris (03:16):
So emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive other people’s emotions and to act on those in a way that’s beneficial, and to regulate one’s own emotions in that context or in a context of a difficulty. The term emotional intelligence is a relatively recent origin, but the concept really isn’t. The concept of social intelligence has been around for many decades. Even the people who originally developed intelligence testing understood that there was a social component to intelligence, even though it might not be accurately tested in intelligence tests. And I think intuitively almost all of us know that there are people who may not be very academically gifted, but somehow managed to maneuver in the world and be very, very successful. Whether that’s in politics and business or in many areas of life. We know people who just seem to be able to get along with other people and get things done, even though they don’t really have strong academic intelligence or at least academic credentials.

Don Crawley (04:34):
We’ve all probably experienced watching somebody who we felt was less qualified than we are, be promoted ahead of us because of their ability to get along with people.

Dr. Harris (04:45):
Yes. And if we were really socially intelligent, we’d recognize that they probably have some abilities that we don’t, and it might be a little grandiose to think that we’re more qualified than they are.

Don Crawley (04:55):
it’s an interesting comment and it’s something that I certainly have fallen, I don’t want to say fallen victim to, but I’ve certainly felt that way from time to time. And I think you raise a good point that sometimes we are our own worst judge. George, what is the difference between emotional intelligence and traditional IQ?

Dr. Harris (05:15):
Good question. And it’s hard to quantify. First of all, the very concept of intelligence is itself hard to quantify. Psychologists have had various theories about what constitutes intelligence. IQ tests, strictly speaking, were developed to predict academic success. They weren’t designed to predict success in the real world. So an intelligence test, strictly speaking, is a test that is designed to predict whether someone will succeed in an academic setting. Of course, there are many components of that: the ability to pay attention is a portion of it, the ability to concentrate, the ability to reason both with words and with numbers, but also spatial reasoning is a portion of most intelligence tests. So you can see that there may be people who are very capable. They can memorize, they can work with numbers. They might have good verbal reasoning, but they’re awkward in a social sense. They may be very, very shy, or at the extreme end of that, you might see people with what we would refer to as Asperger’s disorder or autism, who may perform very well on intelligence tests but are really disconnected socially. They don’t have the ability to read other people’s emotions or to interact with those people successfully.

Don Crawley (06:59):
Can those social skills be learned? Can they be taught? I mean, they seem like, to a great extent, they’re just behaviors. So can they be learned and can they be taught?

Dr. Harris (07:09):
Another really good question. There’s a lot of debate about some of the theories about emotional intelligence. Some say that we’re born with it and others say that that we develop it or that we can learn it. I don’t think there’s any question that we learn some of our social skills

Don Crawley (07:29):
Just by watching other people, our parents and teachers and, and, and trusted advisors, I would think would be one of the ways that we would learn that.

Dr. Harris (07:37):
Yeah, absolutely. And I guess what I really mean is we, we may have the innate ability to learn those things. But, experience helps us learn. For example, going back to the example of my mom and her awkward comment to my aunt, um, as I got to be an adult and as I was in graduate school, I went back and, and processed some of those events that had happened in my life. And in order to try to understand at a deeper level what had happened at an emotional level. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that we learn from our social experiences, but the question is, do some people lack the innate capacity to learn from social experiences? And I would say that’s probably true. For example, in the extreme case of someone with autism, it’s extremely difficult for a person with autism to really learn how to interact socially.

Dr. Harris (08:47):
You’ll see people, for example, who are autistic or have at least a mild form of autism. And you can through counseling and therapy help them kind of learn the behaviors, but often it seems kind of a stylized or artificial. For example, skills training programs may take an autistic person and help them learn that in a social situation they need to go up and shake hands. But when they do that, it just seems kind of stiff. It just never really seems very natural. So yes, you can teach some of those behaviors. Um, and maybe we can teach some of the innate social understanding that helps people relax and feel comfortable, but I think it’s clearly more difficult for some people than it is for others.

Don Crawley (09:40):
Certainly. And I suppose it depends on where you are on that scale from, from being gregarious to at one end of the scale to being, as you said, the extreme of autism at the opposite end of the scale.

Dr. Harris (09:53):
Yeah. And I don’t mean to imply that somebody who is somewhat introverted doesn’t have social intelligence. I think there are people who are introverted who have really good emotional intelligence, um and, and they can interact socially, but they may be just people who don’t like big crowds or like they prefer one-on-one exchange with people. And it can be very comfortable in that. So I don’t mean to equate lack of social intelligence on the one hand and on the polar opposite of that, gregariousness. Introverted people are not gregarious, but they can be highly socially intelligent,

Don Crawley (10:35):
That’s reassuring as a person who describes himself as a recovering introvert. That’s good to hear. Thank you for that. So in terms of, in the context of, of information systems and technology, we’re, we’re dealing with a lot of people who are either self-described as geeks or nerds or, or have been described by others as geeks or nerds and, and I would put myself in that category. What are some of the specific benefits for us in using emotional intelligence in the workplace, in interacting with end-users and colleagues?

Dr. Harris (11:12):
Well, I think there are a number of different ways that social intelligence or emotional intelligence can be useful and handy. And, I may want to take a step back here because I certainly don’t want to imply that geeks and nerds don’t have social intelligence. But, I think we’ve all had the experience of going into a computer store (at least those of us that are geeks like myself), we’ve had that experience of going into a computer store and there are a variety of people who are helping customers. And some of them are really adept and social and friendly and can perceive your needs. They’re patient with those of us that aren’t as technologically proficient as they are and they can really help the customer. They can explain the different products and they can understand the problem that you’re trying to solve and help you as a customer.

Dr. Harris (12:16):
And then we’ve also experienced those customer service people who really seem disconnected, kind of out in the ether. They just don’t really seem to understand and they end up not being very helpful. And as the customer walks away he’s sort of muttering under his breath, “You can’t find good help anymore.” So, I don’t assume that people that are technologically proficient are automatically excluded from having social intelligence. I don’t think that’s true at all of our reputation. Sometimes it’s the stereotype that people remember. So you know, in answering your question about what can be useful, obviously the customer service can be very valuable for a store hiring somebody who can really help the customer at both a social level and a technical level can be very valuable for a business.

Dr. Harris (13:23):
Getting away from the computer technology for a minute, I’m reminded of a job that I had once where I was asked to help a company figure out how to select salespeople who were selling agricultural products to farmers such as the herbicides and pesticides that that were used on the farm. So the company recognized that they had to have people who had a chemical engineering background and they needed that because they needed to be able to explain the product and how it worked to the farmer. But they also wanted people who could interact with the farmer in a socially appropriate way. So they looked for people who had that chemical engineering background, but who also had the social intelligence to go out to the farm, meet with the farmer, shake his hand, and do a little bit of talk, but recognize that most of the farmers really didn’t want a lot of chitchat. They wanted a little bit of connecting and then they wanted to get down to business. So even in that setting with that kind of technology, the company really needed people with that social ability and they also needed that technical ability. And the end result was that they had more successful sales.

Don Crawley (15:08):
Interesting. And it was driven first and foremost by the chemical engineering background. They had to understand the product and the application, but then they also had to have the social interaction with a customer in order to have the customer perhaps feel more comfortable with them as, as the agent for the company.

Dr. Harris (15:25):
Sure. Absolutely. And, and again, I assume that we’ve probably all had the experience of online help with computer problems or a DVD player or a streaming device or whatever. And we get on the telephone with somebody who just really doesn’t seem to connect with us, doesn’t seem even motivated to help us solve the problem. And that’s bad news for a company. It doesn’t help their reputation. It doesn’t help them sell more products.

Don Crawley (16:01):
Even with an internal help desk, the same concepts apply because if we have a bad experience with internal help or internal IT, then we’re more reluctant to go back to them in the future to resolve problems or to take issues to them. So certainly those are huge benefits of having some emotional or, as you describe it, social intelligence.

Dr. Harris (16:21):
One other example, Don even within a company, let’s say that you have a huge company. Here in the Kansas City area, we have Sprint. This is a huge technical company. And so, of course, they have salespeople at their various stores selling their product, but within the corporate headquarters, they have to have IT people who are helping the many other people who work in the company. So we have technical people who also need social skills in order to interact with the non-technical people who market the company, who move the company forward. So those social skills are important at a variety of levels.

Don Crawley (17:08):
George, can emotional intelligence be measured?

Dr. Harris (17:13):
Yes, I give that some qualifications. There are several tests that report to measure emotional intelligence. There are many critics of those tests. I’ve used some of them and I suppose I would qualify as one of the critics. I think that it’s a very difficult concept to measure. The tests I think kind of get at the idea, but I find them a little lacking in accurately measuring what it is that we’re trying to measure. The construct of emotional intelligence I think is still evolving. I think people have slightly different ideas about what it actually is, what the construct is. And so each test of emotional intelligence may be measuring something slightly different. They’re fun, they’re interesting, but I probably wouldn’t stake somebody’s career on one of those tests yet,

Don Crawley (18:23):
I assume there’s an abundance of them online if one wants to pursue that.

Dr. Harris (18:28):
Sure.

Don Crawley (18:31):
How can I improve my own emotional intelligence? Can it be improved? I mean, it sounds like it can. So how can I do that?

Dr. Harris (18:39):
Well, of course, as a therapist, I would automatically say get into therapy. It’s good for business, Don!

Don Crawley (18:48):
Are there alternatives?

Dr. Harris (18:50):
Oh, sure. I think that we learn social intelligence in a variety of ways, mostly by participating in social groups. But participating in social groups probably won’t won’t help you all that much unless you’re willing to accept feedback. And it’s the feedback that helps us gauge our own performance, helps us understand how we have been perceived in the group. And how we are or are not perceiving other people in the group. So interaction in groups is really what helps our social intelligence. But the interaction needs to include a feedback quality. In business settings, at least a few years ago, we used to refer to the 3-60 feedback. And so the idea would be for people at all levels to get feedback not only from their supervisors but from their peers and their subordinates.

Dr. Harris (19:59):
And sometimes when we get that feedback from people who aren’t ordinarily going to give us feedback or give us comments about how they perceive us, when we do get that feedback it can be really instructive if we’re not too defensive about it. Particularly supervisors who get feedback from people that they supervise can really learn a lot by listening to that feedback. Now, most of us have had the experience of getting feedback from our superiors, the people that we report to in an organization. And sometimes we like that feedback and sometimes we don’t. So most of us have had that experience, but we often don’t get feedback from our peers or from the people that report to us.

Don Crawley (20:53):
So if, if the way to improve your emotional intelligence or social intelligence is to get out and interact in groups, that seems like that’s a pretty tall order for somebody who is may be very introverted. Are there things that an individual can do in preparation for that, to maybe study and to think about their behaviors before they immerse themselves in, in a group exercise? If not a group exercise but in a group interaction,

Dr. Harris (21:24):
I don’t think that the introvert necessarily is all, all that limited. There’s just so many different places where people can go and be involved at a level that’s comparable to them. Whether it be a church group or a book club, or sporting events, or joining teams. All of those experiences are good and helpful. And in the business setting, a business that kind of as a part of its ongoing training sets up feedback mechanisms for employees can be really helpful in terms of other things that we can do to help prepare ourselves. And it may be a more academic way. There’s, there’s some just tried and true things that people have done for decades. Reading the Dale Carnegie books or being involved in Toastmasters. All of those things are helpful and giving people feedback about themselves and how they are perceived. In the process, it allows individuals to learn about other people and how they are reacting internally as long as that person is willing to disclose. And to talk about their own inner processes. It helps us learn.

Don Crawley (22:56):
You know, you mentioned Toastmasters and we’ll put a link on, on the screen where you can learn more about Toastmasters. But that’s a great example. And, and really what I took from your, your answer to the question is just the importance of taking a step to get out and interact in some way, whether it’s to maybe join a users group in Seattle. We have the Seattle Area Sys Admins Guild which is a group of like-minded individuals for technical people. Or, there’s the Seattle Cisco users group and, and I’m sure in Kansas city, it’s the same thing in any city. You’ll be able to find users groups where you can go and practice interacting with people. Good. That’s a great suggestion. Thank you for that.

Dr. Harris (23:35):
Another example of a place to get involved and one that I find really instructive and growth-inducing. I participated in our local homes association property owners board. And in that process you’re constantly dealing with problems of the other homeowners in your area. What kind of complaints they have? People come to the to the homeowners board with their issues. It can often be a tense, it can be highly emotional sometimes, and argumentative and it’s important to learn how to interact with people in those settings in a way that doesn’t damage relationships. I found it very instructive because I learned things in my service on the homes association board that I never learned as a psychologist.

Dr. Harris (24:44):
There are just so many different places where you can interact. Can I give you a story about the homes association board and interaction? In our homes development we wanted to put up mailboxes that were encased in stone just to make them a little more attractive. We needed to go around to our homeowners, our neighbors, and see if they would be willing to contribute their portion of the cost to build the stone casements. So, um, I decided that I would do that for our block. And so I went to all the neighbors and some were very excited about it. They thought it was a great deal and would enhance the neighborhood. And one of my neighbors said to me, well, I’ll only contribute if you can do something about the people driving up down the street playing the radio’s too loud.

Dr. Harris (25:50):
And it was a reaction that I completely didn’t expect. I had to think about why it was that this very sophisticated person would make such a demand. It just seemed completely unreasonable to me, and frankly still is unreasonable except that this person is now deceased. So I’m not saying anything that would hurt her feelings because she’s gone. And she was a very, very nice lady. But as I thought about it, I came to understand that the reason that she had moved to our development was for safety. She had moved from an area of town that she perceived not to be safe. So I came to the conclusion that the reason that she wanted to stop the boom boxes was not really about the noise, but rather because it made her anxious because it made her afraid.

Dr. Harris (27:05):
And so she was reasoning about these mailboxes from a, an emotional level, not from any really rational level. She was making a connection in some way to help further her interest, which was to help her feel more safe and more comfortable in our neighborhood. And so I engaged with her in a conversation over the next couple of weeks about the safety of the neighborhood and whether the loud radios were frightening or whether they were a sign of people who were causing harm. And what I told her was that if somebody is driving through the neighborhood with a really loud radio, it’s probably not because they want to stop and rob houses. That would just draw attention to themselves. And she understood that and she eventually contributed to the mailbox fund. I would never have had that experience with this neighbor had I not participated in our homes association.

Don Crawley (28:07):
It’s interesting. There’s another story to that besides just the act of participating in the homes association, but also the importance of understanding the backstory and trying to get to the real reasons why people are acting the way they are. And as you pointed out, this was an emotional response to a non-emotional issue. But by taking the time, and I assume you engaged her in conversation to find out what the backstory was, and that helped you then understand what the real issue was in her mind, which then led to a resolution of the problem.

Dr. Harris (28:39):
Yes. I actually knew some of the backstory before asking her for the money for the mailboxes. But, it took me a little while to connect the dots and had I not already kind of known the backstory, it might’ve been more difficult to get to. There are just any number of examples of that kind of thing occurring. And in that kind of context, such as dealing with neighbors, it’s just a good opportunity for interaction with people. If you’re willing to think about people and ask yourself why do they do this? What’s the underlying need? I think over time you get a little bit better with it, which is certainly not to say that I catch everything that comes my way.

Dr. Harris (29:37):
We’re all gonna miss little clues that people give out, but the more you can catch, I think the better off you are.

Don Crawley (29:46):
One final question, George, is there a downside to emotional intelligence.

Dr. Harris (29:53):
Wow, that’s a very good question. Sometimes, Don, I think it is maybe a bit of a burden when we’re trying to figure out what’s going on with people. It may be easier sometimes just to say, I don’t care. Whatever your problem is, I don’t care. It does stop and make us think, but, but I think overall we’re better off if we’re able to kind of figure out what’s going on with people. Can I give one example of that? Not to tap my own tremendous emotional intelligence, because I’ve certainly said stupid and awkward things like my mother said. I sometimes joke that the reason I got into being a psychologist was so that I could overcome my social awkwardness that I inherited from my mom.

Dr. Harris (30:51):
You remember when the Iraq war was building up and we had all these questions of weapons of mass destruction. Everybody said, well, you know, the Iraqis have weapons of mass destruction and, I say everybody said that. And that’s not true. Not everybody did say that. Many people said, no, those have been destroyed. They’re gone, or they’re so old that they’re useless. But the thought that occurred to me at the time was that if I were Saddam Hussein, I would sure as heck pretend when I’m surrounded by enemies that I had tremendous weaponry at my disposal. I would want to put on a big, tough face in order to try to prevent people from invading my country. As it turned out, the bluff may have backfired on or arguably did backfire on Saddam Hussein because I firmly believe that President Bush did believe that there were weapons of mass destruction there.

Dr. Harris (32:01):
He may have emphasized some things and in an unfair way to the public, but I believe that he believed that the weapons were there. He was wrong and in that regard, maybe Saddam’s bluff cost him his life. But I think that if we had been more alert to the possibility that Saddam was bluffing in order to protect himself, maybe we wouldn’t have done that war. Now, maybe the war wasn’t really done for the reasons that were public touted anyway, and that’s a whole other story. But, but there are many reasons why people do things. They put on fronts. They put on their public face in order to mask what it is that’s really going on underneath. But often we get clues and if we can understand what’s really happening we can negotiate deals better. We can negotiate our relationships better and just be overall more effective. Understand the real issues.

Don Crawley (33:06):
Wonderful. George, thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity to hear your insights on emotional intelligence. I’ve been talking with George Harris, a licensed psychologist from Kansas City, Missouri about emotional intelligence. I’m Don Crawley. I’ll see you next time.

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