Six Seconds to Emotional Intelligence

Being an emotionally intelligent person requires us to remain poised when our stature, ego or psychological well-being is being threatened.  Emotionally intelligent people are able to prevent the emotional hijacking of their brain; more specifically the part of the brain called the amygdala.   When things heat up and stakes are high emotionally intelligent people prevent their emotional brain from taking control.  Instead they take the necessary actions that allow their rational brain to control the situation.

The Emotional Brain:  The amygdalae are considered your “emotional processors”. The amygdalae are almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep and medially within the temporal lobes of the brain.  The amygdala performs a primary role in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. Research indicates that sensory stimuli reach the amygdalae where they form associations with memories.  These memories of our emotional experiences are imprinted in the amygdala.  This factor implicates the amygdala in the beginning of fear responses such as freezing, fight or escape responses.

Sensory information is directed in part to our amygdala and in part to our neo-cortex; the “thinking brain” or rational brain. If the amygdala perceives the experience as a fight, flight or freeze situation, then the amygdala hijacks the rational brain. This emotional brain activity processes information six seconds earlier than the rational brain, so if we perceive a threat, the amygdala acts before any possible direction from the neo-cortex can be received.  When the amygdala perceives a threat, it can lead that person to react irrationally and destructively.  If we respond to a threatening situation in a fight or flight manner, when in reality a poised and cognitively sharp response is required, the term amygdala or emotional hijacking can be used to label what is happening.

Amygdala hijacking is a term coined by Daniel Goleman to describe emotional responses from people which are immediate and overwhelming and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat. An amygdala hijack exhibits three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realization if the reaction was inappropriate.

There is an evolutionary purpose to why we are built this way. Our ancient ancestors relied on the amygdala for survival.  The amygdala signaled and prepared their bodies for what was to come – fight or flight.  The amygdala is responsible for signaling the release of adrenaline and direct blood to our arms and legs.  This is wonderful if we are going to fight or flee, but if we need to think, we are at an extreme disadvantage.

We want to avoid our amygdala from being hijacked in business situations, unless we are truly in physical danger.  In most cases, threats to our ego, psychological well-being or stature are the causes of our amygdala being hijacked.  It is at these times that we need to have our wits about us.  We need to be poised and calm.  But if our amygdala is hijacked, blood will be rushing to our legs and arms, not our brain where we need it.  Our cognitive ability is impaired to prehistoric levels.

What can you do to improve your emotional intelligence in these circumstances?  First, when you are hit with sensory stimulus that poses a threat to your ego, psychological well-being or stature, wait six seconds before responding.  Waiting six seconds will give your rational brain a chance to process the sensory information.  During those six seconds direct your thought process to think of what you want from this situation and for yourself.  These steps will help you gain your composure, to focus on what is most important in the here and now, and prepare you to have that crucial conversation.

Dr. Don Nowill, is an Adjunct Professor of Business and Leadership at Albertus Magnus College. When not teaching classes, Dr. Don uses his expertise and passion to help executives, family businesses and partners of closely held companies improve the performance and the sustainability of their companies by helping them develop productive and satisfying relationships.  Don is certified in emotional intelligence assessment and coaching, as well as several other leadership assessment instruments.

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