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Emotional Intelligence Can be Learned (Part 4)

Updated on June 30, 2011

Unlike IQ, emotional intelligence can be learned. However, emotional intelligence training is very demanding on trainers. Competent EI trainers must skillfully facilitate to draw out discussion about experience and feelings, to deal with situations where strong emotions surfaces with sensitivity. EI training is not meant to open people up nor to counsel individuals but to develop their sensitivity, and bring them new understanding of the emotional dimension. Good counseling skills greatly facilitates effective EI training since emotional intelligence draws on a range of materials and concepts which good people development trainers have experience, such as conflict management, active listening skills, assertiveness, and stress management. However EI enables these skills, insights and beliefs to be leveraged more effectively to achieve personal and business success. To develop EI skills and awareness the following three factors are important for the effectiveness of EI training programs (Bagshaw, 2000):

Readiness of the participants

To discuss emotional intelligence issues in an emotionally intelligent way is only possible when the participants are able to suspend their own concerns and discuss the concepts as concepts, not as personal problems. They may reveal themselves by providing example, but "opening people up" is completely inappropriate and emotionally unintelligent. It would not be emotionally intelligent either, to turn the group into a lot of cold fish. Since EI training is much more likely to rouse emotions, the trainer should make a point of being aware of any particular vulnerability in the group (such as a recent bereavement, redundancy, demotion etc.). Preliminary one-to-one sessions of a more counseling nature may be helpful. In any case, it is advisable to establish a confidentiality contract between all members of the group.

EI requirement for excellence in the job

There are many formal and informal ways of deciding EI requirements for a job, from detailed competency frameworks, to simple observations. When problems, setbacks and conflict at the workplace are dealt with in a productive way, delays can be avoided and growing of obstacles can be prevented. It is thus an asset with a strong commercial benefit. So, find out beforehand what EI elements will make the difference in your workplace and focus on them using real world examples where possible.

"Unlike IQ, EQ can be raised"


Continuous reinforcement

The importance of emotional intelligence should be continuously emphasized and reinforced tacitly in all development programs. It is not a separate quality from factors such as energy, willingness to work hard, expanding knowledge bases, and so on but EI is embedded in all areas of life and work. Initial training starts people on the road to greater emotional intelligence which immediately add to the value of the organization's emotional capital. Profound change can be achieved through EI becoming part of an ongoing cultural transformation program, backed up by coaching, on-the-job learning, participative processes and reinforcing of strong people oriented values and vision.

The brain and the learning

Over recent years brain research has dramatically increased our understanding of how the brain processes information and learns, and this provides trainers with effective and efficient ways of managing the learning environment. This research confirms the good training strategies and common sense methods that have been developed over time through careful observation to achieve success in learning and life.

An ideal learning environment has the qualities of:

  • being emotionally safe;
  • being free from intimidation and rejection;
  • being high in acceptable challenge;
  • having active participation; and
  • being a place where learners can experience a relaxed alertness.

The brain is unable to pay attention to all of the information received from the sensory senses, and selects only the information that has high contrast, and is meaningful and emotionally important to the learner. If the information is perceived to be threatening, either physically or psychologically, the cerebral logical thinking process closes down as the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands team up to release adrenaline in a "fight or flight" response.

When the brain receives sensory information from auditory and visual sources it is first received by the thalamus which acts as a relay station. The thalamus relays the information to the amygdala and hippocampus, sometimes known as the emotional brain or the "feeling brain" and to the "thinking" neocortex. The incoming information is checked by the amygdala for emotional content and if it perceives it to be a threat to self-preservation, stress hormones are released and the muscles receive an extra supply of blood. They in turn release nutrients for a rapid conversion to glucose for added energy for the "fight or flight" response (LeDoux, 1996). The greater the stress the greater will be the depletion of available nutrients for learning. This limits the connections between neurons resulting in slow thinking and depressed learning (Joseph, 1996). Even short spans of stress will destroy a learner's ability to distinguish between important and unimportant information (Gazzaniga, 1989).

Appropriate emotional climate and settings are critical and an essential prerequisite for learning. When appropriate levels of emotion are engaged the learning experience is more meaningful, enjoyable, and lasting. Information considered useful by the learner is stored in the short-term working memory which resides in the prefrontal lobes just behind the forehead. When a person becomes angry or anxious the strong neural connections to the emotional centers of the brain override any logical thinking, and the person may withdraw from learning, or take on a defensive mood. Unexpressed emotions will affect learning. There has to be an outlet for emotions where there is time to consider personal feelings and express them to others, so that new learning can continue uninterrupted and without undue stress.

Paying attention is an essential prerequisite for learning and motivation. Attention begins by the brain sorting out a multitude of sensory information and holding it in the working memory for a short time while it determines if its importance. Unimportant information is forgotten. Important information is passed on to the hippocampus where it is consolidated and a memory trace is formed as it is moved to long term memory in the cerebral cortex.

A learner may stop paying attention of the learning if the periods of low attention are not allowed for during training. Low periods of attention are when the new neural connections that are formed during the learning period are being strengthened. No more new information should be taught in this time so as to allow the learner time to process the existing information, through having short breaks where small group discussions, rehearsal and elaboration take place between peers. Adults will generally pay attention for about 20 minutes before tuning out. If the training session is 40 minutes in duration the first 20 minutes should be used to introduce new concepts and ideas, followed by a ten minute "downtime" or practice period, where the learners process the new information and are able to make meaning of the new information as it enters the working memory. The final ten minutes of the 40 minute training period is used to further elaborate, reinforce, and summarize.


Controlling emotions and understanding personal feelings is a critical skill for learning and the building of harmonious relationships. Goleman's research (Goleman, 1995), shows that emotional well-being is the strongest predictor of academic achievement, and success in life. Learning personal and social skills is different from learning pure cognitive skills which engages the cerebral cortex. Social skills involve emotional learning and engaging the emotional centres of the brain, namely the amygdala and prefrontal lobes. Cognitive skills can be taught by lectures, but emotional skills need personal involvement where the learner experiences the emotional context. Well-orchestrated role plays, simulations, using metaphors, games, group projects and metacognitive exercises are more appropriate than lectures when dealing with emotional learning, in order to build self-control and encourage non-judgmental behaviour.

Studies show the brain of confident and successful learners and leaders with high self-esteem and a positive sense of self produces serotonin, a "feel good" neurotransmitter. The building of self-esteem requires the learner to experience physical and emotional security, a feeling of competence, a sense of direction, and a sense of belonging. Conversely, a person having low self-esteem has low levels of serotonin and often experiences difficulty in learning, sadness and depression.


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