Developing EI requires an entirely new learning strategy

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“Training for the technical part of jobs is easy—but it’s much harder to train people to be flexible, to have integrity, be conscientious, or be skilled interpersonally.”

Technical training is easy compared to developing emotional intelligence.

Our entire system of education is geared to cognitive skills. But when it comes to learning emotional competencies, our system is sorely lacking. Capacities like empathy or flexibility differ crucially from cognitive abilities; they draw on different areas of the brain.

Purely cognitive abilities are based in the neocortex, the “thinking brain.” But with personal and social competencies, additional brain areas come into play, mainly the circuitry that runs from the emotional centres— particularly the amygdala—deep in the centre of the brain up to the prefrontal lobes, the brain’s executive centre. Learning emotional competence retunes this circuitry.

Because intellectual learning differs from behaviour change in fundamental ways, the models of education for each are significantly different. For intellectual skills, the classroom is an appropriate setting, and simply reading about or hearing a concept once can be enough to master it. Strategic thinking and computer programming can be taught effectively in this mode, removed from the give-and-take of life on the job.

Behaviour change is not learned in the classroom

For behaviour change, on the other hand, life itself is the true arena for learning, and this takes practice over an extended period of time. Learning in school is, in essence, adding information and understanding to the memory banks of the neocortex. The neocortex learns by fitting new data and insights into existing frameworks of association and understanding, extending and enriching the corresponding neural circuitry. But learning an emotional competence involves that and more—it requires that we also engage our emotional circuitry, where our social and emotional habits are stored.

Changing such habits—learning to approach people positively instead of avoiding them, to listen better, or to give feedback skilfully—is a more challenging task than simply adding new facts to old. Emotional learning demands a more profound change at the neurological level: both weakening the existing habit and replacing it with a better one.

A new learning strategy is required

Understanding this difference in underlying brain function is crucial to designing ways to teach emotional competencies. One common mistake made by organizations is trying to instil an emotional competence like a service orientation or leadership, using the same techniques that effectively teach how to create a business plan. This is not enough: Changing a habit based on emotional intelligence demands an entirely new kind of learning strategy. Some schools, corporations, and even governments are finally beginning to understand this.

Extract from Working with Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman

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