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“Stop picking fights and get some emotional intelligence!”

Monday, April 2, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Now that’s a great line. The kind I wish I had the presence of mind to say when someone furious is trying to bully me into acquiescence. Of course, the kind of person who would be the best recipient of the line is also unlikely to make good use of it. Sigh. Fortunately, I have not been prey to that sort of behavior in years. So when this research came across my desk I was intrigued.

We hear so much about anger management (and I, for one, believe it’s almost always a good thing) but these researchers say that maybe we don’t need to be so focused on always maintaining our cool. There are times when getting angry is actually a smart, strategic move.

Emotional intelligence “refers to the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. Some researchers suggest that emotional intelligence can be learned and strengthened, while others claim it is an inborn characteristic.” We’ve known about emotional intelligence for decades now. It is widely seen as a good thing and as a visible indicator of good mental health. In general, people who are emotionally intelligent gauge their emotional expression to the message they want to communicate.

Researchers were curious about whether emotionally intelligent people sometimes chose to feel bad in order to be more effective. That is, whether the communication of aggressive distress can be useful. They knew it was a counter-intuitive hypothesis as it would seem that in order to control your emotions you would want to maintain a neutral or positive internal state. Their hypotheses were supported by the data:

“People who indicate they want to feel angry more than others are more, rather than less, emotionally intelligent when anger is likely to serve them well. In contrast, people who want to feel happy more than others are actually lower in emotional intelligence when happiness is unlikely to be useful. Such findings raise the possibility that wanting to feel good at all times may not necessarily be an intelligent choice.”

We’ve done a number of mock trials around family disputes over the past few years and this research is applies well to the intense emotions aroused in these disputes. Here in Texas (where, if you’re rich enough and angry enough you can have a jury decide the major issues in your divorce case), we seem to have a fair number of such situations–whether divorce or business valuations when family relationships break down irrevocably. It is always stressful for the family to endure the candid comments of the jurors (both mock and real), their snap judgments and their often unflattering assessments of character and motivations.

But even more telling is how presciently the mock jurors are able to ‘see’ subtle indications of leaking rage and hostility that only former loved ones can elicit. Family members on both sides of these disputes feel enraged, betrayed, deceived and cheated. And how can it be otherwise?

Our task in these volatile situations is to help our witnesses understand that their most effective emotional state when testifying requires some emotionally intelligent processing of their emotions. Unresolved anger is often seen as unreasonable, that the distressed person won’t be satisfied even by a just verdict. The risk is that even when the anger is justified, the jury adopts a feeling of alienation from the witness, or hopelessness to make a constructive difference. Rage (even when masked) is perceived via subtle signs such as uneven breathing, posture, a trembling voice, or a flash of eyes quickly veiled. It’s amazing how much jurors can ‘see’ when they are not caught up in the emotional drama of the upset. Families observing these research projects are often amazed at how quickly the jurors are able to identify the root of the problem/conflict–when it took the family a long, long time to understand the situation (and often even longer to choose to act).

Emotions cloud our thinking and they cloud our judgment. Yet, according to this research, there are times when emotions can facilitate accuracy in communicating our message. We think family disputes and court testimony from family members is not the place to get comfortable with your anger. Jurors want the dispute resolved by the family. They want to feel there is a possibility of future reconciliation.

Testimony showing healthy sadness or even anger over the damaged relationships is met with empathy from mock jurors. In our most recent project, one of the mock jurors referred to the visible sense of loss and love in a witness’ deposition as a reflection of “family values, still”. And that’s what you want. A conflict involving family that has escalated out of control and yet, reflects hope still.

Ford BQ, & Tamir M (2012). When getting angry is smart: Emotional preferences and emotional intelligence. Emotion (Washington, D.C.) PMID: 22309721

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