Emotional Intelligence and How It Can Make You a Selfish Altruist

In Education & Quality Improvement, Mentorship by Nadim Lalani2 Comments

I am a fan of Twitter. I use it to keep my finger on the femoral pulse of Emergency medicine. Thanks to one of my Tweeps [twitter peeps] Dr Sam Ko [Twitter link] I came across this talk on Emotional Intelligence by author Chade-Meng Tan. You can see the talk yourself here. I have recently taken interest in mindfulness [check out additional resources at the end of this post]. I have also been trying to work on my emotional intelligence. So this talk struck me as a powerful blend of both. It seemed like a positive way to alter one’s approach in life – especially if you are in a position of leadership so I decided to share the basics of the philosophy below. [The pictures come from his presentation] I am sure Meng won’t mind as I just ordered the book. If you want to, you can order it also [from this link]. Okay – Let’s dive in!

Emotional Intelligence – What is it?

The following was taken from psychologist Kendra Cherry’s article1 [Follow her on Twitter here]

  • The concept evolved from the 1930’s when thinkers began to explore “the ability to get along with others”.
  • The term “Emotional Intelligence” was coined by Wayne Payne in his doctoral dissertation in 1985.
  • The term Emotional Quotient – EQ [as opposed to IQ] has been contentiously attributed a Mensa Magazine article that came about at the same time.
  • In 1990 Peter Salovey and John Mayer publish their landmark article, “Emotional Intelligence,” in the journal Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, in which they outline the following components:
      1. Perceiving Emotions
      2. Reasoning with emotions
      3. Understanding emotions
      4. Managing emotions


It’s interesting that Meng – an Engineer – was reflecting on how to solve the problem of world peace when he gained this insight! He contends that the two ingredients to creating world peace are solving global poverty and creating a collective culture mindfulness. He figured that Bill Gates is already working on the former so he decided to work on the latter 🙂 It was this quest that lead him to us today. He wrote a book and then spoke about it and his message is that:

Emotional Intelligence can be learned in as little as 7 weeks

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Chade-Meng describes this reciprocal relationship between our brain physiology and our behavior when speaking about emotions:

Emotions – just like pain – result from a nervous system response to a stimulus. Where pain comes from mechanical and chemical receptors that transmit signals to the brain  – which then forms the thought “OUCH!’ Perceived threats [real ones or ones that threaten us emotionally] set off a cascade of nerves and chemicals (particularly in the amygdala of the brain) and these create  feelings “FEAR” or “ANGER” or “SELF DEFENSE”.

Furthermore, Tan tells us that we often cannot ‘diagnose’ our feelings and tend to get overwhelmed by them. When we are flooded with emotions, the amygdala takes over and shuts down the rest of the cerebral cortex. This means that you literally cannot think and feel at the same time. Those of us that teach simulation know just how paralysing fear can be – most of us have learned to overcome fear of the sick patient through training, but we aren’t always so cool and collected when it comes to emotional interactions with others:

Imagine a recent awful interaction with a patient, colleague or consultant colleague. Wouldn’t it have been nice if you could have not let them get to you? Wouldn’t it have been better to have been able to keep a cool head and think your way (levelly) through the problem?

Meng provides us with a way to learn how to manage our emotions. He illustrates through the use of relevant research that what we pay attention to can lead to changes in our brain function. We can also learn to harness our EQ for personal growth and advancement and at the same time learn to control our emotions and keep a cool head. There’s probably more to it, but here’s a brief summary:

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Step 1: Attention training

Creating a state of mind where you’re cool and and calm IS ACHIEVABLE: You have to learn how to pay attention in a particular way without distraction  e.g: Try focusing only on your breathing for 5 seconds without distraction. Breathe in … breath out … there! Mindfulness!

Creating a state of mindfulness on demand [and especially when the sh*t is hitting the fan] – simply takes practice.

It just takes practice?! I bet you’re thinking about Malcom Gladwell and saying “I don’t have no 10,000 hours!” Yes in truth when you look at functional MRI in monks – they can objectively down-regulate neuron activity in the amygdala with thousands of hours meditation:

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 “But even if you’re not a monk, it only takes 100 minutes of mindfulness training to see a measurable effect” Chade-Meng Tan

So take that 5 second breath and see if you can stretch it out to 20 breaths or more over the next few weeks.

Step 2: Self knowledge and self mastery

Anyone ever tried to learn how to flex their pec muscles [or raise only one eyebrow]? What about when you learned to whistle? I think of mindfulness like learning to twitch an isolated muscle – probably will only take a couple of weeks of practice before you start to get the hang of it. Once you do, practicing it will pay off in the following ways:

  •  Mindfulness makes the mind sharp. Through conscious attention, we can become in-tune with our body – including our emotions. With practice  we can perceive the smallest of changes.
  • The increased resolution allows you to even perceive emotions as they arise. This give you the power to control them rather than the other way around. So that feeling of “I wish I wouldn’t let so-and-so get to me” becomes a willful choice to not let it happen [because you perceived your emotional response to the situation early and chose not to react … makes sense?]
  • You begin to see yourself more objectively, empathetically and reflexively. You thus gain insights into your deepest values, strengths and assets. This means that you are in a better position to seek opportunities that may change your life.

Aligning yourself with or seeking out opportunities that reflect your inner values and assets is how you achieve meaningful change in your life.

One big thing I learned from the talk was that:

We need to understand that our emotions are NOT us, yet we are taught to express our feelings as though they are. Example “I am sad” “I am angry”

  • The above statements are existential ones. The emotion becomes you – even though there is no real basis for this. [remember your emotions are simply a neurochemical response to a stimulus right?]
  • Instead – focus on a more experiential statement. “I am experiencing sadness” – so [just as if you were experiencing pain] you can chose to do something about it like take an analgesic – or ignore it.

Step 3: Creating useful mental habits

Meng finished his talk by illustrating that practicing kindness and empathy leads to personal success – especially if you are a leader.

Practicing Kindness:

The simple act of thinking that you actually want your audience/staff to be happy is not only good for you [because you’re rehearsing good emotions], but it also changes your non-verbal communication. People perceive this and respond to it positively leading to your success. You know – maybe it’s NOT such a bad thing to want to win a “popularity contest” :

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Practicing empathy

Similarly, the act of thinking of other people as “someone just like me” has both selfish and altruistic benefits. On the personal level,by seeing yourself as just like others –  you can develop a more grounded approach to life. The benefits are that you are better able to manage your expectations. [Ever heard that the key to happiness is to manage your expectations?]

Furthermore good interpersonal relationships develop into more meaningful ones and rocky relationships may actually find some middle ground – making your life in general less stressful. The altruistic effect is that you’re creating goodwill among others – perhaps making their lives less stressful. There is not only a ripple effect [altruistic] , but also a positive feedback mechanism as goodwill begets good feelings [selfish] – So get out there and be kind and empathetic because ultimately you benefit

Hopefully I have shared something useful to you and maybe even inspired a couple of you to think differently. I am sure that there’s way more to it than I have summarized and am intrigued to get the book and read it [Meng – if you read this – be kind :)]

My homework

  1. Practice mindfulness

  2. Practice random intention of wanting others to be happy

  3. Reap the rewards 🙂

Additional resources:

Robert Cooney did a 2-part blog on Mindfulness here are the links: Part 1 and Part 2

Emergency Medicine Tutorials recently also posted on this [link]

Note: This post was originally posted on the ERMentor blog. This post was copyedited by Stephanie Zhou (@stephanieyzhou) and Sean Nugent (@sfnugent)


Nadim is an emergency physician at the South Health Campus in Calgary, Alberta. He is passionate about online learning and recently made a transition into human performance coaching. He is currently working on introducing the coaching model into medical education.