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How Emotional Intelligence Can Improve Virtual Communication

Health, Safety, and Well-being Supporting the Profession Small Colleges and Universities Division Technology Wellness and Health Promotion AVP or "Number Two" Faculty Mid-Level New Professional Senior Level VP for Student Affairs
June 5, 2020 Tiffany Sanchez Stevenson University

A couple of minutes before 10am on a Thursday, I click the “gallery view” button on the BlueJeans app as my staff members begin to log into our regularly scheduled staff meeting.  The Brady Bunch blocks appear and I realize that I can’t see all nineteen of them because our system only allows nine Brady Bunch blocks at a time.  There’s an awkward silence as we wait for others to arrive.  Should I be playing some music or something?  I’m watching folks on their phones or looking slightly to the left of their cameras at what is likely another document open on their screen.  It feels odd to ask a personal question of any of them in this environment.  On a BlueJeans call, the casual “how’s your dad doing?” that I might float to a nearby neighbor during an in-person meeting would be to share personal information in an inappropriately public way.  As the number “19” shows up in the “people” button on the top right of the screen, I’m aware that we’re all here and I begin the meeting.  I’ve been starting these virtual meetings with a question of the day: “What’s something that’s made you hopeful lately?”  “What good book did you read last?”  “What was your first job?”  This takes time, but this activity always produces smiles and those smiles give me hope that we can weather this odd storm together. 

The Student Affairs team at my small, private university near Baltimore, MD is about 20 people strong.  Most of these folks I would typically see at least a few times each week at events or meetings; maybe passing each other in a hallway, at the dining hall, or on the Quad.  These days, my interactions are limited to phone calls, texts, and these BlueJeans video meetings.  I miss them.  And I know they miss each other and our students and other colleagues.  The stress of a global pandemic and economic meltdown, now paired with nationwide protests against police brutality and racism, is taking its toll.  Uncertain and anxious, we’re all tired, too. 

Enter, gracefully, Emotional Intelligence (EI)

Something we could all use a little more of these days is Emotional Intelligence.  Courtney Ackerman, MSc. writing for PositivePsychology.com writes that “a simple definition of emotional intelligence (also called the Emotional Quotient, or EQ) describes an ability to monitor your own emotions as well as the emotions of others, to distinguish between and label different emotions correctly, and to use emotional information to guide your thinking and behavior and influence that of others (Goleman, 1995; Mayer & Salovey, 1990).”  Visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7m9eNoB3NU for a quick 5-minute overview by Daniel Goleman. 

Here are five suggestions for using Emotional Intelligence to improve your communication and interactions during this time.  They are based on the five components of emotional intelligence identified by Daniel Goleman. 

  1.      Be reflective:  Getting in touch with your own emotions certainly isn’t easy on a good week and it’s made harder by social distancing and the stress of coping with the current situation.  Taking the time each day to reflect on your own emotions and to honor and accept them is the first step.  Be gentle.  I love a post I’ve seen on social media lately, “you aren’t working from home, you’re at home, working during a pandemic.”  Once you can identify and accept your own emotional state, you can begin to reflect on how what you’re projecting might be influencing others.  Reflection is an important part of self-awareness, the first of the five components of Emotional Intelligence.
  2.      Think, then act:  Once you’ve reflected on your own emotional state, that’s the time to think about how to handle any given situation.  Are you tired? Emotional after a fight with your child about doing their virtual schoolwork?  Are you frustrated because the WiFi cut out during an important meeting?  Consider how your emotional state is manifesting in your body.  Are you tense?  Shoulders up?  Is your brow furrowed?  Are you scowling?  These seemingly small movements of your body come across differently in a Brady Bunch block.  Maybe you need to take a walk, or dance to an upbeat song before getting on that next call or having a difficult conversation with a teammate.  Thinking before acting is a hallmark of good self-regulation, the second of Goleman’s EI components. 
  3.      Remember your purpose: Because most of us are necessarily physically distanced from our students, remembering our purpose takes a whole different kind of energy.  Gone are the days of sharing a laugh with the Student Government Executive Board or having a Life Chat with the front desk worker who can’t decide which internship to accept.  Also, in these days of furloughs and layoffs, the connection between what we earn and the jobs we do are heightened.  You may have to get up every day and really make an effort to tap into what Goleman calls “internal motivation”, the third component of EI.  Internal motivation is doing the work because you find joy and purpose in it and it comes from being immersed in the work, often during “peak” or “flow” moments. It’s hard these days to feel immersed during a virtual team builder or a GroupMe chat with student leaders.  Reminding ourselves daily about the intrinsic value of the work we do, while difficult, is crucially important right now.  Do what you can to remain optimistic and hopeful in the face of uncertainty. 
  4.      Feel the feelings with others: When you can connect with someone and understand their situation and the emotional state that stems from it, you can begin to feel empathy for that person.  When you notice that someone sighs heavily during a phone conversation, misses a meeting, or looks distracted during a video call practice and you check in with that person, you are practicing empathy, the fourth component of EI.  Empathy is different from sympathy in that you simply feel badly for the person.  Empathy means that you actually feel what the person feels.  When my 9-year-old sighed heavily from the sofa the other day after her online class, I paused a call with a colleague to ask her what was wrong.  She started crying and said that she really missed her friends. In that moment, her sadness was my sadness.  So, we sat together and cried for a minute together and then she hopped up and said she felt better.  While it’s much easier to practice empathy in person, it is possible in this new virtual, physically distanced world in which we are living. 
  5.      Be a good colleague: Our team recently held our regularly scheduled summer “retreat” virtually.  I’ve had more Zoom happy hours and FaceTime calls with those in my network than ever before.  Rarely a week goes by when I don’t have an hour scheduled with a NASPA colleague or group.  Staying connected to my team and my networks has been an important part of my social connection.  These connections make me feel whole and they help me remember why we do the work we do.  They truly feed my soul.  Social skills, the fifth component of EI, is all about managing and fostering relationships, sustaining networks, and keeping teams connected and successful.  

The tight-knit communities that we develop in our small colleges and universities will continue to grow during this time.  How they grow will depend on how we show up and how we support each other.  We need to be patient with one another, we need to find ways to connect emotionally, and we need to be gentle with ourselves as well. 

One thing of which I am certain, on Thursday mornings, each of the faces I see in those Brady Bunch blocks is a face connected to an intricate emotional world.