How to Work with People Who Aren’t Good at Working with People
Twenty five years after the term “emotional intelligence” was first introduced by academics, thousands of independent scientific studies have highlighted the importance of managing your own and others’ emotions in relation to career success, job performance, entrepreneurship, and leadership.
But research suggests that people with low EQ, as emotional intelligence is often called, may not realize what important skills they lack. Indeed, studies have shown that all of us are better at evaluating others’ EQ than judging our own, but that this is especially true when we have low EQ: because EQ also includes the capacity for self-knowledge.
Although lower EQ people are generally less rewarding to deal with — they are grumpier, more negative, and more erratic than average — there will be many circumstances where we have to deal with low EQ individuals. Given the difficulties this can entail, it may be useful to keep in mind the following, evidence-based recommendations for managing those situations effectively:
- Be gentle. Just because someone is unpleasant doesn’t mean you have to respond with unpleasantness or ostracize them. In fact, you can become a stabilizing and calming agent for low EQ people if you make an effort to act politely and kindly in your interactions with them. Remember that having a lower EQ is psychologically taxing, not just for others but the low EQ individuals themselves. They are often fighting inner demons and riddled with existential angst – the academic euphemism for this is emotional labor. So, don’t make them work even harder. Instead, you can brighten them up and make their lives seem a little simpler, safer, and happier, or at least less anxious. Conversely, if you react in a negative way they will perceive you as a psychological threat and source of stress. Kindness and positivity go a long way with everyone, but even more so with emotionally unintelligent people. Yes, some people lack soft skills, but being hard on them is not the solution. On the contrary, tact and delicacy are needed particularly with those who are less capable of displaying those very qualities.
- Be explicit. In particular, avoid social subtleties, or you will be misinterpreted. Low EQ individuals are generally less capable of reading between the lines and their ability to decode others’ intentions is typically limited. As Professor Simon Baron-Cohen noted, they are quite similar to the stereotypical engineer or professor: disinterested in nonverbal communication, non-empathetic, and somewhat detached from interpersonal contact; happiest when on their own or interacting with their own thoughts rather than people. Baron-Cohen’s spectrum theory posits that cognitive skills often increase at the expense of social skills (take this brief test to find out where you fall).
- Be rational. Although low EQ people often behave in irrational ways, so does everyone else. Furthermore, the only antidote to emotionality is rationality, which starts by being aware of your own biases, being data-driven, and accepting the possibility that you may be wrong. When dealing with low EQ individuals, remember that they are more likely to fall prey to their own emotions than most people are, so, rather than trying to manipulate them by engaging them emotionally, you can gain their trust by being the voice of reason and developing a reputation for being logical. This will not just enable you to persuade them in the short run, but also influence them in the long run. The main point is that even if emotional persuasion works with them, there are moral reasons for not going down that path.
- Do not get offended. One of the common characteristics of emotionally unintelligent individuals is their bluntness. They have low interpersonal sensitivity and find it hard to empathize with others, which is why they may come across as politically incorrect or overly direct. On the upside, this makes them quite transparent. You can usually see right through them and they tend to mean what they say, and say what they mean. The key, then, is not to take things personally. They may not operate within the realm of conventional etiquette, but you can still find a way of dealing with them and helping them deal with you.
Finally, remember that just as high EQ is not always a blessing—for example, it says nothing about a person’s reasoning ability, expertise, or ambition – it is not the end of the world if you yourself are the one with low EQ. This may sound odd, because EQ has become a very loaded term today—perhaps even more than IQ. However, there is a bright side to low EQ, and a dark side to high EQ. Low EQ individuals are often more passionate, creative, and self-critical than their higher EQ counterparts. And higher EQ individuals can be complacent, smug, and overly optimistic compared to their low-EQ counterparts.
While interventions to boost EQ are often successful, people have limited control over their personalities, and each personality will confer more strengths in some situations than in others. The current enthusiasm about emotional intelligence can obscure the fact that plenty of brilliant and successful people, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Steve Jobs, had lower EQ—and that these people are also capable of rewarding relationships, even with their work colleagues.