Caring for people requires emotional intelligence

  • Published
  • By Maj. Chris Chestnut
  • 56th Maintenance Operations Squadron
A little more than a year ago I had the great opportunity to attend the AETC Commanders' Course. Being a new commander I was very excited and looked forward to learning the "secret handshake" for command success.

The course agenda made it evident that we were going to spend some quality time with Gen. Stephen Lorenz, the four-star in charge of AETC at the time. I knew that General Lorenz was a pilot with much command experience and I couldn't help but develop some preconceived ideas of what he might talk to the new commanders about. Not being familiar with the general's many writings I anticipated a pep rally and instruction on how to "take the hill!"

I was taken by surprise when the general began to talk to us about the importance of "emotional intelligence." He began by reiterating that one of the most important tasks we have is to take care of our people. Taking care of our people is not a new concept in U.S. Air Force education and training but the general went on to discuss how we might do this.

In one example he reminded us that the eyes are the window to the soul and that it was important to look our people in the eye when we talked to them. He went on to explain that it was important to look our Airmen in the eye while greeting them because often times people will say they are fine but their eyes and body language will tell a different story. If you sense that something isn't right you ought to follow up by looking that person in the eye and asking him or her how he or she is doing - a second and third time if necessary. Usually about the third time you ask you will have their attention and their personal barriers to communication will begin to fall. At this point it is time to exercise your exceptional listening skills -- we will discuss this more later.

It was very evident that the general was able to use his "Emotional Intelligence" on many occasions to first identify issues and then provide or get assistance for those people. The second surprise at this course was that General Lorenz was not the only general officer to address our class concerning "Emotional Intelligence"-- there must be something to it.

On another, but related, note prior to the commander's course, my first exposure to the concept of "emotional intelligence" came via Dr. Stephen Covey's number one National Bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Per Dr. Covey we all have emotional bank accounts with others (relationships) that we can choose to make deposits into or withdrawals from. Also, like a bank account the more investment we make in an emotional bank account the larger a withdrawal can be made without destroying it (relationship).

So how do we make a deposit in an emotional bank account? The answer is pretty simple. A few of Dr. Covey's ideas are: understand the individual, attend to the little things, keep commitments, clarify expectations, exercise personal integrity, be loyal to the absent and apologize when you make a withdrawal.

The "understand the individual" idea is very important and requires a little more explanation. One of the best ways to understand the individual is to focus on understanding what a person has to say before being concerned about having your own ideas understood. What this means is that when I'm engaged in a conversation with someone, I should not be busy formulating my response while they are talking. I should be focusing on what is being said.

When I exercise this approach it is amazing what I learn and oftentimes it changes what I want to say. To ensure you are doing this correctly, you should ask for clarification on points you don't understand and when the other person is done talking you should shadow or summarize their thoughts to them (the U.S. Air Force calls this feedback). This will allow the speaker to verify if you understood their message and make corrections if need be -- repeat as required. Once this is accomplished you should be able to contribute to the communication in a much more meaningful way.

Both General Lorenz and Dr. Covey have inspired me to look at leadership in a new way. Their ideas and concepts can be applied at work and home. Like most things, some people will have a natural talent for this while the rest of us will have to work at developing our soft skills. Just remember that a great start is made by simply looking people in the eye.