Compassion and Emotional Intelligence

Do your emotions drag you with them, or are you in charge? In a Google Talk by Chade-Meng Tan, he asks the audience to contemplate that question, illustrating the point with a parable about a horse and its rider. They pass a person on the road who asks the rider, “Where are you going?” The rider responds, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask the horse?” The horse is a symbol of our emotions, leading the mind where the emotions want to go. 

Chade-Meng Tan (who goes by Meng) describes himself as a Google pioneer, award-winning engineer, New York Times best selling author, thought leader, and philanthropist….who is also quite funny.

Psychologist and noted author, Daniel Goleman considers emotional intelligence the most important trait for leaders to master. In leadership, emotional intelligence matters more than IQ. Goleman’s research offers a new way of thinking about the ingredients of life success.

The good news, according to Meng, is that emotional intelligence can be learned. And, in a relatively short period of time.

Learning emotional intelligence requires re-training the brain. Neuroplasticity teaches us that “what we think, do, and pay attention to changes the structure and function of our brains.”

In Meng’s view, there are three stages necessary to achieve mastery over our emotions.

  1. Attention training – The part of the brain known as the amygdala responds to the “perception of threat.” When we feel threatened, e.g., in a social or workplace situation, the amygdala activates to shut down the pre-frontal cortex of our brain. So when people say, “I wasn’t thinking” after responding badly to a perceived threat, they’re actually telling the truth. Through simple breathing exercises, focusing our attention on our breath, we can make our attention become more calm and sharp. You increase resolution, both spacial and temporal.
  2. Self-knowledge and mastery – Framing the emotion from existential to experiential requires a deep knowledge of your self.  As your awareness increases, you’ll be able to see emotions clearly and objectively as they rise and descend. You’ll become aware of the effect it’s having on your body, and you’ll develop your capacity for empathy. Once you understand what’s motivating these feelings, you’ll have a deeper knowledge of yourself.As our attention becomes more refined, we’ll recognize the difference between saying, “I am angry” and “I am experiencing anger.” In the first statement, the “anger” defines who you are. In the second, the anger is a separate emotion, influencing your behavior. The analogy Meng offers is that “my mind is in the sky, but the clouds surrounding it are the emotions.” They’re just passing through.
  3. Create useful mental habits – Develop the habit of kindness, habitually telling yourself each time you interact with someone, “I want this person to be happy.” It will be obvious to the person receiving this kindness. They’ll appreciate and value you without really understanding why. And, you’ll invite more success into your own life.

Also, develop the habit of similarity, habitually telling yourself during each inter-personal interaction, “This person is just like me. We’re equal.” Even if it’s your boss, or the CEO of a new client. Be seen as equals, so that you invite mutual empathy. It sounds corny, but seek to create the conditions for happiness for everyone.

When Meng, as a Google employee, was permitted to devote 20% of his time to his own personal project, he chose world peace. He determined that the two key components necessary for world peace were the end of global poverty and inner peace and compassion worldwide. Since, in his words, “lots of people with money are working on ending global poverty,” he’s decided to concentrate on helping people find inner peace and compassion and to spread it virally.

If you’d like to support Meng’s mission, perhaps you’ll consider sharing this piece.