Feature | Our Emotions Need to be as Educated as Our Intellect

"Our Emotions Need to be as Educated as Our Intellect" – Jim Rohn

In my latest blog, I talked about how it is sometimes difficult for physicians to separate emotions from medical decision-making, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The term emotional intelligence was first coined in 1990 and is used to describe a person's awareness of and ability to respond to emotions in themselves and others. Emotional intelligence is distinct from academic intelligence and it may be part of the reason we are able to provide compassionate care. It could also be the reason why we make decisions that may sometimes veer from the current medical practice guidelines in order to pull all the strings for our patients, even when science tells us there is not much more that can be done.

It is unclear whether emotional intelligence can be taught or if it is an innate characteristic that some people possess and others do not. In medical education, we are taught to do no harm, be emphatic and be compassionate. In the business world, emotional intelligence is held in high regard and thought to be 80 percent of the reason for someone's success. Emotional intelligence has also been shown to have a positive impact on performance and studies have found that health care professionals with high emotional intelligence performed better in areas of stress management and problem-focused coping. It is an important skill for those interested in leadership positions because such positions require "people skills" and the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and effectively problem-solve. While some think emotions cloud our judgment, make us vulnerable and distract us, others suggest that emotions motivate us, allow us to provide more compassionate care, increase our confidence and help us build trust with our patients and colleagues. As with anything, it is appropriate to assume that balance is best.

The pillars of emotional intelligence consist of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management – all of which improve not only the care we provide patients but also our interactions with colleagues and various hospital staff in a sometimes stressful environment. It is this type of intelligence that allows us to be aware of our own emotions and the emotions of those we are interacting with, as the ability to use this information to guide our actions will create better work environments.

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize our own emotions and understand how they affect the way we think and behave. It allows us to accurately assess ourselves, hold ourselves accountable for our emotions and gives us a sense of self-confidence. For example, if a certain patient encounter reminds us of a negative experience from medical school, self-awareness gives us the ability to step back and say, "This patient is reminding me of something that happened years ago and has nothing to do with the current situation." We become aware of our emotions and can better understand where these feelings stem from.

Self-management allows us to control our behaviors once we have identified our emotions through self-awareness. It is the ability to respond to emotions without being impulsive, adapt to various scenarios and control our response to emotions provoked within us. As with the patient who reminds us of a negative experience from medical school – after we become aware of our feelings – we can control how we react to the current patient without transferring our emotions from a prior experience.

Being socially aware means understanding the emotions of other people, recognizing their needs and processing their concerns. This awareness applies to everyone we interact with including colleagues, hospital staff and patients. It also allows us to empathize and make decisions that are in the best interest of those around us because we "feel for them." I think of this as department or section heads who can connect with physicians in their department or section and is attentive to their needs above their own.

Relationship management is the ability to develop and maintain good relationships with those we work with and treat, encourage team work and collaboration, and influence the work of others. Even if some physicians are not in leadership positions, it is important for them to build relationships with patients and their families, trainees, and colleagues to provide the best care possible and create a collaborative environment.

While emotional intelligence can be used in a negative way – such as someone attuned to others' emotions and using their emotional intelligence to manipulate them – I believe that in a health care environment it can improve the care we provide to patients and allow for a better workplace. When used in a benign fashion, emotional intelligence will create health care leaders who care not only for the well-being of patients but also for the well-being of the health care professionals.

This article was authored by Nasrien E. Ibrahim, MD, FACC, advanced heart failure and transplant cardiologist and clinical researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.