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Tuning into those around us

Aprajita Jha

Aprajita Jha

Tuning into those around us

A natural subset to developing emotional intelligence is becoming aware of others’ feelings and needs

In my family, we have a ritual of drinking the evening cup of tea together, especially during weekends. One on such occasion last week, my parents called my brother and me to fetch our tea cups from the kitchen. I went and got mine. Soon after, I heard my brother shouting in another room at my sister (who doesn’t like or drink tea and was busy watching her favorite TV show). “Can’t you listen at once? Are you so selfish not to see that I’m busy and can’t help get my cup of tea? Will your feet hurt in doing me a small favor?”

My brother’s actions got on my nerves, and I sternly said, “Don’t you even know how to talk to someone properly?” His focus immediately shifted to me, “Why are you scolding me? Did you even need to speak in this matter?” We got into an argument, followed by complete silence for a couple of hours. 

What affected me the most about this incident and led me to react was that I could see the reflection of my younger self in my brother. Reactive. Oblivious of the impact of one’s actions on other people. As a teenager, I grew into the idea that people wouldn't listen to me until I raised my voice to make the other person submit in fear. 

On the flip side, I sometimes completely shut myself down, so the other person felt guilty for their actions. I most certainly believed that other people were responsible for my feelings. So, I assigned blame every time I felt a plethora of unpleasant emotions, and I found others to be praiseworthy when they made me ‘happy’ or anything related. These patterns are what I saw my brother replicating. 

“All problems are interpersonal relationship problems”—is the most powerful phrase I’ve ever read (‘The Courage to be Disliked’ by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga). As I look back at the incident with my brother and all previous times I was dealing with another human (or, let’s say, I was incapable of doing so), this idea has been more than true. It’s not because I was dealing with people who were necessarily different or worse than me. It’s because I lacked the social awareness to handle another human who had similar feelings, needs, objectives, and challenges as I did. 

Had I still hung onto my past patterns of blaming others for my feelings and not considering other people’s feelings and needs, it would have perhaps taken me a very long time to make amends. Thankfully, it wasn’t the case this time. 

I was initially making assumptions about my brother (he only cares about himself), taking his actions personally (he needs an excuse to disrespect me), and not communicating what was important (how his actions impacted my sister and me). After buying my time and space, I realized that these unhelpful habits were not helping me. I then shifted the focus to what was going on for him. 

Recalling my brother’s past patterns, I realized that he usually got scolded for leaving his food and beverages unattended when he got immersed in some task. So, to connect with his feelings, I realized that while he seemed to lash out in anger at my sister and me, beneath that anger was a fear that if he didn’t get his tea before it turned cold, he would get scolded again. 

Once I understood he felt fearful, I could also connect with his deeper needs, which was ‘protection’. He also needed ‘problem-solving’ and ‘empathy’. He couldn’t get his tea from the kitchen, so he wanted help from someone desperately. Later, I even had a conversation with my brother. He verified my guesses about how he felt at that moment and what he needed. 

A natural subset to developing emotional intelligence is that we not only start becoming aware of our feelings and needs but of other people’s feelings and needs as well—it is what we call ‘social awareness.’ A question might arise. Is it possible to fully understand the spectrum of other people’s emotional states? I’ve learned from experience that we won't know until we try. 

The author is Linchpin at My Emotions Matter, an education initiative that helps individuals and teams learn the mindset and skills of Emotional Intelligence. Learn more at myemotionsmatter.com