Enlightening Parents on the Power of Emotional Intelligence – Fall Seminar 2019

By Melanie Wells

“So, how’s everybody feeling?” asked Marc Brackett, Ph.D., Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of Permission to Feel, greeting an eager audience at Trevor Day High School on November 19. On the screen behind him, flashed a quote from Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, forget what you did, but never forget how you made them feel.”

Setting the stage for an in-depth look at that elusive enigma – our emotions – Dr. Brackett invited the audience to consider Angelou’s words from their own perspectives: how many of you, he asked, remember something that gave you a bad feeling, or a good one? From childhood on, he added, people experience “defining moments, replete with recalled feelings,” and yet, “we do not learn in school about emotions, feelings.” He began rectifying that with a graph.

Displaying a chart depicting emotional range, he noted an x axis (pleasantness measure) and y axis (energy measure), each numbered from -5 to +5, enabling the user to plot fine gradations of pleasant or unpleasant emotional states in four colored quadrants. The yellow and green fields showed emotions ranging from  mellow to ecstatic; red and blue listed a negative range from mild annoyance to agitation, depression or utter misery. Dr. Brackett asked parents to pick the color field they thought they occupied.

After a moment, he issued a challenge: “Convert your color choice to an emotional word, NOW.” Pause. “FREEZE! What’s your word?” Pause. “How many of you had trouble even finding a word?” he asked. There were self-conscious chuckles. Dr. Brackett added, “There are probably 2,000 words we could plot on that graph, but how many do we regularly use?” When asked how we’re feeling, we mostly rely on an all-purpose “fine,” he said. “We use a simple, limited vocabulary” to describe how we feel. He asked why that might be. Responses: we may not be really looking for an answer? we’re too busy? too in a hurry? little time to identify our feelings, much less name them accurately? “We’re in New York City, the land of neurosis,” he said, where over-achiever parents rush from one task to the next on overwhelming schedules.

Dr. Brackett pointed out that young children receive subtle messages to discourage emotional truth. “I had loving parents, but learned early in life not to share my feelings,” he said, noting that his mother was too anxious herself to provide support for the emotional needs of others, while his father had a single response for all emotions: toughen up.

Why don’t the data and current conditions match up?

Dr. Brackett said there is real data to show that kids with well-developed emotional skills are healthier, happier and more effective. Given the wave of books on emotional IQ in recent decades, and the emotional assessments, consulting and coaching programs that have sprung up in their wake, it bears asking why our population currently exhibits such high statistics of poor mental health. He offered data: on the front combat lines, 40-50% of doctors and nurses report chronic burnout. Among youth, numbers are distressing: 18% are affected by anxiety disorder; 60% of college students report overwhelming anxiety; suicide rates have increased 28% in the last 20 years; and 21-73% of middle and high school students report being bullied.

Schools have jumped all over the socio-emotional learning bandwagon, offering classes, seminars and mindfulness programs, so why aren’t things better? He asked the audience to “spend a few minutes working this out,” and to discuss. The room erupted in a jumble of chatter; though impossible to hear in the aggregate what anyone was saying, the clamor signaled engagement. Dr. Brackett asked for their hypotheses. Responses: Everyone’s just pressed for time; social media; it takes time to analyze emotions – people just don’t; EQ is not valued in schools – they look at SAT, CT scores, not EQ.

Dr. Brackett added, “Think about it: we’re not teaching [emotional] skills because they’re not valued. Parents want AP classes.” Following on the social media comment, he noted the average adolescent spends 6 hours a day on it, and reports preferring communication via text to in person. “Think about the future of intimacy!” he said, noting that adults are not modeling in-person communication skills to kids.

Life is an Emotional Roller Coaster Ride

Dr. Brackett gave parents another assignment: “Right now, become a kid. In the next moment, live vicariously as your child (or one you know) for a full day.”

He suggested a tour to help them plumb the experience:

1) Your eyes open in the morning: How do you feel? Excited to start the day? Parents urging you to wake up?

2) How about getting ready, dressed? How long does it take you?

3) Breakfast: how is that? Do you eat with the nanny? Alone? Is mom serving you eggs and avocado?

4) Your commute: Is it easy, hard, comforting?

5) Your arrival at school: How do you feel? Alienated, supported?

6) Lunch time: Is it easy or difficult for you?

7) School is over, time to leave, what’s next? Sports, music, after-school tutors?

8) Dinner: What’s that like? Yelling/screaming? Happy conversations about your day? Or are you alone?

9) Homework time: How do you feel during this time?

This, he said, is the “emotional roller coaster ride.” He asked parents how they felt imagining their way through it, and for words to describe their feelings. Responses: Lonely, tumultuous, guilty, contradictory, chill, numb, anxious, joyful, vulnerable, poignant.

In contrast to that varied list, Dr. Brackett said data shows the #1 emotions adolescents report are “tired, bored and stressed.” And others? Dr. Brackett said college students report feeling “stressed and anxious” as well as tired, bored and lonely, but on deeper probing, an underlying emotion, envy, emerges – often strongly correlated with loneliness. Days spent on social media, constantly making social comparisons, isn’t going to be much help reducing envy. Asking his Yale students what they would most LIKE to feel, he found their # 1 desired emotion was love.

Teachers, he said, report their #1 feeling is “frustration.” A study of 15,000 people in all walks of life found the vast majority reported feeling “stressed.” Referring to the emotional graph, he noted that “our students, teachers and workforce are spending 70-80% in the red and blue zones” where the negative emotions reside. If you ask people in general what they HOPE to feel, he added, the #1 answer is happy. “We like quick fixes in America,” he said. “We think gratitude manuals will make us grateful people, and downward dog will make everything good! Well, since when does downward dog reduce envy? Does yoga support well-being? – sure, but there is no one-word answer. Life is complicated.”

He recounted taking a walk once, while pondering his own situation. He came to an important realization: what he felt was “overwhelmed,” with too many things packed into the day, and, a sense of having no freedom. He realized he should “change the structure” of his life to allow “freedom and breathing space.” Overwhelmed people “lose creativity,” he added. “Creativity happens with freedom.” By pressuring people to “keep going, going, going,” we teach them to be unable to be creative. “Emotions are the fuel of creativity. How you deal with emotions about your project, affects whether it’ll get finished,” he said. Emotional skills can contribute not only to creativity, but also to the successful outcome of a project.

Use the power of emotions to create a healthier, more equitable, innovative and compassionate society.

Emotions influence our thinking, bias and judgment, said Dr. Brackett, but outside our conscious knowledge. People think emotions have power over us, “but that is so for people who don’t know how to use them wisely. With EI learning, we can learn to use emotions wisely,” even the so-called negative ones. For example, anger is a wise emotion for bullying. “You become angry at injustice – then act.” The power in channeling emotion lies in using it wisely.

Proper perspective is key. Dr. Brackett pointed out the crucial difference between an “emotional scientist” (characterized by an “open, curious” stance,” in “learning mode” and with a “growth mindset”) and an “emotional judge” (critical, closed, in “knower mode” and with a “fixed mindset”).

The skills of emotional intelligence (and the ability to harness our inner scientist, not the judge) are built step by step, through training, said Dr. Brackett. He explained his RULER formula, designed to do just that:

Recognizing emotions in self and others – (Goal is to learn to be accurate in both cases)

Understanding causes and consequences of emotions -(Learn to see “why” you feel the emotion you feel)

Labeling emotions accurately – (Can’t do much with it if you can’t label it.)

Expressing emotions – (Understand influences on expression – gender, race, power status, your culture)

Regulating emotions effectively – (The “use it wisely” component)

Learning to regulate emotions effectively, said Dr. Brackett, comprises several important components:

1) It is effortful. It takes EFFORT to learn, and effort from you in supporting your child to do this/

2) Developmental  – the learning is successful over time and through stages;

3) Specific to the emotion and the situation: not all emotions are created equal;

4)  It is personalized – not for you to decide for your child but rather, to help them find their own strategies;

5) Permitted and encouraged – help determine what is allowed;

6) Practiced and evaluated – practice strategies and monitor the success of each, refining as needed;

7) No criterion for correctness – it is a highly individual process.

The impact of learning to regulate and use emotions wisely can be considerable: less stress, better health and well-being, more positive relationships, better performance. He noted that “sleep, nutrition and exercise” will all “help you regulate” and should be encouraged in oneself and one’s children.

The RULER approach, said Dr. Brackett, helps us “think systemically about how to create a world that operates with greater emotional intelligence.” We want the “system [to] support the individual” so that kids can learn to “reach for their best selves.” He invited parents “to become ambassadors of this,” to understand that “emotions are information,” to give their kids “permission to feel,” and, finally, help build “a healthier and more equitably innovative and compassionate society so kids and adults can achieve their dreams.”

At the beginning of the 7:00 pm presentation, Dr. Brackett asked parents what strategies they‘d use to maintain focus. He told them they’d be there until 8:30, and would likely become distracted. How will you handle it? he asked. With what strategy? Responses flew: sit close to the front; take notes; turn off my phone; use self-discipline to pay attention.  

Actually, over the course of the evening, he helped them, whether they were fully aware of it or not. Inviting audience interaction, giving them provocative assignments and, perhaps more engagingly, modeling an impressive kaleidoscope of mood shifts, he made focusing easy. His talk was, by turns, grave, earnest, jocular, scientific. Body language, mood, pacing, tempo – all were dynamic. Nor was content static. He moved deftly from anecdote, to data analysis, to humor and back again, demonstrating to anyone paying even half-hearted attention, a core message: As our emotional states shift, (they inevitably will) we should not hide them, from others or from ourselves.

Instead, we can know and own our feelings, give ourselves generous permission to have them, and when appropriate, share them. Through wider understanding, we can–and should–bequeath the same to our kids.

Dr. Brackett elevated the goal, finally, to an ethical plane, claiming “our moral obligation to give kids an EI education, and our moral obligation to be role models in this.”

MARC BRACKETT, PH.D, is the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Child Study Center at Yale University. He is the lead developer of RULER, an evidence-based, systemic approach to social and emotional learning that has been adopted by over 2,000 pre-K to high. Marc is on the board of directors for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). He consults regularly with corporations like Facebook, Microsoft, and Google on integrating emotional intelligence principles into employee training and product design.

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