Mixed Signals

Boost your emotional intelligence to improve your relationships and upgrade your career.Emotional Intelligence

What qualities lead to success in business? The average response might be a high IQ or keen insight into upcoming trends.

But what about the less obvious answers, such as relating to your customers or letting your staff know how much they’re appreciated? These actions fall under emotional intelligence (EI), also called emotional quotient. According to Perry S. Gerard, MD, FACR, director of nuclear medicine and vice chair of radiology at Westchester Medical Center in Westchester, N.Y., these skills can actually be more important than your academic or problem-solving intelligence.

Making Meaning

Let’s take a step back first. What is EI? It may sound like something a therapist or teacher might use, but EI is actually a valuable skillset for anyone, whether you’re looking to be a leader or not, says Gerard. “Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, identify, manage, and express your emotions as well as those of others. It’s the ability to relate and respond well to others. EI shapes how you function in a social setting,” he says.

Richard B. Gunderman, MD, FACR, the Chancellor’s Professor of Radiology, Pediatrics, Medical Education, and Medical Humanities and Health Studies at Indiana University, adds, “Although ‘intelligence’ in the name suggests EI is something an individual innately has, EI is a skillset that you develop and work on throughout your life. And it’s every bit as important as problem-solving abilities.”

Gunderman notes that EI is somewhat nebulous — there is no easy way to evaluate or measure someone’s EI. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. “The attention directed to EI has taught us that IQ isn’t everything. EI allows us to predict how individuals are going to function in their relationships, work or otherwise,” he says.

Understanding Others

In today’s changing health systems, physicians will need EI to navigate interactions with colleagues, patients, and administrators. “If you are able to fully understand your own values, strengths, and motivations as well as those of others, you will be more likely to succeed,” says Colin J. O’Brien, MD, radiologist at Corridor Radiology in Coralville, Iowa.

As health care continues to accelerate toward value-based payments, maintaining relationships with patients and referring physicians is vital, adds O’Brien. Understanding the emotional states of your patients and referring physicians translates to a wealth of positive outcomes for both patient and physician. Conveying physician empathy improves patient satisfaction and even correlates with fewer medical errors.1 Also, health care professionals who show empathy and take time to read their patients’ emotions improve their own lives as well — showing mindfulness and empathy combats depression, mental exhaustion, and other burnout-related effects.2

“Empathy and trust are important in any health care relationship. In order to create that bond, you need to be a good listener, have good situational awareness, and be confident in the advice you give,” says O’Brien.

“I practice using EI every day at my practice. It’s vastly important for physicians treating pediatric patients. Parents have a lot of questions, and understanding when I need to open the conversation to their questions and concerns helps build trust and satisfaction,” adds Gerard. “That’s EI at work — you can tell when patients appear confused or concerned. The same goes for referring physicians and their questions.”

Managing Conflict

It’s also important to exercise EI among your staff and in business. To be a good leader, you need to be attuned to the emotional states of those in your room. Understanding how your staff is feeling and reacting appropriately can help you in your practice or department. “Think about the difference between bosses or chairs you may have had throughout your lifetime. The ones who are successful love teamwork, have positive energy, and are able to express themselves. They can successfully navigate social situations,” says Gunderman.

For example, perhaps one of your staff is unhappy at work. Having strong EI can help you identify that there is an issue. Perhaps you notice in body language or pinpoint a certain tone in conversations. Practicing EI can help you correctly identify what that body language or tone means. A brusque tone may not mean that the individual is angry at you or is purposely trying to disrupt the work environment — they might be depressed or frustrated with an aspect of their job or personal life.

From there, you’ll be able to understand what the employee needs or know how to approach the person and the situation. Maybe your employee needs to feel more appreciated at work, and so you make the time to tell them so. Or maybe you realize members of your team need to feel more fulfilled in their work so you encourage them to explore other parts of your practice, such as more patient interactions or participation on a committee.

“EI helps me manage and recognize conflicts in my staff that may occur around me. If there is an issue among my patients, staff, or referrers, EI helps me recognize it early. I can read how the people in the room are feeling and react appropriately,” says Gerard.

"If you are able to fully understand your own values, strengths, and motivations as well as those of others, you will be more likely to succeed.” — Colin J. O’Brien, MD

Identifying Emotions

EI can be helpful in more traditional business setting as well, such as negotiation. “One of the keys to negotiating is a firm understanding of both your own goals and what the other party’s goals are. You need to make sure you acknowledge and redirect your negative impulses during the entire process,” Gunderman explains.

“For example, one of the dominant emotions during negotiating tends to be fear — what if you make a mistake? What if you do not accomplish your goals? If you let that emotion take over and dominate your thoughts, you may end up selling your own position short or making compromises that will ultimately be detrimental to your group. The same thing can happen in the reverse. You don’t want to appear overconfident because that can cause negative reactions in the other party or blunders on your part.”

If you recognize that you may react negatively during the process, Gunderman advises you sit down beforehand and write out the grounds for how you’re feeling. What might provoke this response, and how might you avoid it? “Sitting down and making a list can often help us tame our feelings. This way, we’re not dominated by one perspective.”

Exercising Skills

Just like other skillsets, EI needs to be learned and developed. But how do you do that? O’Brien recommends taking inventory of your own thoughts and actions. “Learn to identify situations that tend to cause self-defeating emotions. Try to avoid those situations in the future while playing to your own strengths, or take time to get emotions under control when the context is unavoidable,” he says. O’Brien also recommends listening. “Listening skills are integral for good emotional intelligence. Practice your listening skills and pay attention to the context that individuals are speaking in. What might be causing them to feel the way they do or react in the way they are? Not only does it strengthen your relationship with others because you are working to understand their situation better, but it’s an easy way to begin,” he advises.

Gunderman adds, “Next time you’re in a committee meeting and you find your attention wandering, set yourself to the challenge of finding a single word to characterize the perceived emotional state of each person around the table. Simply putting the correct name of your or someone else’s emotional state is a big deal. The more you do so, the better you will be at identifying how people are feeling. And the better you are at that, the more successful you will be in all of your relationships.”


By Meghan Edwards, digital content specialist for the ACR Bulletin

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