Flexibility: The Undervalued EQ Skill

The man was at our home to service our HVAC system. He was a nice guy who did a couple of extras he didn’t need to do. While working on our system, he made an offhand comment about gun control that runs diametrically against my own view. I made a soft response, stifling what my reptile brain really wanted to say.

Later, as he was leaving, I realized that I had an opportunity. I asked, “Can I ask you a question about gun control? I think differently than you do about it, but I promise that I’m not going to argue with you. I just want to understand.” He responded with a real smile: “Yes, he said. “We can have a civilized conversation, just as people should be able to do.” And we did. He didn’t win me over by any means. And I kept my promise not to argue with him. But I did get what I wanted. I learned more about people who think the way he does. I could see his point of view without making it my own.

What has this got to do with the value of Flexibility? Emotional intelligence is the intelligent use of emotions. Flexibility contributes to that in important ways, both on social issues like gun control and at work. Let’s start with social issues.

We live in a time when conflict entrepreneurs are having a field day stirring up hatred between groups. Conflict entrepreneurs include politicians of both parties who become vote whores, willing to abandon values and decency to get elected, and many news organizations devoted to spiking drama for ratings (and not just those that get sued for defamation). Conflict entrepreneurs want us to see people on the “other side” as demons.

Flexibility provides a line of defense against conflict entrepreneurs. It gives us the skill to see both sides of an argument, rather than clinging rigidly to one point of view. We don’t have to change our minds, but being able to see the other side impacts our emotional response to a person who may espouse that point of view. It becomes softer. Barely contained rage may become curiosity. More important, with that softer emotion, we can see the person as human. Maybe we even find a little common ground that lets us work together.

Unfortunately, we all have a miniature conflict entrepreneur inside of us – our reptile brain! It sees the world in black and white. Flexibility helps us to overcome this part of ourselves. When we do so, professional conflict entrepreneurs have no power over us.

At work, being able to see an issue from someone else’s point of view can be extremely helpful. People we work with don’t always think the way we do, or behave the way we want them to behave, and they probably have their reasons. Sometimes their behavior challenges us or gets in our way. This is probably an everyday occurrence for most people at some level. Usually, people successfully overlook minor challenges or work them out. Life goes on.

But when the threat is more serious, there is a risk that we will react negatively, in a knee-jerk fashion, rather than stopping to do some reality testing to find out why a co-worker seems to be getting in our way. If we have misinterpreted the intentions of our co-worker, our knee-jerk reaction is likely to do serious damage to the relationship.

Alternatively, we can use our Flexibility skills to challenge our primitive reptile brain-based thinking and figure out other possible interpretations of that co-worker’s behavior.

Our job as coaches is to challenge our clients’ interpretations of the meaning of their co-workers’ behavior, helping them to see alternatives that they can then reality test. In so doing, we model Flexibility.

Let’s consider an example: Sarah depends on Sam and his team to supply information which she and her team need to do their jobs. Sam’s group isn’t very timely in providing that information. At first, it is a minor irritant for Sarah, which she overlooks. Over time, irritation grows. Still, Sarah says nothing to Sam about it. Finally, there is a tipping point. Sarah tells Sam she needs the latest sales report by Thursday because not having it will make Sarah miss a critical deadline with her boss. But Thursday comes, and sure enough, no report.

Predictably, and understandably, Sarah is furious. She tells her coach: “Sam is a misogynistic jerk! He hates women and

is undermining my work and my team’s work. I’m going to file a complaint with HR!”

Sarah’s interpretation of Sam’s behavior could be true. There is an unfortunate abundance of misogyny in the world. A complaint to HR may be justified. But what if Sarah’s interpretation of Sam’s behavior is wrong? She could easily destroy a working relationship she needs, not to mention hurting someone who may not deserve such treatment.

Our responsibility as Sarah’s coach is to help her think through the situation before she takes action. We need to help her have sufficient Flexibility in her thinking that she can entertain and then reality test alternatives. We can posit different interpretations that Sarah’s reptile brain will no doubt resist, but that her EQ brain may be able to consider. To be clear, we are not saying that we know why Sam does

what he does. We just know that the capacity for people to misunderstand each other is infinite.

Sarah becomes calmer in response to your approach. You and she figure out how she could approach a conversation with Sam. She reports back: “My talk with Sam went great. He and his team did not understand how we use their information, or why we need it when we do. He said that it would be easy to create a process to get the information to us when we need it, and suggested a time for us to get together to work on it.” Coach: “What about the missed sales report?” Sarah: “Yeah, he was genuinely upset about what happened. He told me that his daughter had just had a life-threatening operation, and he has been distracted.”

As a coach, I have seen this kind of movie play out over and over and over again. Our clients often need our help to increase the Flexibility of their interpretations of others’ behavior before they commit an RLM (relationship limiting move). Be on the lookout for opportunities to help them do so.

In addition to the process suggested above, the EQ Leader Program has exercises specifically designed to help your client build Flexibility skills.

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