At the 2019 National Teaching Institute and Critical Care Exposition, sponsored by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, Capella University faculty member Christy Davidson, PhD, and Capella master’s students Nacole Riccaboni and Ashley Adkins discussed emotional intelligence and why it’s so important for the nursing profession.

Here are some highlights from their discussion.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Davidson: Dr. Daniel Goleman was the one who defined this. Goleman was interested in the impact of emotions and relationships and how they play into career success along with raw intelligence. Today, emotional intelligence is actually a pivotal part of human resources for both recruitment and retention of employees. In many fields, including the field of health care, it has become extremely relevant to career success.

Goleman identified five distinct aspects to emotional intelligence:

Self-awareness. It’s critical to know who you are. If you don’t, it can be difficult to understand how your relationships affect others, and why others respond to you the way they do. If you have self-awareness, you’re able to understand your actions and how they impact others. It becomes a cornerstone of your relationship-building skills.

Self-regulation. Self-regulation is what happens when people are able to pause and take a breath before acting or responding to something. It prevents kneejerk reactions. You become an “objective observer” as if you’re watching a movie. You can assess the situation more objectively and have time to make a decision—including consideration of how your emotions are triggered and how that affects the final outcome.

Motivation. Emotionally intelligent individuals are motivated. There’s something in their lives that inspires them and gets them going every day; they have something to look forward to. If you’re a leader, whether a self-leader or leader of a team, you can coalesce around this motivation, or rally your teams and get them motivated, too.

Social skills. Relationship-building is based on social skills. People like to hang out with others who are fun or interesting to be around. Whether you’re a team leader, a self-leader, or a leader in a unit, it is important to have good social skills. You’ll be able to build your network much more quickly and easily. That means not just connecting with team members on work assignments or via email, but interacting face to face, having lunch, etc.

Empathy. Empathy is one of the most important components of emotional intelligence. Many times I get asked about the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is the ability to understand what someone is going through because you have some experience with that scenario. But empathy is an elevated skill. It’s not just that you know what someone’s going through, but you can feel what they feel and understand how it’s causing them to behave and respond. It gives you the opportunity to move into an emotional reaction that will allow you to better resolve issues or conflicts.

These are the tenets of emotional intelligence that can be valuable to fostering a productive work environment. When people come together in an emotionally intelligent workplace, they feel safe. They can make decisions, take risks, and voice their opinions because they’re supported in an emotionally intelligent way.

Emotional Intelligence in the Nursing Profession

Adkins: I’m a critical care nurse in Arizona. For me, an important aspect of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, particularly about what wasn’t working in my work and personal life. Work-life balance can be very challenging in nursing. We’re all very passionate about our work. When I was a new grad nurse, I was super excited and thought, “I want to take on every opportunity and challenge.” I picked up overtime shifts and any class that was put before me. After about six months of this, I started to get really tired and burned out. I was working probably six out of seven days a week. On my day off, I’d go home with a nursing hangover and spend my one day off recovering. It really started to negatively affect my life. I was not going to work as happy and positive as when I started.

My husband started to notice it as well. He’d say, “You’re cranky when you come home.” I was giving so much of myself to work and my patients that I had nothing left to give to the people who are most important in my life. I realized I needed to make a change. Without that self-awareness, I couldn’t have found ways to make these parts of my life work better together.

Riccaboni: I’m an acute care nurse practitioner in Orlando. I believe nurses should focus on three key aspects of emotional intelligence: knowing your values, exercising self-control, and finding community.

First, know what you value. What’s most important to you in life? What aspect of nursing are you passionate about? It’s important to figure out which aspects of the profession motivate and energize you. I was a charge nurse for about two shifts and realized it wasn’t for me. I was a unit manager for a day and a half and could see it wasn’t my passion. I love human interaction. I love talking to my patients. Without person-to-person interactions with patients, I would not be my best. I had to follow a path that matched my values and passions.

The second tip is to create a plan focused on self-control. As a nurse at the beginning of every shift, you look at your meds, you get your list together, you figure out which patients are more critical, and you go from there. Apply that discipline to the rest of your life, too. Don’t forget that you have influence over your life. You’re more than a nurse, more than a wife or husband, more than a mom. The things you want to happen aren’t going to happen on their own. You have to take initiative and be active in deciding what you do.

Finally, community is important. I don’t have a really big family. I had a very turbulent childhood, so my support system is my husband, my colleagues, and everyone on the internet. It doesn’t have to be family. It’s more, “You failed the test? I failed it, too. Let’s study together.” When you work a lot of hours and see the same people every day, that’s your support system. Just make sure that that support community is positive, because negativity will rub off on you. The goal is to rub your positivity off on someone else.

Davidson: I’d invite everyone to consider that these emotionally intelligent approaches to work and life are not selfish, but self-centric. If you keep yourself centered, you can give so much more to everyone else, whether it’s your children and family, work, colleagues, patients, or the community. Sometimes our work is stressful. Staying self-centric will benefit not only you as an individual, but everyone around you.

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