The Power of Emotional Intelligence for Hospitalists
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Emotions drive people, people drive performance. This oft-quoted expression provides a simplified explanation of emotional intelligence, but let’s dive a little deeper and consider its importance to hospitalists.
It’s a typical workday as a hospitalist. As you’re talking with a sick patient and frustrated family members, your pager goes off, your employer-provided phone just gifted you a new admission in the emergency department, and secure chat messages are piling up in the electronic medical record as you struggle to keep up with the real world.
How do you control your emotions and stay composed during your super busy days?
As hospitalists, we treat a variety of patients in terms of disease processes, socioeconomic aspects, and health literacy. Although consultants are seeing patients, hospitalists are responsible for the holistic aspect of patient care. All hospitalists are leaders, irrespective of our formal roles and responsibilities, due to our remarkable impact on every aspect of inpatient care.
For human beings, emotions are inevitable. Our emotions have a significant impact on almost everything we say and do. Due to mirror neurons, our emotions are highly contagious. Both our positive and negative emotions have a profound impact on us and those around us. Some people are energy givers, and some are energy killers. As hospitalists, every day we take care of complex, sick patients and make crucial decisions that can be lifesaving or life-ending if not done correctly. For this reason, emotional intelligence is a powerful tool for hospitalists.
What is emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is our ability to identify, logically reason, and manage our emotions as well as those of others, rather than acting impulsively because of how we feel about a situation. Emotional intelligence is also known as emotional quotient or EQ.
EQ affects our ability to positively influence a negative situation toward a better outcome rather than making it worse. Sometimes, when we’re emotional, our emotions can overpower our intelligence. We can say or do things we may forget, but others may remember that one incident for a lifetime, negatively affecting our potential and professional image. We cannot eliminate our emotions but we can use emotional intelligence to regulate them.
Emotional intelligence is associated with higher job satisfaction and lower burnout rates among internists.1 It’s also associated with a higher rate of recovery from stress among medical students on surgical rotations.2 And research by a respected psychologist, Daniel Goleman, found that 90% of top performers in any field are high in emotional intelligence.3
There are four competencies of emotional intelligence or our emotional quotient.
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”—Aristotle
Self-awareness empowers us to self-reflect by identifying our strengths and weaknesses, while being aware and looking for our biases. Every one of us has some sort of bias. Not only external biases but many times our internal biases can also hold us back. It’s important to understand how we’re affected by a situation, how a stressful situation affects our tone, body language, and decision-making capacity, and how we’re impacting others and ultimately the whole environment. Self-awareness is critical for making the right decisions because it enables us to learn from our experiences.
Self-awareness is the main pillar of emotional intelligence, as the other competencies depend on it. Self-awareness continuously reminds us to have a fine balance of confidence and humility. Our self-awareness pushes us to hone our skills and knowledge to ensure high-quality patient care. It also reminds us of what is beyond our scope of training and when to call for specialist input. While it’s often quite easy to find other people’s faults, it’s sometimes challenging to be aware of and acknowledge our own shortcomings, and to improve upon them. Self-awareness is an asset that allows us to excel both personally and professionally.
Self-management is our ability to maintain our effectiveness by keeping our disruptive emotions in check during high-pressure situations. Self-management often differentiates outstanding hospitalists from those for whom work gives them nightmares.
When we face distressing emotions like anger, our brain’s limbic system immediately generates a reaction. For example, you receive an email you don’t agree with from your chief medical officer and that frustrates you. Your immediate reaction could be to send an email expressing your frustration. Or you could use your prefrontal cortex, the logical part of your brain providing emotional intelligence, to generate a response. Instead of reacting by writing a quick, angry reply, your response could be taking a brief pause that allows you to appreciate the long-term impact of a disruption in your professional relationship with your chief medical officer and other executive leadership.
Our reactions based on our emotions are usually shortsighted. On the other hand, our responses based on our knowledge and logical reasoning along with our emotions, help us to see the big picture. Our goal is to be proactive, not reactive. One of the most effective ways to self-manage, in my experience, is taking a pause even for a few seconds to recollect ourselves. Otherwise, we may say or do something that can destroy our reputation. As Warren Buffet said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” The physician community is closely connected in this modern digital era. It is a hard reality that stressful moments will come along the way. Self-management will be your essential tool to build and keep your reputation as a poised and collected hospitalist.
3. Social awareness
Social gatherings can trigger various emotions depending on each person’s relationships and perceptions. To be fully socially aware, you must have answers to the following two crucial questions:
- How do people experience you?
- How do people experience themselves when they are with you?
Social awareness equips us to read the room or the situation and understand what’s going on beneath the surface. For example: don’t make requests when you know your boss is running late for a meeting. We need to be vigilant about others’ tone and body language along with our own.
“There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying.”—Robert Evans
While it’s crucial to speak the truth, we need to remember that our truth may not be the truth and that doesn’t make others’ statements false, because we all see life from our own perspectives. Rightly or wrongly, people’s perceptions are their reality. There could be a huge discrepancy between our true intention and our impact on others without our even noticing a visible difference. Honing social awareness skills will give us a unique perspective to make decisions with more positive results.
4. Relationship management
“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles, but today it means getting along with people.”—Mahatma Gandhi
One of the most effective ways to build and maintain professional relationships is to address people by their names, preferably with their correct pronunciation. Nearly 100 years ago, Dale Carnegie mentioned in his book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, that a person’s name is the sweetest and most important sound in any language. This statement is still true 100 years later. For this compelling reason, Starbucks calls its customers by their names to create a sense of belonging, which drives its revenue and brand. In his bestselling health care leadership book “If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9 1/2 Things You Would Do Differently” Fred Lee says patients value courtesy along with efficiency.
Our workforce is more diverse than ever. The cultural norms in the U.S. may not be acceptable in many parts of Asia. It is a myth that one person can do it all. As hospitalists, we take care of our patients through a multidisciplinary approach. Having a good professional relationship with the other specialties, care-coordination teams, nurses, and other ancillary staff can optimize our efficiency and quality of patient care.
Is emotional intelligence a learnable skill?
Unlike our intelligence quotient (IQ) which is our inborn ability, our emotional intelligence has remarkable growth capabilities. Emotional intelligence can be learned and polished through active practice like any other skill. Many reputable organizations like Google, the United Nations, and the U.S. Air Force have implemented emotional intelligence learning modules for their employees.
Emotional intelligence is our core skill set to manage ourselves and our relationships effectively. In today’s fast-paced world, many aspects of our lives are beyond our direct control. So cultivating our emotional intelligence increases our ability to be the best version of ourselves while creating a safe, engaging environment for our patients and colleagues.
Dr. Hoque is an assistant professor of medicine and acting internship codirector at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, Saint Louis, Mo. She is also the inaugural medical director of two inpatient units at SSM Health and president of SHM’s St. Louis chapter.
- Weng HC, et al. Associations between emotional intelligence and doctor burnout, job satisfaction and patient satisfaction. Med Educ. 2011;45(8):835-42.
- Arora S, et al. N. Emotional intelligence and stress in medical students performing surgical tasks. Acad Med. 2011;86(10):1311-7.
- Goleman D. What makes a leader? Harv Bus Rev. 1998;76(6):93-102.