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Average Emotional Intelligence

April 21, 2019
by Mark David Siegel

Hi everyone,

Until last week, if you’d asked me, I would have laid claim to an above average emotional intelligence. At least above average. I’d support the claim by describing the books and articles I’ve read, my experience leading teams and supporting families in the MICU, and the wisdom garnered over eight years as Program Director. I know how important it is to read people well. My work demands exquisite emotional intelligence, which I assumed I possessed.

So much for assumptions. Last week I took an emotional intelligence test, posted by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, which examines your ability to read emotions in people’s faces. For example, can you distinguish sadness from anger, amusement from shame, or pride from happiness? I got several questions wrong, which made me...average. I’m glad I’m not below average, but still.

Now I’ve got questions. How often do I misread people? How often do I fail patients, colleagues, residents, or my family? How often do I misconstrue emotions, for example mistaking sadness for anger, and then respond the wrong way? And if having average emotional intelligence means misreading people so often, what does this say about the great majority of people who are average by definition, and the roots of misunderstanding and miscommunication in our world.

Knowing that we’re vulnerable to misreading others has huge implications for those of us who work in medicine and sheds new light on a remarkable video produced several years ago by the Cleveland Clinic. It’s remarkably easy to be misled, to misunderstand, and to overlook suffering. We need to slow down. We need to ask what we’re missing.

I’m glad to have my blindspots exposed. It’s important to recognize how vulnerable we can be to making faulty assumptions, or moving too quickly to judgment. It’s a reminder of how important it is to look and listen carefully, to be curious, and to inquire.

Thankfully, there’s nothing immutable about emotional intelligence. Like many important skills, emotional intelligence can be nurtured with intention, effort, and healthy humility. I’m sure you would all agree, that when it comes to emotional intelligence, average isn’t good enough.

Enjoy your Passover and Easter, everyone,


PS our hearts go out to the over 200 people in Sri Lanka who were killed this Easter morning by terrorist bombs.


Submitted by Mark David Siegel on April 21, 2019