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Is there a Dark Side to Emotional Intelligence?

I only recently heard this term, “the dark side of emotional intelligence” which I came upon in a recent article about Twitter and the Chief Twit. Googling the expression resulted in over 18 million results. Google’s first page highlighted articles in Time, The Atlantic, Psychology Today and Greater Good Magazine among others. Many of these articles occurred between 2011 and 2014. So maybe this ‘dark side’ was a hot topic in those years? If so, I missed it!

In any case, I wanted to find out what this was a reference to. The answer is that it’s about using emotional intelligence skills to manipulate, abuse, or misuse others for selfish or evil purposes.

Influence vs. Manipulation

Those who have trained others in influencing skills in leadership or other programmes, have likely encountered the question, “what’s the difference between influence and manipulation?”  In trying to wriggle out of that challenging question, many of us have declared that these are different skills and that it’s ultimately all about intention.

Well, certainly, intention will decide whether you use skills to support others or to manipulate them for your own gain. But the skills themselves?  The truth is that they are the same. People learn skills and we can’t control how they are used.

It’s a bit like IT skills. You could learn skills to become a great cybersecurity expert or use those skills to become a powerful hacker. No one can control how skills will be used.

The Dark Side?

 While I personally wouldn’t refer to people’s unfortunate use of some beautiful skills as the “dark side” of emotional intelligence, it certainly is a dark use of some widely available skills.

This reminds me of the chilling difference between cognitive and emotional empathy that I learned about when learning about psychopaths.

Cognitive Empathy is being able to understand the emotions another person is going through while Emotional Empathy is feeling with them. You can have one without the other. The scary bit is when a person has cognitive empathy but not emotional empathy, like psychopaths who can see/understand what others are feeling but they don’t relate to or even care about those feelings.

So, for one without emotional empathy, it’s easy to manipulate and abuse someone else – it might even be enjoyable. They have no feelings about it themselves – it’s just something happening over there and that something might be terror and it might be caused by something they’re doing. What power they must feel in that dynamic! In the hands of these folks, influencing skills can turn dark rather quickly.

Do we want them to be great at “influencing” without the capacity to feel their impact?  No. Can we control that? Unfortunately, not. We will continue to teach emotional intelligence skills to leaders and teams. Our aim, of course, is to improve company culture and give people the skills to develop others. The risk we take is that these skills may be used for darker purposes. But from our viewpoint, it feels worth the risk.

You can learn more about how emotional intelligence works and how to develop more of it for yourself and your teams.

Contact us to learn how.