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Emotional intelligence: key to healthy relationships


July 16, 2010
-Deborah Froese

Calgary, Alta.  Success of pastoral ministry grows through healthy relationships and according to Marianne Mellinger, healthy relationships depend upon keen emotional intelligence.

Mellinger, who is the Supervisor of Graduate Theological Studies at Conrad Grebel University College, shared her insights with pastors who gathered at First Mennonite Church in Calgary for the annual Mennonite Church Canada Ministers Conference on June 29. Although her comments were directed toward ministers, her insights are valuable to everyone. Using a case study o f a pastor facing a difficult congregational challenge, Mellinger went on to describe the qualities that comprise emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self management and social awareness.

Self-awareness offers a sharpened sensitivity to what we are feeling and what is important to us, nut also the ability to recognize and understand how our emotions and behaviour are affecting others. Recognizing our emotions demands self-management – stopping to consider what those emotions are and why we feel the way we do instead of simply reacting to the circumstances at hand. Social awareness enables us to understand the emotional state of others and how it will impact our communications with them, thus affecting our relationships.

The human brain is wired to react to emotions. “We feel before we think,” Mellinger said. When confronted with an emotional situation, the first part of the brain to respond is the deepest part of the brain; the brain stem. The brain stem activates a physical response in our bodies, controlling breathing, heart-rate and involuntary muscular responses – fight, flight or freeze. Dominance, mating, hording, love, hate, lust, are triggered in the brain stem, Mellinger explained.
In addition, our brains are also wired to send out warning signals whenever we encounter aspects of a previous trauma in new circumstances. We tend to respond as we have previously done.

The good news is that we can train ourselves to react differently and improve our emotional intelligence. Mellinger offered four key strategies for learning to manage our emotions and our responses to others:

  1. Train yourself to stop and think, or to say “I need some time to think about that” when you’re unsure of how to respond.
  2. Breathe and pray. Deepen and slow your breathing in a conscious effort to settle your emotions. Prayer reminds you that you’re not alone, and that ultimately, the circumstances are not about what you want, but what God wants. 
  3. Practice appreciation – for yourself. “Remember that you are a child of God and that you are deeply loved,” Mellinger said. “Anchor yourself in what you value and what really matters to you. Whether that’s God or family or a pleasurable moment. Remember a time when you handled a situation effectively….it calms you and reconnects you to your best self.”
  4. Be curious about the other person or people you are in relationship with and draw upon empathy for them.

Emotional intelligence can be learned. “The more we practice self-aware responses, [the more] our brains actually change,” Mellinger said.