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Emotional Intelligence, Racial Trauma, and Mental Health in the Workplace

Part One

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the skillset that is said to account for 90% of what sets high performers apart from others with similar technical skills. These competencies are proven to create successful leaders and a healthier work culture. Regardless of our position, each of us are leaders in our own right and we each have the responsibility to be good citizens and build teams and relationships that are healthy and non-toxic.

In this season where there is increased conversation around psychological safety, equity, COVID-19 and civil unrest, I would like to challenge you to view the skillset of emotional intelligence from a different lens. The more I train on EI, the more I’d like to bring awareness that White and Black individuals use this skillset differently in the workspace. My hope is for White people to elevate their emotional intelligence and critical thinking so they can see more clearly and move accordingly to all that is happening right now (and has been occurring) in this country.

Historically, Black people have had to use a high emotional intelligence skillset for their survival. They have had to be empathetic and increase their social awareness by consistently reading the room; knowing what to say and how to say it. They must know how to move and interact as not to make White people uncomfortable, because doing so may cost them their job or their lives. However, this same action of “reading the room” is lost on many White individuals because they “own” the room. It is not until they are called out on their microaggressions that they become defensive or dismissive. A White person will literally say something racist to a non-White person because their privilege has given them the freedom to speak out of ignorance and insensitivity. There is not a practicing of the pause. There’s no assessing the situation to determine how their words will land and be received.

One example of Black EI is Code Switching. This is when a Black person will modify their tone, cadence, speech, hair, attire, and even their walk to protect themselves and ideally minimize a White person’s bias. This learned skill is a transgenerational adaptation from slavery and past trauma. Sadly, this emotional quotient (EQ) has been used to keep us “safe” externally. However, research has shown that it negatively impacts the well-being of Black individuals because this change in behavior has Black people showing up as only part of themselves, or a dysfunctional version of themselves.

They must know how to move and interact as not to make White people uncomfortable, because doing so may cost them their job or their lives. However, this same action of “reading the room” is lost on many White individuals because they “own” the room.

What is disappointing as a clinician is that I see how my Black clients find ways to successfully navigate the workplace and White spaces by using high emotional intelligence professionally but fail to use it in their personal lives. Ideally, I would love to see more Black people adjust their EQ as a self-care tool where they can create healthy mental and emotional boundaries, assertively use their voice, and acknowledge and process their feelings, particularly when experiencing race-based trauma.

Black people do so much to try to functionally exist in this country; viewing neighbors as fellow human-beings yet are not afforded the same respect. The discomfort endured to maintain the majority’s comfort is appalling, yet it’s understood. Black people are simply just trying to live by any means necessary; even if it has been to our detriment and loss.

Farah is a psychotherapist and workplace wellness champion who guides individuals and organizations in decreasing symptoms of stress and burnout, elevating their emotional intelligence quotient while improving morale by implementing strategies to create healthier and equitable work culture. To hire Farah as a consultant or to speak at your next event, email: info@workingwelldaily.com

Farah is a psychotherapist and workplace wellness expert who guides individuals and organizations in improving their mental health and elevating their EQ.

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