top of page

Re-connecting After Pandemic Isolation: EQ Can Help!

By Gina Touch Mercer, PhD, Behavioral Sciences Theme Director, with Jennifer Hartmark-Hill, MD, Associate Professor at University of Arizona, College of Medicine - Phoenix

Digital - December 2022
  • AZP TW
  • AZP FB
  • AZP IG

We realize that we are far from a post-COVID world, but as we all return to in-person social encounters with patients, their families, our colleagues, staff, and students, we know we have work to do – emotional work, and relationship work.


For example, I am a 3rd-generation Italian-American clinical psychologist who teaches medical students. My family gave me a head start in building some of the skills of Emotional Intelligence (“EQ”). I say some, because I’ve had to work hard to build others, and to unlearn some of what they taught.


My dear colleague is a humble, 2nd-generation Norwegian-American physician who teaches medical students and does many other outstanding things. See, right there, I’ve already made a faux pas. What I learned from her is that the so-called “warmth” and compliments my Italian family might effusively pronounce in public (aka, the social relationship skills of EQ) actually might embarrass her by making her stand out. This might make her want to take a few steps back, rather than draw her closer.


It was after one of these “learning opportunities” that we decided to partner to explore EQ, to help our students and colleagues build (and rebuild) their skills, and to learn how EQ could build resilience in our lives and work. 


This is especially relevant now, with all the health care workforce has endured. Across healthcare specialties and training programs, the unending togetherness or unwanted separateness, the collective and private losses, the emotional roller-coaster, and the now distant social distancing (both physical and literal) have really challenged our social and emotional intelligence skills. 


The pandemic has deeply impacted our teams, our sense of self, of safety, and has heightened the value of relationships in ways we are still discovering. It has elevated the importance of mental health, and raised awareness of our emotions, the foundation of emotional intelligence.


Thanks to the early authors (Bar-On, Salovey & Mayer; Goleman), we know that emotional intelligence, or “EQ” has 4 major components, all of which can be learned, and some considered inherent ‘personality’ traits. Simply put, emotional intelligence is emotional self-awareness; emotional self-management; social awareness, and social relationship management. All of these require the 5th component – motivation, which we will get to shortly.


Emotional self-awareness is the ability to feel, name, and understand the source and the intensity of our emotions. There are other sub-competencies or skills in this component of EQ, which all help to communicate with and inform us about the most essential aspects of our circumstances that give rise to our natural emotional responses to them.

Emotional self-management is the mindful, intentional choice to express or suppress our emotional response to the current situation. Cultivating this skill involves learning to experience and appropriately manage the full range of our emotional responses, and to recognize distressful emotions at their most subtle appearance to avoid the full-blown intense responses that are so difficult to regulate. 


Self-awareness is “social intelligence” or the fine-tuned ability to put yourself in another person’s emotional shoes. It involves perspective-taking, another of the frontal lobe skills, that may be honed by acquiring (but not overgeneralizing) cultural knowledge and distinguishing whether that cultural norm fits the individual in front of us.


Social relationship management then is applying our social knowledge, our emotional self-awareness and our emotional regulation skills to build or strengthen a relationship. 


While these skills sound relatively easy to develop and deploy, they are not. 


Some of us do not even have the motivation to develop our EQ, despite many of us having a very high, even superior, IQ. Many people, within and outside of medicine, simply lack EQ. Think about your own Attendings, preceptors, or professors, about situations you encountered on your rotations where you witnessed EXTREMELY LOW EQ in someone who had extremely high IQ, and was supposed to be modeling high EQ? Or can you think of a time when your expectations for an Attending’s or a senior’s behavior far exceeded what you generally saw and heard from other medical professionals on the wards? 


What unfortunately happens is that low EQ is broadcast both in public and behind the backs of the people who have it. This occurs when the people (leaders and other role models) who have low EQ either don’t have self-awareness or don’t want to change the way they behave or communicate. Some people may not care about their EQ, maybe showing off their IQ instead, and they may even become legendary for this! Other people just have to accept that that’s them… and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.


What you may or may not know is that these people (especially doctors) are most often sued by patients, brought to Medical Staff and Ethics committees, and are in ‘remediation’ in residencies. They may have a long history of deep personal trauma, and their behavior is how they’ve learned to respond to that – but in fact, Professionalism and EQ are intimately linked. 

Your EQ, not only your IQ, becomes your reputation. 

We think of the connection between Professionalism and EQ as “ethical intelligence,” meaning, how do we do “the right thing,” not only in principle, but in consideration of our impact on others. Self-awareness, self-management, and relational intelligence can help us navigate the many potential approaches to communication strategies and our chosen behaviors and actions. But ethical intelligence is our desire to do the right thing, and our willingness to learn how.

Professionalism, EQ, ethical intelligence, reputation, and resilience are well-integrated. Challenging situations and complex interpersonal dynamics are unavoidable, and mistakes are bound to be made. But how we thoughtfully, reflectively, and intentionally navigate the recovery phases of our errors has a significant impact on our relationships, and our own resilience in times of stress. For example, when I recognize my error, and not become defensive or justify my behavior, not blaming others, and not repeating my emotional ignorance, I have an opportunity to become more humble, more open-minded and solution-focused, more forgiving of myself, and of others, and more committed to doing better. I have the opportunity to protect healthy connections with my colleagues and loved ones, which in turn, foster my mental health and resilience long-term.


Resilience is the ability to recover and to thrive after adversity, failure, or error. Resilience requires, and builds, insight, perspective, persistence, commitment, and an acknowledgement of our own, and others’ humanity. Emotional intelligence can help us continue to show up, in a purpose- and values-driven manner, to continue to serve and invest in other human beings. What a profound reputation to cultivate!


Self-awareness is the foundation for all other EQ skills. The other skills involve how we use our emotional intelligence to understand, find compassion for, and relate better to others in our environment – to our patients, colleagues, and loved ones. The motivation to do this, and to keep learning how to do this well, especially after making mistakes, is our ethical intelligence.


EQ, ethical intelligence, professionalism, and resilience all begin with insight, and end with judgment.

In between are perspective-taking, self-regulation, commitment to self-improvement, a value on humanity and humanistic treatment of others, and the demonstration of those moral imperatives, in intentionally choosing words and actions with the power to heal, while omitting those with the power to harm. All of these are frontal lobe skills, and together they comprise --and reveal – both our emotional and our ethical intelligence.

If you are interested in learning more about EQ and how you can develop it, examine your own cultural norms and family training, watch the expression on others’ faces when you deploy what you believe to be your emotional intelligence skills, and look for exemplars – the people you’d like to model, who embody both emotional and ethical intelligence, in addition to all the other stuff they know.

References and Resources:
1.    Bar-On, R. (1988). The development of a concept of psychological well-being. Doctoral Dissertation, Rhodes University, South Africa.
2.    Goleman, D. Emotional Intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Books; 1995.
3.    O'Connor PJ, Hill A, Kaya M, Martin B. The Measurement of Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review of the Literature and Recommendations for Researchers and Practitioners. Frontiers in Psychology. 2019;10:1116. Published 2019 May 28. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01116. Accessed May 21, 2022.
4.    Salovey, P. & Mayer, J. D. Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 1990; 9: 185-211.


bottom of page