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Understanding Emotional Intelligence


Ray Barishansky is a featured speaker at EMS World Expo, September 8–12 in Las Vegas, NV. Register today.

You’re a new coordinator at All-City EMS and you’re having a meeting with your shift supervisors. In the middle of the meeting, one of the supervisors has an outburst and begins verbally attacking you over a recently made operational determination. Although you attempt to explain the reason the determination was made, he keeps going and his voice keeps rising. Keep calm, you think to yourself … just keep calm.

When discussing those traits that leaders must possess there is a lot of focus on intelligence quotient (IQ) but—even though it’s a critical element of being a leader—there is significantly less focus on emotional intelligence. So what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to EMS supervisors, managers and leaders?

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to identify, use, understand and manage emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.

Now, it’s unrealistic to expect emotions can be fully checked at the door when you arrive at work. Just as we all know people who are good listeners, we probably also know people who are masters at managing their emotions. They don’t get angry in stressful situations. Instead, they have the ability to look at a problem and calmly find a solution. They’re excellent decision makers and they know when to trust their intuition. Regardless of their strengths, they’re usually willing to look at themselves honestly. They take criticism well and they know when to use it to improve their performance. You may not be a master of your emotions, but to be effective as a supervisor or manager you should be able to understand your emotions and deal with them effectively.

Below are five practical tips to better understanding your emotional intelligence and heightening it as you move through your EMS management career.

Be self aware. People with high emotional intelligence are usually very self aware. They’re also willing to take an honest look at themselves. They know their strengths and weaknesses, and they work on these areas so they can perform better. Many people believe that this self-awareness is the most important part of emotional intelligence. This means when things don’t go your way at work—whether it’s in regard to choosing a new defibrillator or type of truck, scheduling system or even just another area of disagreement—examine what happened and why, as opposed to simply reacting.

Learn how to resolve conflict through effective social skills. It’s usually easy to talk to and like people with good social skills, another sign of high emotional intelligence. Those with strong social skills are typically team players. Rather than focus on their own success first, they help others develop and shine. They can manage disputes, and are masters at building and maintaining relationships. EMS has the potential to be a conflict lightning rod and we interact regularly with other agencies, the public, patients and their families—all of whom we cannot control. But we can control the way we interact with them. If you don’t have good social skills, it’s important to do your best to develop them—this could include taking a class, going to a group, such as Toastmasters, or going to an expert on communication skills. Yes, it is that important.

Understand your motivation. People with a high degree of emotional intelligence are usually motivated. They’re willing to defer immediate results for long-term success. They’re highly productive, love a challenge and are very effective in whatever they do. What motivates you? A solid team? Public recognition? Accolades from your peers? Something else? Realize that once you understand your motivation—why you want your EMS agency and yourself to succeed—you have a much better chance to understand the motivations of others as well.

Understand the emotion. Did your day begin badly? Did someone upset you at home? Did something happen that would otherwise ruin your equilibrium? Understanding emotions requires cognitive skills, command of language and sensitivity. Recognition without understanding can lead a boss to say, “I see you’re upset and you feel bad, but frankly I really don’t care. You’re here to work, and it’s not my job to make you happy, so get over it.” But emotional intelligence is being aware that it is the boss’s job to make people feel satisfied at work. The management lesson here is that fundamental insensitivity, otherwise known as the “get over it” approach, actually stops people from doing what you want them to do.

Don’t take everything so seriously. You need to be able to defuse tense circumstances and sometimes that’s best achieved through humor. This allows you to smooth over some rough edges—one of the tricks I utilize is pointing out when I was in a particularly tough situation and how I failed. This technique allows the people I supervise to see me as human, defuses a possibly tense situation and points out that there are usually multiple solutions to any given problem. This is also an area where managers must tread cautiously, as you don’t know what has the potential to insult someone. Remember, any time you have to ask yourself if a joke or story could offend someone, it can. So don’t tell it.

As EMS supervisors, managers and executives we need to utilize all of our skills to move to the next level of leading our EMS agencies and systems. Understanding our own emotional intelligence is one of the areas we must pay attention to. The real trick, if there is such a thing, is not in fighting against our emotions (or hoping they magically disappear), but in learning to handle them intelligently when they do come up.

Raphael M. Barishansky, MPH, is director of EMS for the Connecticut Department of Public Health. A frequent contributor to and editorial advisory board member for EMS World, he can be reached at

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