Your Coworker Might Be Hiding Something, So Be Sensitive

Using Emotional Intelligence To Relate to Invisible Disabilities

Oct 30, 2018
Management

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – You might not know the truth about the employee in the office next door. He or she could be hiding something – an invisible disability, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, a sleep disorder, chronic pain or illness.

Because some disabilities are not immediately apparent, it’s important to treat people you encounter at work with sensitivity, says Myeong-Gu Seo, a management professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. That requires a high level of emotional intelligence, the ability to understand what causes specific emotions and predict their effects. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a perfect time to assess your emotional intelligence and how you interact with co-workers.

“Emotionally intelligent people can quickly pick up on subtle differences in others and react and interact with them in appropriate ways,” Seo says. It starts with understanding your own feelings so you can be more sensitive to other people’s emotions. “This is the foundation to all other things.”

Emotional intelligence can be applied in any situation dealing with other people, including relating to co-workers with invisible disabilities, Seo says. People with high emotional intelligence are in-tune with clues that another employee might be struggling and they make efforts to accommodate them, even if that other person hasn’t disclosed their disability. Seo says research has shown the best way to manage strong emotions in the workplace is to actively try to keep them from happening.

“Emotionally intelligent people understand what really causes disruptive emotions. Especially if someone has emotional issues with a recurrent situation or subject, it’s very important to not let that thing happen from the beginning to avoid triggering those emotions,” Seo says. “So if you know that someone is very sensitive to a certain signal, you avoid those situations. That’s the most effective, because once you experience emotions it can be very hard to control them.”

This may mean, for example, anticipating that a co-worker might feel stress triggered by a very tight deadline, and therefore planning ahead to lengthen the time they have to complete the project. Emotionally intelligent people engage in conversation in more sensitive ways. They avoid certain words, reframe certain words, and help the other person to understand the situation in completely different ways.

Not a “feelings” person? There’s hope for you, says Seo.

“It’s very hard to develop emotional intelligence suddenly,” he says. “But you can fake it. You can behave like highly emotionally intelligent people.”

Here’s how:

Feeling all the feelings. The first step is getting in touch with your own emotions so you can understand and be more sensitive to other people’s emotions.

Just don’t go there. Avoid situations that can trigger negative emotions in a coworker or direct report. If the emotions are triggered, the person will have less power to control those emotions. Steer conversations that could potential veer into uncomfortable or emotion-inducing terrority back to safer ground. If you can, schedule workloads and projects to avoid triggering that person’s stress or sensitivities.

Talk in private. Have conversations in supportive environments so the other person feels safe. Become a supportive listener that others can turn to in the office.

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About the Expert(s)

Myeong-Gu Seo is Associate Professor of Management and Organization at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. His primary areas of research regard issues relating to work-related emotions, organizational- and institutional-change. Seo received the 2001 Best Doctoral Student Paper from the Academy of Management's Organizational Development and Change Division.

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