When people ask themselves what are the keys to success, they usually think of things like getting a degree from a good university, making the right connections, and working their tails off. But few, if any, ask themselves whether they have enough emotional intelligence. This is despite the fact that it can be the determining factor in career success or failure.

Emotional intelligence is about the ability to work with people and to communicate with those around you in mutually beneficial ways. But according to Marge Smith, the former longtime executive director of the Princeton YWCA who now owns her own consulting business in Princeton, the lack of emotional intelligence can create the sort of work environment that breeds toxicity, with bosses, supervisors, and co-workers all potentially acting as destructive forces in the office.

“Sometimes you can have smart people who do or say dumb things that de-motivate the people they are trying to work with,” says Smith, who regularly teaches seminars based around the subject of self-esteem. “It seems that these people have no insight into the consequences of what they do and say.” This, she adds, is becoming a common occurrence in the computer-saturated 21st century.

Smith gives a seminar on “The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Achieving Success” on Tuesday, April 18, at 7 p.m. at Mercer County Community College. Cost: $25. Call 609-586-9446 for more information or to register. Although primarily intended for those who want to advance their careers as supervisors or managers, anyone who interacts with people can benefit. “The techniques that I will teach can be applied to any situation,” says Smith. “Even in the family or doing volunteer work, the key to success is in being able to work with other people.”

The pervasive lack of emotional intelligence in the modern world can be blamed, at least partly, on technology. “I think that because people rely so much on computers and television in their daily living they are not given much of an opportunity to practice being effective when working with other people,” says Smith. By relying on E-mail, faxes, voice messaging, phone calls, online conference calls, and other technological interfaces, people now have fewer opportunities to actually interact with people. “We are, as a society, actually getting worse when it comes to being able to work directly with one another,” says Smith.

Fortunately, it is possible to improve your emotional intelligence the same way you would improve mathematical or verbal skills: by reading appropriate books, working with a counselor, or taking a workshop. “The secret is first recognizing your own feelings and then being aware of what the impact of what you do is having on those around you,” says Smith. “In this way you can be more prepared to handle any conflicts that may arise.”

Some of the primary ingredients of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, social skills, emotional control, flexibility, and optimism. “A lot of people don’t seem to realize that optimism is a skill,” says Smith. “It’s a fact that expectation plays a big role in determining the future, so what you think might happen actually often does happen.”

In the home environment optimism is important, especially when communicating with small children, because young minds are fragile and easily shaped. “Too often parents like to say, ‘you better look out because something bad is going to happen,’” says Smith. “But by always looking at the negative rather than the positive, you’re creating a thinking pattern that can have very negative consequences on your children.”

Among those consequences can be the development of low self-esteem, a generalized anxiety, depression, and a fear of trying anything new. “It’s important to realize that negative communication won’t change for the child unless the parents change the message,” says Smith. “Parents think they are somehow protecting the child, but the consequences are that the child will often be so afraid of making a mistake that he or she will never try.”

Negativity is also poisonous in the workplace, and counterproductive to creating a business atmosphere in which everyone is working toward the same goal.

“I run into people all the time who are being destroyed by supervisors who are ruining the work environment,” says Smith. “It’s amazing, because they emit a poison into the air that really destroys people. But then one day when the toxic person doesn’t show up at work, you can feel the difference in the air. Everyone breathes easier and works better.”

Public humiliation and brow beating are two additional tactics favored by parents and bosses who suffer from a lack of emotional intelligence. Smith says that she knew of a supervisor who issued an E-mail to all staff members complaining that a particular job was not performed on time by a particular staff member. “The supervisor thought she was motivating people,” says Smith. “But what she was really doing was antagonizing the staff, really destroying them, because now they are afraid to make a mistake.”

A 30-year resident of Princeton, Smith earned her bachelor’s degree from Smith College and her master’s from Columbia University. She is the organizer of the annual Community Works conference in Princeton, as well as president of Childcare Connection board in Trenton. “I have worked closely with many different kinds of people on a regular basis for years,” says Smith. “It’s really because I love working with people.”

While emotional intelligence involves a certain amount of self-awareness, Smith offers these tips to help improve the work and home environment:

Be consistent. Put aside your emotional angst at home or work and create the sort of steady-as-she-goes atmosphere that allows the people around you to function smoothly. “Unpredictable people are just so destructive,” says Smith. “By being a nice guy one day and a jerk the next, you create an environment in which people don’t know what to expect. They wind up looking over their shoulders rather than concentrating on doing their jobs.”

Celebrate the positive. While there is no pleasing some people, bosses who fail to point out the good work that is being done are doing a disservice to those around them. By harping on the negative, these people are killing the spirit of those around them.

“People are far more apt to be successful if focus is placed on a skill set that enables things to be performed right,” says Smith. “After a project is completed, it is important to acknowledge the successes. The person who finds something wrong in everything creates a situation in which people will finally say, why bother?”

Do a little self-analysis. Look inside the recesses of your mind and ask yourself to reflect on how you dealt with your own job performances in the past. By projecting these internal investigations, you can begin to empathize with those around you. “Ask yourself when did you feel like a champion,” says Smith. “Then look at a time you felt that it was all a waste of time. What were contributing factors?”

Emotional intelligence makes business sense. It is really not that difficult and it can immeasurably improve the work and home environment, as well as your career prospects. Says Smith: “With a little self-awareness and effort it is possible to really take a step forward in your communication skills.”

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