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Bahrain – The Agony of Emotion

November 24, 2012

I’m not in the least surprised at a Gallup survey finding that Bahrainis are the third-most emotional people in the world. Personal warmth and willingness to show emotion are among the most endearing characteristics of the Bahrainis I know.

Emotions are interesting, are they not? If you feel them but don’t show them openly, you don’t stop being an emotional person. The Najdis of central Saudi Arabia, for example, have the reputation of being outwardly reserved, yet my experience is that once you have penetrated their reticent shell, they are warm and kindly people, and just as emotional as Bahrainis are supposed to  be. Rather like us Brits, if external perceptions of us are to be believed.

The Gallup poll also suggests that Bahrainis rank high on negative emotions, which is hardly surprising given the difficulties the country has been through over the past eighteen months.

I’ve always felt that people who feel emotions strongly are higher up on the evolutionary scale than those who don’t. The complex range of emotional responses, after all, is what distinguishes us from other species. This is not to say that some animals do not also feel emotion. But the infinite combinations of feelings like jealousy, hope, admiration, hatred, love, frustration, approval, and disapproval, grief and joy are, the scientists say, the result of brain functions unique to humans.

Like most of us, I have my highs and lows. While I love the highs, I accept that there will always be lows, because both are a function of our being able to feel strong emotions. The glory of being human is in the contrasts of perception and experience.

Beyond the psychobabble, the issue with emotion is not whether we feel them – because most of us do – but how we deal with them.

In Bahrain, negative emotions are tearing society apart. Fear, mistrust, inclination to take personal offence, anger, contempt. You can see them in words and actions from high to low. The more colourful the language, the more extreme the emotions. As I write this, in the Shia mosques and matams, the festival of Ashoura brings tears of remorse for the fate of the Imam Husayn. At a time of social and political and tension, we sense from political leaders indignation at challenges to authority and frustration at perceived intransigence. From ordinary people, there is fear for the future and grief for the loss of loved ones. All understandable, and perhaps inevitable.

But if the country is to move on from the current state, there needs to be a way of channelling those emotions. Not denying them, not repressing them, but understanding them and moving beyond them.

One possible approach is to focus on some of the concepts that fall under the heading of emotional intelligence.

The phrase was first used in the 90s by psychologists in the US. The author, journalist and psychologist Daniel Goleman, believes that there are two forms of intelligence – cognitive and emotional. Broadly speaking, cognitive intelligence is measured typically by IQ. It is what enables us to reason. Ultimately, it is the intelligence – along with technical skills – we use to pass exams and get degrees. He argues that our cognitive ability does not grow significantly beyond early adulthood.

According to Goleman, emotional intelligence, on the other hand, is about five core abilities:

Self-Awareness: Our ability to build personal confidence, to understand our emotions and to assess ourselves with a degree of accuracy.

Social Awareness: Our ability to empathise with other people – to relate to groups and individuals, and to see things as others see them.

Self-Management: Our ability to turn our self-awareness to good effect by controlling our emotions and developing positive characteristics and behaviour that will be visible both to us and to others.

Relationship Management: Our ability to inspire, to help others, to influence and to collaborate.

Motivation: Our ability and drive to achieve for the sake of achievement.

Many of us develop these abilities and traits naturally as part of growing up and growing older. If, like me, you have children in their mid-twenties and you look back at their teenage years, the growth in emotional intelligence is obvious. But equally we can all probably think of one or two people whose personal growth is stunted by an abiding emotional hang-up.

An important aspect of Goleman’s theory is that although we reach the limits of cognitive intelligence relatively early in life, there are no such limits on the growth of our emotional intelligence. In other words, we can and usually do improve on all five aspects of emotional intelligence throughout our lives.

When we think about someone we consider to be wise, do we define their wisdom in terms of their ability to store massive amounts of information, their prowess in chess or Scrabble, or their ability to quote from the Quran or the Bible? I suggest not. Surely wisdom is about being able to make sense of things, to advise, to make considered decisions, to make positive use of personal experience.

In most parts of the world, we acquire emotional intelligence not from schools and universities, but from our parents (if we’re lucky), from friends, teachers (as opposed to the educational system), colleagues at work and from role models in public life. Would it not then be sensible that schools should also play a greater part in helping students to understand and deal with their emotions? After all, the teenage years are often emotionally turbulent times. Parents struggle to deal with the raging hormones, and so do teachers. There is training available in emotional intelligence, and I believe that dealing with emotion should be on school curricula from infancy onwards.

From my perspective, gaining an understanding of how to deal with our emotions is at least if not more important than algebra, grammar and physics. Yet because, as Goleman says, schools and universities are designed to develop and test only cognitive and technical ability, the products of the education system – in the absence of positive influences elsewhere – often find it difficult to cope with adult world they are entering.

So going back to the Gallup survey and its findings on Bahrain. I see no shortage of smart Bahrainis.  But I do see shortfalls in emotional intelligence. And that, for my money, is the main reason why the country is seemingly incapable of moving from the present deadlock.  It’s a problem many other nations in the Middle East face for a host of reasons – in fact it’s one of the reasons for much of the conflict throughout the world. Emotion makes us human, but it can also make us inhumane.

I admit to a personal bias. Goleman’s ideas permeate the way I try to do business and the human development programs I deliver. They influence my approach to leadership, customer service, negotiation, teamwork, sales and a host of other areas relating to personal and corporate effectiveness.

If you’re interested in exploring Goleman’s ideas, he has published a number of books on the subject. But as a primer you could do worse than to take a look at this video of the man himself talking about emotional intelligence in the workplace:

His theories are not universally accepted in the world of psychology. And I for one would not say that a high degree of emotional intelligence is a failsafe predictor of effective leadership. There are some pretty loopy yet successful leaders in history whom you could describe as seriously emotionally crippled, and probably a few today. But for me, there is a basic truth in what Daniel Goleman says that resonates with me and matches my experience of life.

And I’m pretty sure that many people in Bahrain will instantly recogise that truth as well.

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