Emotional Intelligence during the Holidays

Twenty-five years ago, when Dr. Daniel Goleman published his iconic book Emotional Intelligence, it was primarily used by professionals in work environments. With the holiday season upon us, the four pillars of emotional intelligence—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management—might have another purpose: preserving family harmony.


Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage one’s feelings and recognize and respond effectively to others. Self-awareness is a powerful leadership tool that is the foundation of emotional intelligence, and it can cultivate positive relationships.

How can self-awareness be applied at holiday gatherings? Listen deeply to the conversations. Break the tendency to judge by asking questions like these: Am I viewing this person as family or foe? Would I have the same reaction if my best friend expressed that statement?

Disrupt the cycle of emotional reactivity by using the self-awareness muscle to pay attention to your tension. Jaws tightening, muscles cramping, or hands perspiring can indicate an emotional reaction. Take control—shift from a state of reaction to one of calm. Consciously decide if, when, and how you will respond.


Emotions are contagious. Managing your emotions, especially when under stress, can influence what happens during holiday gatherings. Self-management, the second component of emotional intelligence, is the ability to manage stress and impulsivity to maintain focus in pursuit of an outcome.

Self-management builds on self-awareness. To manage your emotions, you must first be aware of your feelings. If not, your response may be harsher than desired and one that is unlikely to result in a divisive-free, joyous gathering.

Social Awareness (Empathy)

Social awareness, or empathy, is the ability to read the room. Sensing the reactions of others provides important communication clues. Your responses will be more attuned, encouraging an open dialogue where everyone has a voice, where people feel seen and heard. Conflicts occur, but they seldom fester into divisive arguments.

Many people (including family members) do not attach words to their emotions. They often express themselves, consciously or unconsciously, through non-verbal cues. Observing body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and posture will provide additional information about what is not being said.

Relationship Management

It’s easy to relate to people we genuinely enjoy or with whom we share similar interests and common values. But what about the uncles, cousins, aunts, or in-laws who rub us the wrong way, make things unnecessarily difficult, or are overly critical? How can we deal effectively with them? Ask the right question in the right way.

Develop the discipline to use a neutral rather than skeptical tone of voice when asking questions. Ask from a place of curiosity. Ask to understand, not to disagree. Open-ended questions that seek clarification help build trust.

More Strategies to Promote Family Harmony

In addition to Goleman’s four pillars of emotional intelligence, try the following:

  • Assume best intentions: “Just like me, this person wants to be heard and accepted unconditionally. They are doing their best.” Repeat this to yourself and interrupt your brain from jumping to conclusions or making judgments.
  • Employ the “yes and…no buts” rule. To encourage an open dialogue and a free exchange of ideas, respond with “Yes, and…” as in “Yes, I hear you, and I want to offer this idea.” The minute you respond with “but,” the other person begins to shut off because you haven’t acknowledged their point of view.
  • Before lashing out at a relative with whom you have a long and difficult history, try this four-question, self-inquiry method developed by Katie Byron, a well-known speaker and author:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it is true?
3. How do you react? What happens when you believe that thought?
4. Who or what would you be without that thought?

Answering these questions will reveal whether you are acting on emotions or facts and avoiding unnecessary arguments.

Remain Calm and Be Kind

Finally, the late Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “13 Rules” also offers useful communication tips for the holidays. Rule 10 says, “Remain calm. Be kind,” and this may be the number-one strategy to help manage your emotions and maintain family harmony.

Human Capital Advisory Services
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Linda Cassell

Cybersecurity and Federal Project Management
NCMA GCMS: Ready for the Future