"Skills That Can Prevent Wars": A Tri-Cultural Psychiatrist's Take on Emotional Intelligence

This article is the first piece in InsightPact’s “Emotional Intelligence of All Kinds” series on Medium, where I interview people from various backgrounds and industries about the topic of emotional intelligence: how it is defined, what it looks like in different cultures, and why it is important.

At InsightPact, we work to cultivate emotional intelligence in teams and organizations through project partnerships and public workshops. Our work relies on the richness of our networks spanning various continents, cultures, professions, disciplines, and languages. We’re looking forward to sharing with you a diverse understanding and experience of emotional intelligence around the world. And, we’re looking forward to fostering nuanced conversations with you about a topic that is easy to speak of, but different to practice.

Our series begins with Kamolchanoke Laochaisri (Ying is her Thai nickname, but I call her mom). She has called Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chicago, New Jersey, and Geneva home. After graduating from high school in Geneva, she turned down scholarships to Bryn Mawr College and Stanford University to return to Bangkok, where she studied to become a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Siriraj Hospital. 2 kids, 1 marriage, and 1 divorce later, she now practices psychiatry full-time and enjoys watching Barbra Streisand movies in her free time.

My mother and I share a deep love for good conversations, preferably over cheese and crackers. We are both also adult children of divorce, which comes with a very particular set of attitudes towards love and relationships. These intersections formed the foundation of the conversation you see below.

Irene Laochaisri: How do you define emotional intelligence?

Kamolchanoke Laochaisri: When Daniel Goleman first defined it, he talked about indicators of success in life, and the qualities that would help a person get to where they wanted to be. He came up with the term emotional intelligence, which consists of 5 skills. The first three are about yourself, and the last two are about others. The skills are:

  1. Knowing why you’re feeling what you’re feeling.

  2. Regulating your feelings.

  3. Effectively communicating your feelings to others.

  4. Knowing and understanding other people’s feelings.

  5. Helping other people regulate their feelings.

These are skills that can prevent wars, you know? But… you can’t do 4 and 5 without having the skills of 1 and 2. You can’t run before you walk.

IL: Why do you say that these skills can prevent wars? What does that mean?

KL: When you don’t know what you’re feeling, you do things impulsively. And that can spiral into anything. A person who is emotionally intelligent and has all the five skills can regulate themself, identify what everyone’s feeling, and help them all regulate those feelings. So everyone feels heard. Most wars come from people feeling that they don’t have a voice, feeling unseen, or feeling that something’s been done to them.

My work [as a psychiatrist] is not about saying everything’s okay. It’s about identifying what’s going on as it is and making sure that there’s no cognitive impairment that prevents people from seeing things as they are. Once we can see things as they are, we can identify what we feel and whether or not we can do something about it. If the situation is not only up to us, then we may not have all the power in affecting change.

IL: Earlier you were saying, regarding point 1 above, that knowing why you’re feeling what you’re feeling is difficult to do. Why is that?

KL: It’s a skill. I’m not saying it’s difficult. It’s not hard to say you’re mad or sad or frustrated or disappointed. But sometimes people are taught to not even admit that they are feeling these emotions. They’re taught to say, “I’m fine” or “It’s okay.” There are people who are raised to expect themselves to not feel anything but great, bright, and cheery all the time because if they feel bad, other people feel bad too.

IL: Is your role as a psychiatrist at times to give people permission to not feel bright and sunny all the time?

KL: For sure.

IL: How do you do that? How do you know if you’ve done it successfully or not?

KL: I create an atmosphere with the silence in my office, my posture, and my nonverbal communication which makes people feel that they are allowed to say exactly what they feel without feeling judged or being seen as bad people. They feel safe that they won’t be seen negatively or positively because of what they are saying. And people who can will identify what they are feeling. But there are people who cannot identify feelings because of what has been ingrained in them. I don’t push it. I back off because sometimes it’s not the right time yet.

IL: What does that mean?

KL: People only have one hour with me. When some people identify what they’re actually feeling, it can be devastating. I can’t hold their hand for the next 6 days and 23 hours of their week before I see them again. Maybe they need to suppress it to survive, especially if it’s something they can’t change right away. I respect that.

IL: Would you say that part of being emotionally intelligent is also knowingwhen it is the right time and place to feel emotions?

KL: Yeah. There are different levels of self-awareness. There are also survival mechanisms. In crises, you may feel painless. Adrenaline makes it so that you do not dwell in that moment because other skills are needed for you to survive. When the dust settles, you can actually sit down and feel. For example, after you lose someone, you have to go through the process of handling the logistics [of the funeral]. If you know you can’t afford to break down and lose it, you don’t feel it. It’s actually not time to feel it yet. There are other people that need your support.

IL: I can imagine that it is difficult to know when the right time is.

KL: True. There might never be a “right time.” I have patients who come to me with unresolved grief, which is when you haven’t mourned a loss. That could go on for years. Sometimes there’s no reason for them to delay the mourning, sometimes there are lots of reasons. These reasons could be in their head, or they could be real.

Being emotionally intelligent doesn’t mean you understand everyone. Being emotionally intelligent is being able to identify when you don’t know shit, too.

IL: We know that people are emotionally intelligent across a spectrum of abilities. How do you suggest we navigate our interactions and relationships with people — our teammates, employers, clients, parents, children, friends, colleagues — who we perceive are lacking in emotional intelligence?

KL: Start with yourself.

When you hone in on your own skills of emotional intelligence, you will not see yourself as a victim. [Other people] may be annoying you or making you angry, but you cannot change them, so you change what you think about them. If they upset you a lot, you take yourself out of the line of fire. You interact as much as necessary and you don’t react when it doesn’t help if that person is someone you have to keep in your life. You don’t give them permission to affect you in a way that is not true. You don’t have to like what they are doing, but you don’t have to be taken down by their actions either.

IL: Is there anything people get wrong about emotional intelligence?

KL: They overdo it.

IL: How exactly does one overdo it?

KL: As in, trying to seem too emotionally intelligent or thinking that you understand everything. Being emotionally intelligent doesn’t mean you understand everyone. Being emotionally intelligent is being able to identify when you don’t know shit, too. [Laughs] Overdoing it means pretending that you’re everyone’s best friend. That is not possible unless you’re being fake, which is the opposite of being emotionally intelligent.

IL: Your work is predominantly one-on-one, so I’d like invite you to think about emotional intelligence at a more macro level. What do you observe about the current status of emotional intelligence in 2018, globally and within Thailand? What’s working and what’s not working?

KL: The internet has decreased the necessity of interacting with people in real life, which has made it easier for people to not hone in on their skills of emotional intelligence. People don’t have enough practice communicating. A lot of people don’t know how to talk to people when they meet them in real life. So much gets lost in communication when you’re just texting. A lot gets lost or misinterpreted. People fight through messages because they don’t see facial expressions or body language. That’s something I worry about.

IL: Last question: we started this conversation with you identifying the correlation between emotional intelligence and success in life. What was Daniel Goleman’s definition of success in life and what is yours?

KL: Success in life is really about getting to where you want to be. Being happy with where you are. Even that is a challenge, because if you’re not emotionally intelligent you don’t know if you’re happy or not [Laughs].

There’s that Harvard study on happiness. They measured everything across 80 or so years. The study was multifaceted; it was both subjective and objective. The conclusion of that study was not about emotional intelligence directly, but the researchers described the variable that has the greatest impact on lifetime happiness as human connectedness. Feeling connected is making people feel heard, seen, and understood, limited as they are. For you to connect with other people, you need to be connected with yourself.

Irene Laochaisri is a co-founder at InsightPact. She is a design, entrepreneurship, and development practitioner with roots in Bangkok, Berlin and Boston. Her work has taken across the world, from designing and launching a mobile education lab in Coahoma County, Mississippi to organizing and facilitating a design and community development summit in rural Sisaket, Thailand.

Next Steps

If this article resonated with you, email us at hello@insightpact.com to learn more about how you can cultivate emotional intelligence in your team, organization, or community.

Irene Laochaisri