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Firefighter EQ: Can emotional intelligence be taught?

Know the four EQ skills that can help build your awareness and empathy – and ultimately make you a better crewmember


Emotional intelligence cannot only be taught; it must be something we practice, accept into our daily management/leadership, and eventually perform it subconsciously.

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Emotional intelligence. What does it even mean? Does it mean you are sensitive to learning? Does it mean that you’re happy about gaining knowledge?

These are some of the questions that were swirling around in my mind after listening to Escambia County (Florida) Battalion Chief Curt Isakson at a recent event. He explained that emotional intelligence is something that he has had to work on in his career, and how understanding emotional intelligence can help you in any situation. I sat there, not knowing what he was even talking about, but totally focused. Even after the conference, I kept thinking about the words emotional intelligence and how Chief Isakson said it changed the way he approached managing and leadership in the fire service.

Fast-forward to several weeks later, I was sitting in my deputy chief of operations’ office when he referenced emotional intelligence. There was that term again. I informed him that I had been thinking about this but hadn’t gotten far due to other work and life commitments. He then suggested, “Why don’t we do some research and see if emotional intelligence is something that can be taught?” Intrigued, I set out to learn more. Here’s what I found.

What is emotional intelligence?

There are many definitions of emotional intelligence – often called emotional quotient or EQ – as well as several models to explain the various components of EQ. Let’s start with this definition from Psychology Today: “Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. Emotional intelligence is generally said to include a few skills: namely emotional awareness, or the ability to identify and name one’s own emotions; the ability to harness those emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions, which includes both regulating one’s own emotions when necessary and helping others to do the same.”

There are four emotional intelligence skills that can be used for handling crises: 1. Self-management, 2. Self-awareness, 3. Social awareness and 4. Relationship management. Let’s review each and its application to our work.

1. Self-management (or self-control): Self-management is your ability to control your feelings and behaviors, manage your emotions in healthy ways, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances.

This one might seem easy, but it can actually be quite difficult to manage your impulses if you have done things the same way – your way – for a long time. Complicating matters is the fact that so many of us in the fire service have a Type A personality, and we strive to succeed at all costs. We have strong convictions and aren’t afraid to speak up.

Having self-management allows you to control your emotions and relay information in a calm manner, all while maintaining or gaining respect and getting a desired result from the individual. Losing control and snapping could build a wall between yourself and the individual involved, compromising your ability to work with them in harmony.

But the hardest part of self-management is adapting to changing circumstances. There are people who get on scene of a fire that hasn’t auto-vented yet, but when it does, they flip out thinking a collapse is about to happen. Some people have a set way that they do things, and they simply cannot deviate or they will, in short, lose it. Some people hyper-focus on their ideas of how something should go, and when it doesn’t to their way, they feel a loss of control.

As my deputy chief emphasized, “There are times you may be right, but it doesn’t mean you’re the only right.”

2. Self-awareness: Self-awareness is the ability to recognize your own emotions and how they affect your thoughts and behavior. For example, this is the ability to feel your temperature rising, heart racing and ears burning when something doesn’t go your way – and acknowledge what is happening. This, I do believe, is a choice. These are physical reactions that you feel happening, although I think some people choose to ignore the reactions; they don’t want to calm themselves.

Another example is being on a diet. You have given up sweets and been doing great for two weeks, but then you see that huge piece of chocolate cake at a restaurant, and you can almost taste it by just looking at it. If you were full, your body now makes enough room in your stomach that you could eat that piece of cake. Do you use your self-awareness, recognize what’s going on, or do you ignore it and give in, ultimately ignoring your diet?

3. Social awareness: Social awareness is your ability to have empathy for others. You can understand emotions, needs and concerns of other people, pick up on emotional cues, feel comfortable socially, and recognize the power dynamics in a group or organization.

I do not think that you can teach someone how to empathize with someone, especially if they have never been in the situation that the other person is in. How do I know how you feel if I have never been there? What I can do, however, is tell that you are emotionally fatigued or experiencing an issue. Some people just need a listening ear, which anyone can give. Knowing your crewmembers will allow you to see a difference in their demeanor and give you that cue to ask them if something is going on. Experience and time are what I believe it takes to get comfortable to ask the questions. We never truly want to just dig into someone’s personal life, but over time, we get comfortable with them as “our” people and will ask freely.

Let’s consider this in the context of post-traumatic stress. One person may have seen 100 deceased people in their career and carried out a countless number of burned victims, but it never seems to affect them, while another person may run one bad car wreck that causes them mental anguish. Being socially aware gives you the ability to recognize when personnel may be in need of psychological help, whether they know it or not, feel comfortable having the discussion with them, and assist them in getting help.

4. Relationship management: Relationship management is your ability to develop and maintain good relationships, communicate clearly, inspire and influence others, work well in a team, and manage conflict. This can be difficult for some people because of how they were raised (negative relationships) or their experiences with difficult interactions in a job. However, working to erase those ideas or tendencies is vital to growing emotional intelligence.

Relationship management is essential to effective teamwork – a must-have among our crews. Nothing in the fire service is done by a single individual. Someone gave the direction to act, pumped the apparatus, threw or heeled the ladder, and so on and so on. At the end of the day, the relationships we build make our job easier because we are working as a team to complete the goals set forth.

Bottom line: When you build a relationship, managing it makes life less stressful, mainly because you have built it on trust, maintained open communication, have the best interest of the team in mind (not just yourself) and found the way to inspire people to act because of your leadership.

Teaching EQ

Emotional intelligence cannot only be taught; it must be something we practice, accept into our daily management/leadership, and eventually perform it subconsciously.

Just like with any class, an instructor can impart their knowledge on the students, but what happens after the class? Do they choose to apply what they’ve learned? For example, I can teach someone how to force a door with the forks toward the frame, but when it comes time to do it, they might still put the forks to themselves, making it harder and giving them less mechanical advantage.

The same premise holds true for emotional intelligence. You can tell someone that they have to empathize with others to maintain relationships, but that does not mean they will do so. Individuals have to want to use emotional intelligence once they have learned and understand what it actually is.

If we are going to try to teach and encourage our personnel to use emotional intelligence, we have to be genuine in our presentation, interactions and coaching. Emotional intelligence can be taught, but it does not stop there. As the individuals teaching, we have to walk the walk and provide an example to our mentees. By being a mentor, we are trying to teach them, pique interests, and steer them toward subconsciously using emotional intelligence in their everyday life.

As the saying goes, “iron sharpens iron.” We spread this example throughout our organization, and then maybe one day, it can be taught and used subconsciously.

Colby Davis has been in the fire service for 15 years, 11 years of which in Dekalb County (Georgia) Fire Rescue where he is currently a captain, while also working as the assistant chief of training for Dallas Bay Fire Rescue in Tennessee; both organizations are ISO Class 2. Davis has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia Southern University where he studied fire administration/arson investigation, and he is currently enrolled in Oklahoma State University for his master’s degree in fire administration and emergency management. At Dekalb County Fire Rescue, Davis assists with the training division in teaching all instructor courses and fire officer courses. At Dallas Bay Fire Rescue, Davis instructs all aspects of the fire service, from basic firefighter to officer-level courses.