Emotional Intelligence

You might not have heard of Emotional Intelligence before.  In this article,  Bert Botta, a retired TWA Captain based in the USA, reveals why it's so important to us as Commercial Airline Pilots. 

Have you ever done anything really stupid in aviation? And afterwards, thought to yourself, “That was really dumb, I’m not usually like that.”  If so, that was a good example of when it’s best to “Just not be yourself!”

If that was you, then meet…  Henry the Nerd!  Henry the nerd was 21, he still lived at home with his mum, was basically anti-social, still in school, spent a lot of time isolated in his room, playing video games, without a lot of friends. But he was lonely. So, one day he was surfing the net and came across a dating site. He figured, “Why not?  I might as well give it a go.” He saw the profile of a girl who looked like someone he might be able to have a relationship with.  Then he began to get scared; what am I going to say to her, how should I act, what should I tell her about myself? Those kinds of questions.

The next day at school he saw his friends hanging out so he went up and told them about meeting this girl online.  Then he asked them the same questions he was asking himself, what am I going to say, how should I act, what should I do with her, etc?  These guys knew Henry pretty well. They knew he was a loner, never been on a date, and spent way too much time alone. So, they circled up and started talking amongst themselves.  After a few minutes, one of the guys broke away from the group, came over to Henry, looked at him and said, “Hey Henry, we like you and we know you pretty well but we also know that you don’t have much experience with these kinds of things.  So, after thinking this over we decided that when you meet this girl, the best thing you can do  is… “Just DON’T be yourself!”

The Pilot Personality: An Oxymoron?

In the scenario above, some cabin crew, and spouses, might just agree that to “just don’t be yourself” would be a pretty good suggestion for some of us pilots! They’d even go so far as to suggest that “pilot personality” is an oxymoron.  The following list of typical pilot traits was compiled from a 2007 ALPA (Airline Pilots Association) study that I shortened to prevent the onset of depression! These traits just might contribute to our not often being known as social butterflies. But read on beyond this list; we do have many redeeming qualities! And we’re very good at what we do.

In a 2007 study done by the editors of ALPA magazine, the traits that many of us have are… “We avoid introspection and have difficulty revealing, expressing, or even recognizing our feelings. When we do experience unwanted feelings, we tend to mask them, sometimes with humor or even anger. Being unemotional helps us deal with crises, but can make us insensitive toward the feelings of others. Our spouses and children frequently complain that we have difficulty expressing complex human emotions toward them. We’re inclined to modify our environment rather than our own behavior. This emotional "block" can create difficulty communicating. How many incidents or accidents have occurred due to poor communications? The vast majority of Professional standards cases are caused by poor communication. Our tendency toward suspicious/paranoid behavior also affects the way we function in our private lives. We’re concrete, practical, linear thinkers rather than abstract, philosophical, or theoretical. We’re bimodal: (not bipolar!) on/off, black/white, good/bad, safe/unsafe, regulations/non-regulations.”

With these kinds of traits, we do not rank that high on the Emotional Intelligence (EQ) scale! It’s weird that the personality traits that we do have - self-sufficient, tendency to focus on “getting the job done,” practical, linear thinkers, a little paranoid, self-confident, not good at trusting others to do the job as well as we can – are all things that actually make us good at what we do, keeping ourselves and our passengers safe while getting us to our destinations. Airline and corporate pilot hiring departments actively look for these personality traits, and more, in the pilots they recruit. But these traits are often the same things that make us, to put it mildly, “a little rough around the edges!”

What is Emotional Intelligence or EQ?

The term was made popular by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book of the same name. He defines Emotional Intelligence as the ability to recognize, understand and manage our own emotions as well as recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others. In practical terms, this means being aware that emotions can drive our behavior and impact people (positively and negatively), and learning how to manage those emotions – both our own and others – especially when we are under pressure. We all know people who are in full control of their emotions. They're calm in a crisis, and they make decisions sensitively, however stressful the situation. I think we would all agree that Captain Sully comes to mind here.

Some people can even read the emotions of others. They understand what to say to make people feel better, and they know how to inspire them to take action. People like this have a high EQ. They have strong relationships, they’re personable and they're likely to be resilient in the face of adversity. This kind of high EQ is something that most of us aren’t inherently long on. Given our potential EQ shortcomings, it’s important to be aware of this and compensate accordingly.

What’s Your Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ)?

Is your IQ in the genius category, above 140 but your EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient) is below 100 and descending? Most of us are intelligent, some highly so, with corresponding high IQ’s (Intelligence Quotients), or else management wouldn’t turn us loose with some very important lives and very expensive equipment. For example, one of my new hire pilot friends at TWA had a photographic memory. He studied very little but maxed the frequent exams that we had in B707 systems ground school. I mistakenly thought I could keep up with his extracurricular activities, going out and partying every night, and maintain a similar grade. It only took me a couple of weeks to figure out, after partying with him and watching my weekly exam scores plummet, that no way was I going to be able to keep up with him and continue my flying career.
Regarding the reference to the Professional Standards cases in the ALPA study above that stem from the lack of proper communication, I was in the barrel as the ALPA Pro Standards Committee chairman during my time at both TWA and Netjets. I’ve seen my share of pilot personalities acting out, especially during the contentious TWA/Ozark merger in 1986. Needless to say I have grappled with my own issues as a “typical pilot,” dealing with “the man in the mirror.”

A Fighter Pilot’s Challenge in Exercising Good Pilot EQ

One of the pilots I met and interviewed for an article at Oshkosh 2015 was Dr. John Marselus. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy with over 3,000 hours in the A-10 Thunderbolt and F-15E Strike Eagle along with commanding at several different levels in the USAF.

In his own words, “One thing I found out was that the way I acted when strapping on $50M worth of a sleek hound of death fighter aircraft and how I relate to others in more normal circumstances had to reckoned with. As a fighter pilot, we’re taught to make split second decisions with precision and accuracy since it’s really the most disciplined flying in the world. I discovered that those fast reactions with short concise communications do not work well in meetings or when listening to people. I still catch myself analyzing someone’s idea before completely listening to it. Your article on emotional IQ is good and perhaps the above thoughts might help you give even more examples from a veteran who has learned the hard way.” The Crucial Connection Between Pilot EQ, Situational Awareness and Staying Alive!! Situational awareness has been an aviation buzz word for some time. Situational awareness is knowing what’s going on around us, taking it all in, processing it and coming up with a judgment of whether what we see, feel and experience is good or bad, dangerous or safe, threatening, friendly or not, approachable or should I stay away.

Some pilots are better disposed to good situational awareness than others. For example, different personality types have different emotional qualities. There’s an ancient psychological personality typing system called the Enneagram that classifies all personalities into one of 9 categories, or types based on a predominant emotion, i.e. fear, pride, anger, etc. My predominant emotion is fear. This makes me very vigilant to my surroundings since I’m
usually suspicious of situations or people that look threatening. My usual first response to a situation is something like, “How hard is this going to be?” “Am I smart enough to handle this,” etc. But this makes me highly attuned to situations and people around me. Consequently, I have good situational awareness. I always felt like I would have made a good cop; able to sniff out possible suspects, etc. This could be because of some fear that I picked up as a kid and, as a result, I’m always on the alert for something threatening. This personality trait has paid off in a flying career free of incidents and inclusive of friendships with people that I trusted and found that I could let my guard down and, yes, “just be myself.”  If your relationship life and your situational awareness are not what they should be, here are 10 tips that will help increase your Pilot EQ.

10 Simple Tips to Increasing Your Pilot EQ

These are some very simple tips that I have practiced for years and have found helpful. Now they come naturally, most of the time. These might help to increase your EQ and make your life and flying career much more enjoyable.

1. “Reach out and touch someone.” It’s been proven that a simple, often apparently unnoticed touch when you’re talking to someone, “bonds” you in some small but important way. Obviously, in today’s paranoid culture, be aware when that’s appropriate or not.

2. Introduce yourself to others first rather than waiting for them to do so. This also gives you the advantage of getting their first name.

3. But then…REMEMBER THEIR NAME! This takes practice since we’re so focused on our own agenda that their name usually just flies by.

4. And USE first names. This is an oft overlooked, yet powerful way to convey to another person that you care about them. As you go about your day, observe how few people use first names in conversation. Also notice how impersonal that feels and how those people who do use someone’s first name seem to get a better response. Try it; you’ll like it!

5. Compliment others when you recognize a job well done or see someone who goes out of their way to help in a situation.

6. Recognizing and complimenting someone’s efforts is a great way to cultivate a “servant’s” heart. Look for ways to help others without a reason to do so. It’s the old, “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.”

7. Concentrate on asking other people how they’re doing. And then…..wait for their answer and listen with passion! Too often we’re rehearsing our own agenda in our head and could care less about their response. This drastically lowers your EQ!

8. Listen more. It’s amazing how great a conversationalist people think you are when you just listen to them.

9. Let go of having to be perfect. That doesn’t mean not being accurate. Perfectionism is different than accuracy.

10. Focus and expand on the positive in situations, people and events.

This is obviously not a complete list of EQ qualities. Come up with your own. Sometimes the best way to do this is to examine your own life and the areas where you rank low in EQ and just do the opposite! That would be a good place to start. If any of this makes sense, here’s an EQ quiz that you can take here.

The quiz just might help you see if you’re good relationship material, if you’re going to have a fun, productive, happy flying career, if you’re going to rank high on the flight attendants (or your friends') list of favorite pilots or, like Henry…you shouldn’t “just be yourself!”

This article was written by Bert Botta. Bert is an Aviation Writer, Copywriter, former ALPA/TWA and Netjets Professional Standards Committee chairman, author of ‘Fast Lane to Faith: A Jet Jockey’s Search for Significance’,
former Licensed Professional Counselor and a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t mean much unless he uses it to support, encourage and motivate others.

Email: bert@bertbotta.com​
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