Emotional Intelligence and Creative Thinking

How to use your emotional intelligence to unlock creative thinking

When we learn how to use our emotions to impress the mind or move our feelings into a space where they can help us to come up with new ideas and solve problems in a creative way we are using our emotional intelligence to further our aims and achieve our goals.

In this 4th industrial revolution world of extraordinary innovation and constant disruption the ability to think creatively has never been more important. Indeed researchers at the World Economic Forum contend that creative thinking is third on the list of the most important skills required by knowledge workers and leaders in 2020 and beyond.

To help us understand why emotional intelligence is an important key that unlocks creative thinking and innovation we need to have a very basic understanding of what emotions are and what emotional intelligence is. Emotions are essentially “impulses to act” and emotional intelligence is your ability to be aware of your emotions and understand how they impact your expression of self and your relationships with other people and the world you live in.

To get a clear view of the simplicity and complexity of our emotions let’s consider the five core emotions that we all feel at some time or another; happiness, sadness, anger, fear and shame. From these five core emotions we experience over one hundred other emotions at different levels of intensity. For example, if we consider the core emotion of shame, at a higher level of intensity we may feel worthless, at a medium level we may feel embarrassed and at a low level, regretful.

Interestingly only a third of people can actually recognise and label their emotions as they happen, and this is due to the fact that not many people practice the conscious awareness required to do so. Generally people go through life having feelings without really knowing what they mean and why they are there on a conscious level. Indeed, when it comes to negative feelings like sadness and frustration we often deny they are there and quickly change our minds to avoid them. This is because these emotions are perceived as dysfunctional and there is no place for them in a world of constant judgement and instant gratification.

The sad thing is, when we do this we miss out on firstly, being able to recognise the emotion and its source which is crucial information for personal insight and inner healing, and secondly when we stop denying our pain and view it as something that makes us and shapes us, we can use its energy to launch and express our creativity.

Moods, although linked to our emotions, are slightly different. They are more mooted and often appear in four different guises, namely, timid, melancholy, bold or upbeat. Moods can come and go and often last for quite a time. If we don’t recognise our moods and understand them for what they are we also miss out on being able to use them to inspire and fuel critical breakthroughs or creative outcomes.

In the world that we live in today innovation and disruption are commonplace, indeed they are the new normal. What might work for or appeal to customers today could be replaced by a new service or product tomorrow. A good example of how rapidly things change is the extraordinary growth of ecommerce during the Covid 19 pandemic. Around the world ecommerce grew in 90 days by the same amount it had grown in last 10 years. Entrepreneurs that have managed to reinvent their businesses, products and services and have pivoted during this difficult time have used their feelings of anxiety and frustration to come up with new ways to fix problems and to survive.

You may ask yourself, am I really made to think creatively? My answer to that question is yes, absolutely! All of us have been endowed with both logical and creative capacities because all of us can operate in both the left and right hemispheres of our brain. As an infant you were able to use both sides of your brain equally and agilely. It’s just that as you got older and got educated you were made to believe that creativity was only for artists and musicians and dancers and that if you wanted to fit it in you just shouldn’t fit that creativity mould. In fact many creatives were made out to be misfits and trouble makers in society…mad Van Goghs, eccentric Dalis, queer Freddie Mercuries, loners and substance abusers who came across as antisocial.

This conditioning then caused you to levitate towards your left-brain hemisphere and allowed facts and logic and societal norms and rules to dominate your thinking. Everything else was weird and anathema to the norm.

The world as we know it has changed very rapidly in recent times and to stay ahead and stay relevant we are compelled to think more creatively. Being able to toggle between the left and right side of the brain in order to solve problems or come up with new innovations either critically using logical or vertical reasoning or creatively using alternative perspectives to see things from different angles has never been more important.

To do this requires a flexible and motivated mindset that is underpinned by self-acceptance and self-belief, all of which requires you to develop your emotional intelligence and to get in touch with your emotions.

Without the self-awareness required to accept and label your emotions and understand their source you cannot use them to your advantage.

Without being able to control your tendency to seek the path of least resistance you won’t be able to overcome self-doubt and face the feelings which could encourage you to think creatively.

Without being able to socially engage with your co-workers or clients in a creative way you will stop the necessary types of collaboration you need, to come up with new ideas and innovations.

Without understanding how people think, feel and act by developing your relationship management skills you will also not be able to get the best out of the people around you.

For millennia artists, composers, choreographers and writers have used their emotions to create works which have inspired and moved us all. Indeed, creators that are attuned to their emotions, use them to fuel the creative process. Being able to notice emotions in oneself and in others is often the key that unlocks artistic expression. For example, a fiction writer may draw on their own experience of loss when describing a sad character in their book. An artist may draw on their own experience of joy or sadness to create mood in their painting.

Creators like these often make themselves feel a certain way on purpose to generate emotions which help with their work. When we can get in touch with our emotions without denying their extraordinary power, we step out of denial and embrace with confidence the reality of the emotions we feel in our lives and allow this sacred fountain of energy to help us generate ideas, convey a life changing message or design something unique and noteworthy.

Creative thinking is a dynamic process that happens between our thoughts, emotions, actions and our environment. When we are being creative in groups we can use brainstorming to come up with new ideas and make connections between seemingly unrelated words, ideas or objects using random association. When we are being creative on our own we can think outside the box using our imagination to trigger alternative ways to look at things.

Unlike logical or vertical thinking which is concerned with “what is”, lateral thinking is concerned with “what might be”. Working across your normal path of logic, lateral thinking can dislodge sensible and logical patterns of thought revealing new and exciting creative ideas and scenarios.

Now just as we are moved by a song, a dance, a theatre performance, a poem or a beautiful sunset, our emotions also move and energise our thinking and action.

You might say hang on; our emotions can get in the way of clear thinking. This is sometimes true; however, emotions can also help thinking and problem solving if we consider the specific messages they convey and what tasks and activities would benefit from the different feelings and moods we have. Feelings act like an antennae providing us with information about ourselves, our relationships and our environment to help us move forward creatively.

How do positive emotions affect creative thinking?

I think when we are happy, and there are different intensities of happiness like feeling ecstatic, joyful or pleasant, we tend to create happy things.

When we feel happy with the world around us this emotion helps us to become playful and silly and allows our imagination to see remote connections and come up with different ideas quickly.

Happiness can be induced by any number of activities including taking a leisurely walk in the countryside, enjoying a delicious meal, having a delightful conversation with an interesting person or listening to beautiful music which inspires in us feelings of elation or hope which may be conducive to coming up with new ideas or having visions of “what might be” as opposed to “what is”.

The exciting expectation and energy we derive from creating in a happy space drives us to convert our ideas into tangible innovations. When you are involved in a creative enterprise and time seems to stand still because you are engrossed in what you are doing you have entered into a mind space we call “creative flow”. Anyone who has experienced this flow will tell you that it is truly wonderful. When you are in flow the joy of creating can fuel progress in a task and provide the intensity required to concentrate for hours.

A musician might create a beautiful song by remembering the feeling they have for a loved one and allow this feeling to flow through their fingers as they play a musical instrument.

As a poet, I have used my emotions to help me write poems all my life. Some poems are happy, and some are decidedly sad and cathartic.

For example, here is a happy and playful poem which shows how happy emotions can flow through you to create interesting outcomes entitled A Million Miles from Normal:

A million miles from normal
in a land of mystery and wonder,
where grandfather clocks speak
and floor mops smile,
I hear raindrops pop
on the windowsill of my muse,
I swim in deep waters
to find the fountain of my joy,
I let go of wanting
to find rest in your secret garden,
I open up my soul
to find you there,
in my heart.

Henri Matisse once said, “There are always flowers for those who want to see them” and so it is with creating. If you seek to connect with love, for example, love will flow through you and show itself in your creative expression whether it is a poem, a painting or an innovative product design.

How do negative emotions affect creative thinking?

You will recall that out of the five core emotions, four are essentially negative emotions, namely, anger, sadness, fear and shame.

As I have expressed, all emotions are important and denying their importance leads to a lack of insight and the potential for inner healing and creativity.

Anger, for example, warns us about an injustice or endangerment. Sadness tells us we experienced loss. Fear, whether real or imagined, tells us something is out of balance. Shame, whether real or imagined is a mirror of our perception of self.

These unpleasant emotions can inspire ideas for change. Frustration, an emotion which has its root in anger, for example, tells us there is a problem and can inspire us to find solutions. Josephine Cochrane, who invented the dishwasher was frustrated when her helpers kept breaking her favourite china. Apoorva Mehta developed a grocery app called Instacart after being inspired by an intense dislike of the grocery shopping experience.

All emotions can be used as a source of inspiration and information for creativity as well as critical thinking. When we feel pessimistic we are more likely to achieve tasks that are more detailed and require analytical thinking like proofreading, balancing our budgets or preparing financial projections for a business plan.

Indeed, after generating novel ideas through the process of brain storming, which is helped by happy, jovial feelings, one needs to become more serious when analysing the practical implications of your ideas like cost and functionality.

Creativity is more than just coming up with ideas. Vincent Van Gogh did not just have an idea to paint sunflowers; he actually painted them. Ernest Hemingway did not just have an idea for a story about an old fisherman who battles with a giant Marlin; he actually wrote it.

I think it is very empowering to note that people don’t need to be happy to think creatively. We can come up with creative ideas and channel our energy by tapping into emotions like nostalgia, sympathy and frustration.

Actors are masters at conjuring up their personal memories to channel their feelings into the characters they play, making the experience for viewers vivid and believable.

Creative people understand the link between emotions and the goals they want to achieve and select tasks to capitalise on this relationship.

Our ability to use our emotions, whether positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant to help our thinking and decision making can make all the difference. You can either react to your feelings unconsciously or you can proactively use them effectively in the creative process.

Edvard Munch, the Norwegian expressionist painter, channelled his unpleasant feelings into The Scream, one of the most iconic paintings of all time that has moved millions of people. Munch said about his painting, “I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly the sky turned as red blood. I stopped and leaned against a fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering in fear. Then I heard the enormous infinite scream of nature.”

To show you how creative thinking can be inspired by negative emotions here is another one of my poems entitled Sunshine’s Up Upon the Still, which was borne out of sadness and loss:

Turn away you ask me why,
fish for friends to stay?

Sunshine’s up upon the still
tapestries are far away,
try against the fly
river’s bone dry,
side-scape find-scape free,
lover’s tree, baby rock,
rock in the lee of thee,
sunshine’s up upon the still
and still you play,
at a pace that we went too,
do you know the heart of it?

The drop of death in me.

Can you see me pass me by?

So whether your source of inspiration is a pleasant or unpleasant emotion, being able to discern how you are feeling by using your emotional intelligence you can choose what kind of task to engage in which will measurably enhance your ability to think creatively and come up with new innovations.

How does our physical environment affect creative thinking?

Because we are all sense-responsive beings, it is really important to set up the kind of environment that helps you to think creatively, or critically for that matter, taking into account what you see, touch, hear, smell and taste.

When I create, I often look at my physical space as a blank canvas and make it tidy before I begin my creation, whether it be with words, numbers or images.

We are all, however, different in this respect. Some people prefer working in a busy or messy environment and others prefer neatness and order. The key is to understand your preferences and go with that.

You must have at your disposal all the right tools you need for your creative enterprise. Whether that is paper and pen, paintbrushes, paints and canvas, or the right computer and software to develop a new website.

I find that having the right light is important to me so that I can not only see what I am doing but also that my space is illuminated in a beautiful and aesthetic way.

You may like to listen to certain classical music or baroque music which balances the right- and left-hand side of the brain, or you might like to listen to jazz, rock, pop or heavy metal. The key is to choose a sound that works for you or even silence for that matter, whichever best enhances your mood for the task at hand.

The key is to be aware of your environment and prepare it for the creative enterprise you wish to undertake.

When you get into flow and the ideas and images, or numbers and percentages are coming along nice and clear you don’t want to be interrupted. So, making sure that those around you know you are not to be disturbed is very important.

When we work in groups or teams in an office environment we also need to consider what physical environment works best for the kind of tasks that are being performed.

The more attuned you are to your emotions and what triggers your creative thinking for the task you want to accomplish the more time you will invest in creating the right environment for you to function at a higher frequency and a higher level of execution.

How do leaders use their emotional intelligence to unlock their employees creative thinking and problem-solving abilities?

I think to begin with, leaders need to consider solving problems in two ways; using critical thinking and analysis on the one hand, which most are very accustomed to, and on the other hand employing novel ways at solving problems using brainstorming and lateral thinking, which most are not that accustomed to.

Most business commentators and leadership experts agree that today, the ability to be agile in your thinking and agile in your methods is not only a desired approach, its also critical to survival in a highly competitive and changeable world.

By having this mindset leaders are half way there when it comes to remaining innovative and coping with constant disruption in their marketplace. The other half, and in my view, critical component of effective leadership today, is their emotional intelligence and how this impacts the team members they work with.

For example, if a leader can notice when employees are dissatisfied and can empower and support them to channel this dissatisfaction into creating improvements at work they are harnessing the power of emotion for the team’s benefit. When leaders can help their team members cope with unpleasant emotions, like working through frustrations and disappointments they help remove the obstacles that are in the way of creative expression and achievement.

By developing this kind of awareness and learning more about the affect of emotions on work outcomes, leaders can really help their employees. For example, when a leader is aware that when their team members are happy about the initial ideas they come up and this feeling can lead them to prematurely settle on substandard solutions, they become a voice of reason and encourage their team to go even deeper and examine more solutions without discouraging their team members to continue thinking creatively.

In broad strokes, when a leader is self-aware and self-managed they are in touch with their own feelings and have a handle on their behaviour. When they develop their social awareness and relationship management skills they are far better equipped to motivate their staff and respond effectively to the emotions which drive performance.

Emotionally intelligent leaders are not only connected to the task at hand but are also deeply connected to the human impulse that drives performance, namely, emotion.

Maya Angelo once said that people will not remember you for what you did but rather for how you made them feel. This is absolutely true in business and leaders who have a highly attuned sense of their own emotions and the emotions of others and have developed an empathy mindset are undoubtedly the leaders that achieve the greatest outcomes.

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