How Our Parents Taught Us (or Destroyed) Our Ability to Use Emotional Intelligence

By David Ryback, Ph.D.

The ability to acquire emotional intelligence (EI) has a lot to do with your early childhood.  To the extent that you can read the faces of those in authority, and apply the Awareness Factor to know how your authentic self will play out in that particular moment, you will succeed both at being seen as a positive influence and as being a trustworthy, engaged associate.

As for individual differences in acquiring EI, it appears childhood family experience has a lot to do with it.  If we come from non-expressive families, we tend to do better at reading faces, perhaps because of the need to decipher the subtleties of our parents’ expressions.  But if we come from violent families, then we are less adept at reading positive facial signals, perhaps because they were so rare in our early experience.  Children who seem glued to the TV set are also better readers of faces, though they do tend to simplify the emotions they read, just as the cartoon characters they see have oversimplified and exaggerated emotions.  So, in the end, we’re sensitive to the subtleties that were important to us as children.

In a Newsweek cover article entitled, “Reading Your Baby’s Mind,” empathy is seen as “the ability to discern emotions from the facial expressions of the people around them.”  Apparently, infants have that ability.  According to research by LaSalle University psychology professor Diane Montague, infants can distinguish among happy, sad and angry faces.  “They seemed primed to be alert, even vigilant,” according to Dr. Montague.  “I think it shows that babies younger than six months find meaning in expressions.” Reading others’ faces is something we learn as infants.  Some parents encourage it; others destroy that ability.

If we were unfortunate enough to lose our innate capacity for empathy in our childhood, we can regain this “talent” if we choose to face the authentic emotions in those around us at work.


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