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Emotional Intelligence

How to Develop Focus and Improve Your Emotional Intelligence


How to Develop Focus and Improve Your Emotional Intelligence

Written by: Stephen D. Chece, Ph.D. | President, Chece Psychological, LLC

EQ + IQ = happiness, success, fulfillment, gratitude and Joy!  Where does focus fit in?

Most of us would like to believe that we are the Captains of our lives, but do we truly know how to navigate our lives and are we doing the most effective and efficient job with our lives and the lives of our children?  Have we even taken some time to ponder this question?  It would probably make sense for us to sit down and think about where we are going with our lives and have some sense of how we hope to get there.  What about our children, do they have any understanding of what their purpose in life might be?  To answer, or to attempt to answer these questions, we need to begin to journey inward to a place that is probably not very familiar to us, or to a place that many of us want to avoid at all costs.  But to avoid inner, other, and outer awareness can be very costly, while developing these can add great happiness, joy, satisfaction, clarity in our lives and help to deepen our sense of peace and good will. To effectively navigate this we will need to know something about the importance of focused attention, willpower, empathy, and how to sharpen these skills.  We will need to know that attention is much like a muscle, and like a muscle it is something that one can strengthen with the appropriate type of practice.

What is attention or focus?

William James, one of the founding fathers of modern psychology defined attention as “the sudden taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”   In an era of overwhelming distractions we need to learn to sharpen focus if we hope to move in the direction of success and fulfillment.   If we hope to live a purposeful life we need to strengthen the muscles of inner, other and outer focus, as those that have succeeded in fields as diverse as music, the arts, competitive sports, education, business, etc., have done in their lives.

What happens if we struggle with sustaining attention?

For those that struggle with attention, either child, adolescent or adult, they can’t effectively learn.  They must instead learn to develop that ability to re-focus and to get back on track.

What are the dangers of modern day distractions?

We are all so easily distracted and absorbed by our smart phones and other technological tools we use each day, as they often pull our attention in multiple directions and it is very difficult to stay focused long enough to complete a task. Just think about going to visit a friend or a relative with your teenager  (s), and look at what they are doing while gathered together in front of the television. They’re not focused on their choppy and superficial conversation with each other, nor are they totally engaged in watching the television program, they are instead riveted to their phones sending and receiving text messages, Facebook message, Snap Chat photos, etc. They are anything but very connected with one another. This onslaught of information through the new technology is taking the next generation prisoner as they have developed addictions to their new hand held devices.  If you don’t think they are addicted, just try to take that phone from them for any measure of time, first they will fight tooth and nail, and if they surrender their smart phone or other techno device they become melancholy and will refuse to talk to you.  Of course these devices were meant to help us to stay connected to our children and them to their friends, but all of that backfired and now we’ve lost control, they’ve lost control and we are chasm between true connections grows significantly greater.  Our children are losing the ability to connect and communicate, to simply be still and be present in the moment.  They are beginning to buy into the notion that without staying connected via the smart phone they will be lost.

Our children don’t realize the potential danger of this.  Today’s youth are not learning how to connect, to be intimate in conversation in the company of another person, to be self-aware, aware of others or of their environment and future relationships may suffer in the aftermath of this cultural disconnect.

What’s so important about self-control and having a moral compass?

Self-control is the pivotal point in a person’s character that can mean the difference between success and failure in life.  It could determine how you score on the SAT, what college you may attend, what type of job you get in the future, what kind of parent you become, and whether or not you care about the wellbeing of others, or just yourself.   There are many other scenarios in life that can and will be impacted by this as well.

What makes our children so much more vulnerable to today’s technology and distractions?

Other reasons to be more concerned about our children include their brain development, because the brain is the last organ of the body to become anatomically mature.   Neuroplasticity of the brain is extremely important, as this indicates that repeated experiences are what begin to shape the brain.  A male’s frontal lobe does not fully develop until they reach about 25 years old.


Why is the prefrontal cortex so important in life?

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for executive functioning.  Executive function or cognitive control is responsible for planning, judgment, self-discipline, attention control, self-control, and the ability to resist temptations.  Intact executive functioning suggests that a person is able to focus, has self-control and these factors can help predict good math and reading scores throughout school, and increase SAT scores by some 200 points.  This power to direct our focus onto one thing and ignore others lies at the core of willpower.  Fortunately, willpower, focus, self-control, self-discipline are characteristics that can be taught, via improving one’s ability to focus and increasing one’s overall EQ.

And what about empathy, why is that important?

Empathy is one’s ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others, and to be able to understand the pain and emotions of another person, and know that it is theirs not yours, so you maintain objectivity.  It is much harder to learn to empathize—to internalize empathy as a natural response to people— than it is to become adept at regression analysis. If a child has an experience of empathy, then the circuitry for empathy grows, just as the circuitry for focus grows as a child develops that muscle with the abovementioned exercises of mindfulness meditation.   As empathy develops for self, others and outer, the person’s overall emotional intelligence is enhanced.  It is important to understand that children need this in order for their brains to develop toward higher emotional intelligence and ability to focus.   Helping develop EQ and focus is the primary purpose of the EQ scholastic program.

Are there downfalls if a child doesn’t develop self-control, a “rudder” or empathy and a moral compass?

The ability to manage emotions is positively correlated with being able to focus.  Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is something that helps a child negotiate their relationship with other kids much more mindfully and effectively.  The more you can manage emotional upsets the more you’re able to learn.  One situation stands out as a primary example of an Amygdala Hijack. Having worked with incarcerated adolescents over the past 10 years, and prior to that with children of neglect, abuse and of poverty, I found this case particularly disturbing.  Ron was one very bright and talented 17-year-old who had completed his sentence for drug dealing or CDS controlled dangerous substances, and he was about to be released to his family.  Sadly his entire family consisted of only his grandmother, as he lost his parents when he was about a year old.  Ron was present when his father murdered his mother and then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.  Ron was subsequently left in the care of his grandmother and they had a very loving relationship despite this horrific event.  As a teen, Ron was attracted to older girls or in this case, women, as at 17 he was involved in a serious relationship with 27 year-old women.  While incarcerated, Ron maintained contact with his girlfriend via phone and she was the mother of a 4-year-old boy by another man, though Ron was very attached to this child as well.  While serving his time Ron worked very diligently in the program, always earning level A, the highest level of the behavior modification system incorporated in that program.   He was focused and engaged in school as he was able to complete his HSD a major accomplishment for Ron and he subsequently worked on getting a job in his community as well as enrolling in the local community college which was paid for by the state.  Ron was well on the way to turning his life around.  He was released during the early summer and it wasn’t two weeks after he returned home that he was on the run for shooting one of his older but closer friends in the face.  Shortly after his return home, Ron learned that his 27-year-old girlfriend was having an affair with this man, and Ron had an Amygdala Hijack or he “blacked out” as he became so enraged that there was no turning back.  Ron found his drug lord mentor friend and shot him in the face killing him on the spot. Ron was later apprehended after a couple of weeks on the run and sentenced to life in prison for murder.  Despite all of the efforts to help Ron to get his life on the right path, Ron lacked self-control and was not able to manage his emotions, as they managed him despite his very superior IQ and other emotional talents as well.   He lacked impulse control and empathy, issues that may have helped him to delay his response to kill had he developed these skills.  Ron was not a psychopath, but he did suffer with PTSD, and this fight or flight situation did not end well.

Think before you act.

Maturity is lengthening the gap between impulse and reacting.  Stopping and thinking about the range of possible choices you can make and think about what the desired outcome you want and align your choice with that and try it our.  This is Cognitive Control like the Marshmallow test when they are offered a marshmallow and told if you wait a few minutes after the person runs an errand the child can have two marshmallows.  This tries the soul of any child, but those that delay gratification, which is about 33% in that study go on in life and get along with their peers they’re still able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals.  They also did better on the SAT, as they had a 200-point advantage on the SAT than those that gobbled down the marshmallow immediately.   If you’re not able to manage your impulses, you’re going to wander mentally, emotionally and not be able to pay attention to what the teacher said, and without focus there is no learning.   Cognitive control is a better predictor of financial success and health in the mid 30’s than IQ and SES.  This is a completely independent factor and it can be taught to children to level the playing field.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

SEL means being smart about your relationships.  A “put up” is when a chubby child is confronted by his teasing peer, and delays a moment, takes a deep breath and replies, yeah I’m not so good at soccer, but what I’m good at is art, show me anything and I can draw it, but some day I’d like to be as good as you are in soccer.  With that the boy puts his arm around the boy and says, oh you’re not so bad, here let me show you.  A way to handle “put downs” by other children.  This pays attention to what matters to children.   These are lessons in empathy, and we need to get together with our children and get better at them.

Something about “Flow”

Flow on the other hand is a level of attention/focus where you are so engrossed in what you are doing that you are experiencing such joy as endorphins are flowing as well.


What is Rapport?

Rapport is interpersonal flow, where both people are engrossed in a mutual discussion.

Must we always be focused or are there advantages with day dreaming or the wandering mind?

The Wandering Mind:  50% of the time our minds are wandering.  Especially during commuting,  at work, on the computer, as our Cortisone levels are too low.  If your mind is wandering you are not focusing, but you need to daydream for the creative process.  We can make connections with creative ideas during times of mind wandering, but to put these ideas to use, we need to shift back to the focused mind.  We need 3 kinds of focus: 1. Inner focus:  Inner awareness and ethical rudder to guide our decisions based on our life experience.   2. Other focus or Awareness of others, which is how we develop cognitive empathy.  How you see the world.   Cognitive empathy is being able to communicate with others, meaning that you can really understand another person’s thoughts.  Emotional empathy is an immediate felt sense of what’s going on in the other person and this is essential.   We need both of these to be effective.   Empathic Concern:  Not only do I know how you think and feel, but if there is something you need and I can help you with that, I am predisposed to help.  The effective leaders that people love working for, those that are loyal have all three kinds of empathy.   3. Outer Focus:  Being able to understand the ecosystem that our organization functions.   This enables you to understand what’s going to work and not work and what to do in the future to be successful.   This is being able to see and understand the Big Picture.    Without the inner, other and outer focus a leader can be rudderless and easily run into the rocks not only with their lives, but with the lives of others that are counting on that leader to lead them in a safe and productive direction.

How do we develop focus; self-control; empathy; inner, other and outer awareness or said another way, what are some ways to increase our EQ?

Jon Kabat-Zen founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and he teaches us that being focused on our breath is a form of meditation that helps us strengthen this muscle of being able to sustain focus or to be present in the moment.  The strengthening of this keeps us focused, the exercise of bring your mind back to focusing on our breath is what strengthens that muscle.  It’s not the focus itself, but bringing the mind back to focusing on your breath that helps build that muscle.  We need to learn to cultivate our minds by utilizing this exercise so that we can orient or captain our lives at will.  By exercising 30 minutes a day for 8 weeks, the brain will begin to change, as people begin to really enjoy their work again, their mood elevate and they are just much more positive about themselves and others.  This however is a very challenging endeavor in a fast moving, technological world filled with distractions, especially for children and adolescents.  While Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is important for adults, it is especially important for children.  Childhood has changed as a side effect of the ambush of this digital world of technology.  Texting has overcome a phone call, as kids send around 100 text messages a day and there is a loss of an ability to connect with others on a more genuine and intimate level.  The adolescent’s focus is fragmented into how they need to respond to several group text messages, Facebook notifications, snap chats, etc. and they are anywhere but in the moment with their friend or companion.  This is important for parents to try to comprehend because of this deluge of technology and the depravation of focus and connection between children.   I’m sure you have all been exposed to this while either attending or entertaining a party with a group of adolescents.  They are all standing or sitting around with their faces buried in their smart phones or other mobile device having superficial and fragmented conversations with those around them.  They don’t dare look away from that phone for fear of missing out on some tidbit of information concerning perhaps the next gathering, school event, sporting event, concert, etc.   This is indeed a challenge for our children, and it’s becoming a challenge for adults as well, as I often find that our friends are texting during a dinner, something I have been guilty of myself.

“Our emotions are contagious, for better or for worst.”  – Matthew Richard, author of Happiness

“Attention is a skills deficit, and in our culture we treat this deficit with medication, rather than helping the child.” – Marty Seligman, psychologist, educator and author

Work to develop optimism

Good work what we’re excellent at, passionate with, and what we value with our ethics helps us to get into flow.  Questions to ask, what would be good work for you and what would help you to get it into passion and flow for your daily work  over the course of the next month or over the next five years.

If you are in a frazzled state, it means you are out of control.   Manage your own world better by finding something that works for to get you physiologically relaxed like yoga, meditation, exercising, deep muscle relaxation, and do it everyday.  Over time your bodies set point for stress changes and you’ll be able to manage the challenges of life better or to be in a more relaxed state.

One might ask, why is focus so important and how is it related to EQ?

Attention is embedded in Emotional Intelligence, because the brain’s circuits for emotion, empathy and for attention intermingle.  Its not the genes you have its which genes turn on and off at the right time.

How do we change our perspective from negative to positive?

Changing our perception requires that we begin to look at the world differently or through a more positive lens.  Instead of becoming bombarded with the negativity and atrocities of the media, we can begin to look at things in a more realistic perspective.  For instance, we can begin to look at random acts of kindness in the world things as simple as a mother feeding her child as opposed to the horrible acts of hate and violence that makes headline news on our local news station.   When we put things in perspective, we begin to understand that these everyday acts of kindness far out weigh the acts of horror.   We need to use the media in a different way, a better way.  We need to remember how what we perceive whether it be through music, reading, television, movies impact the way we feel and think.  If we spend too much time listening to or looking at negativity it can have an adverse impact on our emotional and mental well-being.  Remember Norman Cousins who wrote a book about laughing your way back to health.


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