Mental Toughness Requires Emotional Intelligence

December 2nd, 2013 by LaRae Quy

Leaders with mental toughness need to identify and control emotions, not only of themselves but of others as well. Mental toughness is not ignoring feelings or refusing to express them; instead, it is the emotional intelligence to perceive, use, understand, and manage them.

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During a recent interview on the Iron Jen radio show, I was asked how the “touchy-feely” aspect of emotional intelligence was viewed by the FBI agents with whom I worked alongside for 24 years. I would be the first to say that the FBI is not a touchy-feely sort of organization; on the other hand, emotional intelligence is an important tool for agents required to recruit human intelligence (humint) sources and interview suspects.

Many believe that mental toughness is a leader’s ability to plow through emotions and feelings without being touched by them so they can continue to march stalwartly onward. It’s not that simple.

Awareness and curiosity about their own emotions, as well as those of others, places leaders in a stronger position to not only recognize the negative ones but to anticipate how they could spin out of control.

So how do the mentally tough use emotional intelligence?

They label their own emotions and those of others, identify what creates stress and what motivates positive behavior, and finally, listen and talk in ways that resolve conflicts rather than escalate them.

Here are essential 3 mindsets used by FBI agents to develop emotional intelligence:

1. Clued In

Among the first steps in any investigation is putting the subject under surveillance. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is to identify their patterns of behavior.  In other words, agents need to be clued in to the activities, behavior, motivation, thinking, and emotions of the subject they are investigating.

Picking apart and analyzing what makes people tick becomes a mindset. Because of this, it is something that can be practiced by anyone at anytime.

Law enforcement officers often look at people around them in restaurants and airports and attempt to figure out their stories—such as what they do for a living, their mood, what they’re thinking—based solely on observation. This simple focused-awareness drill can train a person’s mind to be clued in on what is going on with the people around them.

Getting clued in means moving your awareness level up a notch or two. Learn more about yourself, as well, by asking, “What preoccupies my thinking?” “When am I most comfortable with myself?” “What do I notice first in others?”

2. Curious

Curiosity is an important trait for geniuses, FBI agents working investigations, and anyone who wants to be emotionally intelligent. Curious people have active minds that are always asking questions and searching for answers, instead of passive ones.

A curious mindset is continually expecting and anticipating new information about events and situations. Curious people seek new insight into the behavior of others, as well as themselves.

They do not accept the world as it is without trying to dig deeper beneath the surface around them. This is why interviews and questioning is another essential investigative step for FBI agents. Using open-ended questions by starting them with these words—who, what, when, where, and how—are great ways to unlock information.

3. Disciplined

The ability to become mentally tough can be attained by anyone with the will and the discipline to do so. It’s not possible to become an expert at anything unless you are disciplined to put in both the time and the effort.

Self-discipline is not an attitude of harshness or limitations. Instead, it is an element of inner strength where you choose what you will make a priority. To become an expert, you will need to stick with it, practice, fail many times, find new approaches to attack the problem, and continue to study in your field until you find a path to success. This takes a discipline that will leave you with such deep skills that when confronted with obstacles and barriers, you will have the mental strength to do things faster, smarter, and better.

Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. It is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind—you could call it character in action—Vince Lombardi

Self-awareness is a critical skill for FBI agents who continually seek out ways to overcome obstacles and adversity. Self-awareness is being in touch with emotions. It is not being tough or strong to ignore them.

Acknowledging emotions does not make you weak; instead, it is an essential element of mental toughness (click to tweet).

How have you used emotional intelligence to be a better and stronger leader?

© 2013 LaRaeQuy. All rights reserved.

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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths” and “Secrets of a Strong Mind.” 

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15 Responses to “Mental Toughness Requires Emotional Intelligence”

  1. Loved this well written article. Emotional intelligence is the next ‘big skill’ of the next five years for anyone who interacts with others for a living. I’m using this knowledge to help my coaching clients to recognize opportunities to trust with their prospects and current clients.

  2. Jon Mertz says:

    Appreciate this insightful post, LaRae. As you pointed out, self awareness is an important element to emotional intelligence. This point triggered a thought that without self awareness it is really hard to be clued in or act with empathy. If we are unaware of ourselves, then it is very difficult to be aware of others, their actions, motives, etc. A great look at emotional intelligence. Thanks! Jon

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Thank you Jon! I’m a big believer that most of the barriers we face in life could be overcome if we only had more self-awareness. Without it, it is very difficult to deepen our learning about other things in our life.

  3. Alli Polin says:

    Eye opening for me on how mental toughness has a “soft” side too. Toughness makes people think of walls and distance but you’re really writing about awareness and building emotionally intelligent connection. Love this glimpse into the how of mental toughness. Years ago, an advisor suggested to me that instead of being smart and having all of the answers, be “as dumb as a rock” and incredibly curious and with each question turn over a new stone and deepen the learning. I don’t think he literally meant dumb but instead to get clued in and dig into what’s really going on underneath. Loved it, LaRae!

    • LaRae Quy says:

      I love the advice of your advisor…I hate to admit this, but I can’t tell you how many times “playing dumb” has helped me get through some sticky situations. People tend to take more time to explain…which I love! I could be curious about my environment, or people, and playing dumb sometimes gave me permission to “not know everything” and learn from others.

      And yes, deeper learning really helps to get clued-in. It’s all one cycle…

      Thanks, Alli!

  4. Bill Benoist says:


    I am a fan of Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence,” so this was truly an interesting read for me.

    I can certainly see the importance of self-awareness for agents in the field – maintaining a neutral mode of self-reflectedness amidst turbulent emotions. I think Goleman refers to these times as emotional hijackings. For the agents to stay neutral and self-reflective during those difficult times really does demonstrate character on their part.

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Thanks for your comment, Bill. I haven’t read much Daniel Goleman but I know he’s the guru when it comes to emotional intelligence.

      I like that term “emotional hijackings.” Yes, it’s all about keeping your wits when times get tough or we’re confronted with the unknown.

  5. Lolly Daskal says:

    For many mental toughness is equated with power. but in essence it is the capacity to bring your humanity to your mental toughness that is where the heart truly resides.

    I love this sentence: Curiosity is an important trait for geniuses and Acknowledging emotions does not make you weak; instead, it is an essential element of mental toughness

    I love the power of your message. very strong. very timely. MUCH NEEDED.


    • LaRae Quy says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Lolly!

      People tend to think of mentally tough people as hard-hearted…but mental toughness is being able to balance a focused mindset while listening to the heart and emotions. If heart and emotions are not part of the equation, it is impossible to be mentally tough…that would be more like “hard-headed!”

  6. Karin Hurt says:

    Truly clueing in is such an important part of leadership. Strong leaders stay soft enough to notice their surroundings and what people need.

  7. Terri Klass says:

    I found your post fascinating, LaRae because I did actually think that FBI agents had more repressed feelings in order to better deal with their challenging situations. I did not realize that self-awareness was such a critical aspect of being an agent.

    Self-awareness is essential for leaders to understand how they might react in a certain situation. We bring our own feelings and attitudes to every encounter we have and that greatly impacts how we interpret people’s actions. This can be seen a lot with the different generations in the workplace. If someone has a negative feeling with dealing with a particular generation, they tend to transfer those feelings in the workplace. Being aware is half the battle. Managing our emotions is the other half.

    Thanks again for another insightful post! Love it!

    • LaRae Quy says:

      FBI agents, and law enforcement in general, are usually in control of their emotions, which is difficult to do unless you’re aware of them…I would say that the natural progression for most agents is to first notice the emotions of others and then move to the inner self.

      Many of my macho FBI colleagues, Navy Seals, and SWAT teams might prefer to call this “savvy” or personal survival skills…but in the business world it’s called emotional intelligence.

      Love this: “When we bring our own feelings and attitudes to every encounter we have, it greatly impacts how we interpret people’s actions.” How true…Great comment!

  8. LaRae – I love reading your posts about mental toughness. I continue to appreciate your emphasis on humanity, while teaching pro-active life skills. Thank you for bringing me into your world, into your stories, and into your expertise. I find myself thinking about and referring to mental toughness often and those thoughts always lead to thoughts of you!

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Chery, I appreciate your kind words! Mental toughness is never turning our back on humanity, including our own! Often, the hardest person to be kind to is ourselves…

      I value our friendship and collaboration!

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