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Men Mateship marriage

Emotional Competence is a Man's Business

Don Edgar

Professor, Centre for Workplace Culture Change, RMIT, Melbourne.

Leadership in Boys' Education – National Forum

Newcastle, 13 May, 1998

Men have had a bad press in recent times and I want, in this address, to indicate some of the reasons why, but also to suggest that we're not as stupid as we are often portrayed. You, as the educators of boys, need to capitalise on the positive signs of change and ensure the men of the future are more emotionally intelligent than their forbears.

"Men always want to be a woman's first love: women have a more subtle instinct: what they like is to be a man's last romance."

You all know the litany of problems: men can't communicate their feelings, they don't read the signs of marital breakdown before it's too late, they don't know their own children, they won't go to the doctor for a regular check-up and thus die earlier than women of heart problems, skin cancers, etc.

As the cartoons (overheads) suggest, men are unaware of the emotional needs of their partners (husband reading the newspaper, wife sitting stark naked next to him and he asks, vaguely:"Any plans for this evening, hon.?"); wife doing the dishes, husband watching TV, calling out: "By the way, hon., great food, great wine, great you."; man sitting at restaurant table unaware that his partner is leaving, burbling on: "The sound of violins, the night, the wine, the ambience – but most of all, Louise, you!"). Men are also too often absent from their children (couple in bed, child standing there next to them, he says in surprise: "I thought it was just one of those bad dreams, but apparently, honey, we have a kid.") And their adjustment to the changed circumstances of women in society is still somewhat stilted. (All-male managers' group, responding to a female manager's report: "That was a fine report, Barbara. But since the sexes speak different languages, I probably didn't understand a word of it."; wife responding to husband: "No, I don't think our marriage would benefit from a mission statement.")

Now all of this is true, to an extent. Boys are brought up to hide their feelings, not to disclose too much to their rivals, never to admit weakness. But that has been pretty functional. After all, it has been a man's world out there, and if you're a wimp, the others don't give you any quarter. In fact, the research on male-female differences shows that girls are more attuned to feelings and their nuances than are boys, they are better at detecting fleeting feelings in the faces of other people, and they do tend to experience the same feeling that another person in their company feels. However, where people are deliberately trying to conceal their true feelings, there is no difference in the ability of men and women in reading the situation; and there is no difference when they are asked to sense the unstated thoughts of someone in an ongoing encounter. The more emotional leakage there is (via words, body language, as well as facial expression) the better men become at reading the emotions of others. Their empathic accuracy is equal to that of women.

So the nonsense perpetrated in books such as Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, is really just a cheap play on the surface differences. As you know, on all psychological characteristics, the bell curves have immense overlap; the within-group differences are larger than the between-group differences. And empathic accuracy (Ickes, 1997) is very important in the business arena, where people often have good reason to conceal their true feelings, and being able to read the signs accurately is crucial in clinching a deal, selling or negotiating something, where it's harder to control all the channels of expression. So there is no evidence of a 'female intuition' advantage. Men have as much latent ability for empathy, but usually less motivation to be empathetic, than women. They are trained to conceal, to be cool, not to 'seem' sensitive, because sensitivity in a macho world is a sign of weakness. If women are prompted to prove that empathy is a hallmark of feminine identity, they make more effort. It's the image men wish to convey, not their lack of empathic ability or accuracy, that makes the difference.

It's also a myth that men don't communicate with their wives/partners. They may not do so as much as, or in quite the ways, their partners would like, but most men insist that their 'best mate' (usually seen as a male bonding term) is 'me missus'. In my research for the book Men, Mateship, Marriage (Harper Collins, 1997), I found across all socio-economic groups that the one person men could disclose their real feelings to was their partner.

You may wonder why I'm talking about empathy and reading emotions. To put it bluntly, without such skills, no-one, including men, would survive, and in the world of the global marketplace, emotional intelligence is rapidly taking over from problem-solving and adaptability as the key skill for success. In this I am drawing from Daniel Goleman's (1997) book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can Matter More than IQ.

You may recall the Stanford University experiments of the 1960s, where Walter Mischel gave children the 'Marshmallow Test'. Put simply, the experimenter placed a marshmallow on the table in front of the child; he then said he was leaving the room for a short while; the child could eat the marshmallow, but if they could wait, then they would be given two. Some kids couldn't wait and immediately ate the marshmallow. The others delayed, sometimes with great difficulty, but were rewarded with two marshmallows. It's simply a delay of gratification test. But what was significant was that, many years later, the 'two marshmallow kids' had done significantly better than the others on school achievement, entry into college, job placement, etc. The kids who had grabbed the one that was there were more likely to have failed, become delinquent, teenage pregnant, jobless, and so on. Goleman sees this test as an indicator of being in touch with your own emotions, able to 'read' a situation accurately, which stood the one group in good stead for the rest of their lives.

You will notice that I am not talking of emotional intelligence in  terms of getting boys to love their fathers, or men to hug trees. I'm talking about a real skill that must be, and can be, learned for dealing with life's social demands. Another example is the true story of the pilot coming in to land in Portland, Oregon, with the landing gear stuck. He was a man with a violent temper who would brook no opposition to his authority. So while he fiddled with the controls, his crew failed to point out that the fuel gauge was nearing empty. The plane crashed and all crew and passengers lost their lives. Anger, fear, denial of communication can have fatal results, and it is this that boys and men need to be taught.

There are two closely related elements to emotional intelligence, variously called intra- and inter-personal intelligence (Howard Gardner), social and emotional competence, emotional literacy, and inter-personal skills. They are self-insight and empathy. Salovey & Meyer (1990) describe it as "being able to monitor and regulate one's own and others' feelings, and to use feelings as a guide to thought and action." In other words, it is an applied skill, not just a vague emotional capacity. Goleman (1998) in his second book, Working With Emotional Intelligence, describes it as "the capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships." Again, the stress is on using the skills of social and emotional competence.

Time will not permit much further detail, but there are five essential elements involved, and they can be, are, and should be taught to boys and girls in the home, the school and (if they have missed out) in the workplace:

  1. Self-awareness: knowing what we feel in a situation; using this to guide decision-making; realistic self-assessment and self-confidence.  (As an aside, it's pointless to try and teach self-esteem, if children have no competences to be proud of. Empty praise for worthless effort is soon seen as phoney.)
  2. Self-regulation: the ability to delay gratification to achieve goals; using emotions to facilitate, not interfere with, the task at hand; being conscientious and persevering; recovering well from distress, being resilient.
  3. Motivation: self-guidance towards goals; taking the initiative; striving to improve; persevering in the face of setbacks and frustrations. (Again, we do students a disservice if we let then think anything worthwhile can be achieved without real effort. They need to experience the joy of 'flow', the exhilaration of becoming lost in a task which requires deep concentration.)
  4. Empathy: sensing what other people are feeling: the ability to take their perspective; cultivating rapport with a broad diversity of people. (The Pauline Hansons of this world will not win – this is an essential element of the post-modern world, where respect for diversity is the only way to draw from its strengths.)
  5. Social skills: handling your own emotions well in situations; reading social situations accurately; interacting smoothly and effectively; using these skills to persuade and lead, negotiate and settle disputes, for cooperation and teamwork.


It should be clear that we are not talking about getting boys and men to be 'more expressive', to 'let it all hang out', to 'shed a tear now and then', though there's nothing wrong with that in its place. We are talking about a crucial social skill, one that is essential in any social interaction, whether that be a marriage partnership, a workplace team or a community organisation.

Emotional intelligence can be taught, and it should be incorporated as part of the curriculum from early childhood education on. There is no need to push it as an extra curriculum subject, though that is what many US schools are now doing. They call it 'Self Science', or 'Social and Emotional Learning'; examples are the Yale Social Competence Program and the Oakland Child Development Project. Every sensible teacher incorporates such lessons in every classroom, but it would do no harm for parents and teachers to be made more conscious of how important such procedures are, compared with a strictly cognitive approach to teaching and learning. They should encourage assertiveness, as opposed to aggression or passivity; active listening; self-awareness (the 'Emotions Cube' is one way of doing this in a group, a classroom or a workshop with executives); recognising your own strengths and weaknesses, the consequences of alternative choices; empathy, respecting and taking account of other people's feelings; good relationships and communication skills; the ability to negotiate conflict (the SOCS  Stoplight – Situation, Options, Consequences, Solutions - is one technique).

But emotional intelligence needs to be incorporated into the school as a whole, as an organisation, permeating their entire culture. We know from the research that a sense of belonging, of connectedness gives meaning and security to children's lives, yet how often do we design our schools and classrooms to be inclusive of everyone? Why can't we have home rooms, fewer teachers to cover more subjects so young students feel a few adults really know them? Why can't we have group learning instead of competitive, individualised tests of achievement, cross- age teams and tutoring? The hidden curriculum carries potent messages to students too: how lessons are taught, how 'discipline' is handled; the teacher as a role model in emotional competence; the inclusion or exclusion of parents; consistency across classrooms, the playground, the cafeteria; the school campus as a 'caring community' where kids feel respected, needed, included, valued, and bonded to teachers, fellow students and the school itself? (as compared with the recent Columbine High School massacre, where 'jocks' were valued over all others, and little was done to include the alienated, excluded groups).

For teachers and school principals who resist the notion that they have a responsibility for the emotional wellbeing of their students (most often expressed in more acceptable terms, such as, "I can't be a mother or social worker to every child!"), my message is, you are already, you can't avoid it, and it is every teacher's responsibility to nurture the child's growing emotional intelligence as much as their cognitive skills. Every piece of research on effective childhood socialisation comes back to the model shown here in four cells: Where parental/adult affect, support, emotional involvement with the child is high, and clear limits are set for the child's behaviour, we see the best results – this is 'authoritative' parenting. But where parents are too warm and limits are too lax, we get permissive child-rearing; almost as harmful in its own way as 'authoritarian' parenting where warmth is low and limit-setting is too strict. The fourth cell, combining low support/warmth and low limit-setting leaves the poor child totally confused.; he doesn't know whether he is loved or what is permitted. If parents and teachers all applied these simple principles in practice they and the children would be a much happier lot than they are today. Indeed, many parents have little time for consistent parenting because of long work hours; others are angry and distressed because they have no work at all, or not enough to keep the family together.

"As family life no longer offers growing numbers of children a sure footing in life, schools are left as the one place communities can turn to for correctives to children's deficiencies in emotional and social intelligence. That is not to say that schools alone can stand in for all the social institutions that too often are in or nearing collapse. But since virtually every child goes to school, it offers a place to reach children with basic lessons for living that they may never get otherwise. Emotional literacy implies an expanded mandate for schools, taking up the slack for failing families in socializing children. This daunting task requires two major changes: that teachers go beyond their traditional mission, and that people in the community become more involved in schools."

Most of you will know of the Health-Promoting Schools movement, or of the model of the 'full service school'. This is the way of the future and schools must end their silo mentality and become more closely linked with parents, community support services and the business community if they are to stay relevant to the needs of children in the next century.

The critical points are those of transition between primary and secondary school, and the transition to puberty. They are turning points in a child's path towards competent adulthood, and a central goal of schooling should be to ensure clear lessons are learned about the self and others. We know in particular that the pathway of boys to violence includes early impulsiveness and quickness to anger, an inability to pay attention, becoming social rejects by end of grade school and bonding with a circle of others like themselves, commencing crime sprees in the middle school years, with a police record and readiness for expanding violence by early adulthood. It is by changing the whole school, not by targeting individual children 'at risk', that the most effective interventions can be made. That's what leadership in boys' education is about – structuring the school environment so it is inclusive and emotionally intelligent as a learning community.

The emotional bedrock of character is self-discipline, and schools should not shrink from teaching and demanding this quality in every child. The old-fashioned notion of 'will' is basically an ability to defer gratification and channel one's urges to act. No society can survive without people who have that will. The ability to put aside our self-centered focus opens the way to empathy, real listening, caring, altruism and compassion; it breaks down stereotypes and breeds tolerance – all capacities increasingly called on in our pluralistic society. They are the basic arts of democracy and commitment to civic and moral values.

To conclude, they are also the skills most essential and increasingly valued in the world of work. So I am not saying kids should be taught emotional intelligence simply to make them better people or to make schools nicer places to be. Remember my earlier example of the angry airline pilot. The cockpit is a microcosm of any working organisation, and "Stress makes people stupid". Whereas the jungle fighter was the boss of old, the virtuoso in inter-personal skills is the corporate future. Valuing diversity, networking effectively, team-building, airing criticism constructively are all critical to high performance and productivity.

As Goleman notes (p. 314) "Farsighted companies are realising that they, too, have a stake in how well schools are educating their future workers ... envision coalitions among local governments, schools, and business aimed at boosting the collective level of emotional intelligence in the community." In the global age, most work will be stitched together by each individual according to his/her skills and the demand for them. Some 77% of all US 'knowledge workers' already decide what they will do on the job, they are not told by others. Increasingly, people will do work, not have a job; they will work in virtual teams to meet needs, solve problems, utulising a specialised mix of talent and expertise. "Autonomy can only work if it goes hand in hand with self-control, trustworthiness and conscientiousness. And as people work less 'for the company', and more for themselves, emotional intelligence will be required to maintain the relationships vital for workers' survival."

The signs are promising that employers and men in general are gradually getting the point. These are not simply 'soft options'; they affect directly the effectiveness of every individual in the home, in the schools and in the workplace. In companies I deal with to help design a more healthy workplace culture I no longer see the surprise expressed by the boss in this last cartoon. "It has come to my attention that you have a life outside the office!" In the New Links Workplace of the future, one would hope the boys have become whole men, in touch with their own feelings and abilities and fully able to cooperate effectively with others.


Edgar, D. (1997), Men, Mateship, Marriage, Harper Collins, Sydney.

Gardner, H. (1983), Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Basic Books, NY.

Goleman, D. (1996), Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury, London.

Goleman, D. (1998), Working With Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books.

Ickes, W. (ed.) (1997), Empathic Accuracy,Guilford Press, NY.