Aristotle, Seneca and Emotional Intelligence – conceptual design training notes

Streetscape from Lecce

This post is intended as a reminder for the people participants in last week’s conceptual design workshop. It may also pique the interest of anyone else interested in learning or teaching creativity for engineers.

The workshop was the fifth of five workshops for this cohort of engineers. At the start I asked attendees to list any challenges they face in doing conceptual design that they would like to focus on in the final session. I asked attendees to name the challenge and what kind of progress they would realistically like to make today towards overcoming that challenge. I summarised the challenges everyone shared, and asked participants to prioritise the topics for discussion. The following topics and talking points follow from that prioritised list.

Emotional intelligence and dealing with conflict

Several of the discussion topics prioritised related in one way or another to anxieties in dealing with conflict. Earlier in the workshop series we had used the Thomas Kilmam conflict instrument to help participants identify their preferred way of dealing with conflict to help understand alternative approaches. Today’s conversation focused more on what are the processes that are happening in the mind when we feel anxiety, and how can we deal with them.

I recommended participants read the introduction to Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman which gives an ‘anatomy of emotion’. We quickly looked at how the brain remembers and can quickly recreate emotional states based on external triggers, and the work that  the prefrontal cortex has to manage these emotions at the cost of it’s ability to think analytically or creatively.

The conversation quickly turned into what strategies we can adopt to manage our emotional state, and avoid unhelpful emotional triggers when working, for example by choosing when we do and don’t let distractions interupt our emotional equilibrium. This conversation seemed to resonate strongly with the participants, with several noting down different strategies they could personally adopt to help them keep a level head in their work.

I commented that this sort of topic might not typically be considered as part of a design training course, but I maintain that as creative thinking is a product of our brains, we need to be mindful of the working conditions we create for mind.

Seneca and knowing where the cart is going

The conversation about emotional intelligence led into a conversation about dealing with anxiety, for which I said I found Seneca a helpful guide. My introduction to Seneca came from Alain de Botton’s book ‘The Consolations of Philopsophy‘; hooked, I went on to read Seneca’s Letter from a Stoic, and I still dip into these.

For the engineer doing creative design work, I think Seneca has at least two useful things to say. The first is recognise that whether we like it or not, we are subject to the whims of Fortune. It is easy to ascribe success to our good decisions and then feel disappointed when things fail. Seneca teaches his disciples to recognise that in everything we do there may be forces out of our control that influence particular outcomes, and encourages them to feel more comfortable with Fortune smiling or not smiling – so that we don’t let our emotions seize control when things don’t go our way.

A second useful Sencan analogy is to think of our creative journey as similar to a dog tied by a very long leash to a slow moving cart towed by an ox. As long the creative person roams within the radius of the leash, they will experience freedom, but roam too far from the ox is heading and things become painful. It is an invitaiton to be aware of what you can and can’t influence, and not cause yourself pain shifting an outcome overwhich you have no control.

Re-reeading the above paragraphs does make it sound as if Seneca doesn’t think we can change anything – but I think the teaching is more subtle than that: by all means try something innvoative, but go at it with a clear head and don’t get knocked off course by emotions that have been prepared for.

Aristotle and the three artistic truths

This model I often refer to when working with engineers who want to improve the way they present their work. I’m no classicist and so I would welcome corrections or clarifications to what I am about to say, but as I understand it, Aristotle said that for an orator to convince an audience of what she or he was saying, then the orator needed ethos, pathos and logos.

  • Ethos – someone who can be trusted
  • Pathos – someone who feels the pain or emotions of the audience
  • Logos – someone with a logical argument.

We used ethos, pathos and logos to structure arugments presentations we gave to each other. I offered two possible briefs:

  • Convince senior management that in line with the company’s commitment to sustainability, that all food for meetings would be vegetarian (as WeWork has just done)
  • Convince your boss that it would be produdent to dedicate more time to conceptual design.

Participants recognised that usually in their presentations they just focus on logos, and not ethos or pathos. We discussed how ethos can be achived many ways: through the way you are introduced, from the language you use and the way you present yourself, to whether or not you have good ‘entry’ (see Nick Zienau’s 7 tools for leadership and influencing).