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Martin Luther King: An Emotionally Intelligent Leader

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Today we celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was an iconic leader who used his passion to strategize an end to racial and economic inequality. And, whether he was aware of doing so or not, he used emotionally intelligent techniques to persuade and inspire people of all colors to join him.

As psychologists and educators affiliated with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we analyzed his "I Have A Dream" speech to see just how Dr. King used the tools of emotional intelligence to lay out the grievances of social injustice and rouse the nation to action.

We noticed that he used the language of strong emotions, including phrases like "We will not be satisfied until..." He chose high-energy, unpleasant feeling words like fierce, desolate, vicious, unspeakable, battered, despair, withering, and crippled. These kinds of feeling words activate and put the listener on notice.

It is a basic human need to be seen and understood, and Dr. King's empathy let his listeners "feel felt." He acknowledged their suffering by saying, for example, "Some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation." And he named their experiences, acknowledging that they'd been jailed, discriminated against, blocked from the pursuit of happiness. He connected with his audience by naming the values they shared and their vision of the future. He felt, and transmitted, compassion.

Halfway through this most famous speech, the "I Have A Dream" address during the 1963 March On Washington, he abandoned his prepared remarks when Mahalia Jackson, off to the side, said, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!"

What he said next combined emotional intelligence and soaring rhetoric -- his talk gathered into a crescendo and went down in history. And the words we most remember were off the cuff. That is how skilled he was at working with his own, and the audience's, emotions.

Dr. King took care to guide his audience through the strong negative emotions that injustice brings. He laid out emotional regulation strategies for his followers, saying, "Let us not wallow in the valley of self-despair" nor "degenerate into physical violence." Instead, he said, "...[let us] conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline" and meet "physical force with soul force." He helped his followers to reframe their perceptions, telling them that suffering is redemptive. And he led them away from vindictiveness, pointing out that the destinies of blacks and whites are linked.

And ultimately he didn't leave his listeners mired in anger fueled by the stories he told them of injustice and inequality. He moved them to a positive emotional state by sharing his vision of equality, using high-energy, positive words that empower the listener: hope, justice, joyous, honor, exalted, righteous, pride, free, happiness. Such words help motivate people to act.

In that impassioned spirit, his audience right by his side, Dr. King could then begin effectively to lay out specific goals of the civil rights movement. He called for desegregation and an end to police brutality. He called for voting rights and economic equality.

"I have a dream," Dr. King told the nation in 1963. Thanks in part to his masterful emotional intelligence, we listened. Decades later, we still hear it and heed.