Understanding the Emotionally Intelligent Sign Language Interpreter

August 11, 2021

Sarah Wheeler presented Understanding the Emotionally Intelligent Sign Language Interpreter at StreetLeverage – Live | Austin. In her presentation, Sarah discusses the importance of emotional intelligence (EI) as a vital component of a successful professional practice and asks how sign language interpreters can infuse EI in their daily practice.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is a translation of Sarah’s StreetLeverage – Live | Austin presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access her original presentation directly.]

Understanding the Emotionally Intelligent Sign Language Interpreter

Hi, how are you all! It’s so great to see you so early in the morning, and it seems everyone is awake. It’s a pleasure to come here to StreetLeverage- Live. It’s a think tank for me. I look out and see all these brilliant people here, people who are invested in this work. Interpreters who want to be better at what they do, who want to collaborate with the deaf community, and elevate the work we are all doing. Brandon Arthur, he is just incredible. I am so inspired by all the work that has been done here. 

To be honest, the past few days, I’ve been incredibly nervous. It’s crazy because this IS the “place” right? This is StreetLeverage. This is the place everyone looks to for the most up-to-date information in the field. I have gotten with a few of my close friends who are here and sharing that I was feeling scared, or that the information couldn’t come across the way I wanted it to. After sharing these things with people, the response wasn’t that I shouldn’t feel these ways or that I was crazy for feeling this way, or that I was weak for feeling the way I did. Most people, everyone told me I would do great, and supported me. They told me it would be fine and gave me some ideas on how to deal with the nerves for this presentation. That to me shows what a community is all about, that we can support each other. 

The first thing we must do is to put down our walls and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. If we constantly have our walls up and are telling each other that we are fine all the time without being real, putting on a false front like we are doing good, we are tough, and we know everything. I know I don’t know everything. Everyone in this room comes in with diverse backgrounds and knowledge, but together we can put all our knowledge together and have opportunities to elevate the work we are all doing in the field. It’s impossible to do it all ourselves and to think that we have all the knowledge and tools to be successful. Last night, one of my friends shared with me that our weakness is our greatest strength. They were talking about how we can learn from each other and remain humble, while still growing and moving forward. The fact is, we are all human, and we are all still learning daily. We make mistakes all the time, and we aren’t perfect, and it’s okay. We shouldn’t expect perfection in our lives in all that we do. There are so many things that we are still learning. We are all still in the process of growing, which means we must admit sometimes when mistakes are made. At times, we need to check in with other people and let them know when we make a mistake so that we can begin to work together to fix it. That’s what this is all about.

I loved the last presentation, and really all the presentations here have and will be amazing throughout this conference. Everyone here has been focused on the idea of impact. What is the impact that we are seeing with our work? In Aaron’s presentation, he discussed the importance of doing challenging work to understand yourself first. Once we do that, we discover some of the good qualities and attributes that we can then share with others. This can create positive impacts where we work, in our relationships, and with the person that we are. 

To give you a bit of history about myself, I was raised a Coda, which means I was involved with the Deaf community and I had Deaf parents and was fully immersed in that community.  

Then when I became an interpreter, I had a completely new experience and felt like I had one foot in and out of different cultures and communities. Both hearing and Deaf, interpreters and the Deaf community. I’m sure many of you experience the same thing as CDI’s, hearing interpreters, etc. We are all straddling these different communities and spaces. Within these spaces are so many different cultures. This means acknowledging who we are and our identity, and also knowing how we interact in all of these different spaces. Understanding that other people may feel differently than we do. It doesn’t mean one person is wrong or right, what this means is that we enter different spaces and simply listen and do our best to understand.

Now I’d like to bring it back to the reason why we are here, to discuss emotional intelligence. It’s important that we understand our emotions – as interpreters, the Deaf community, and other people interpreters work with. We are first and foremost human. We work as interpreters which means we deal with interactions that involve communication. Communication is all about connection and relationships. That’s the core of what we do. It’s good to have in-depth knowledge about the field, language, and the skills required to do the job. At the same time, some people wear these things like their armor. They stay in the space where these things define who they are, which can feed the ego. This looks like confidence, but we need to look closely at what lies behind this armor. If the person is all about themselves all the time, they lose the opportunity to have authentic relationships. Is trust there? Communication? Honesty? These things are missing when we wear our armor. What this means is that we need to begin to think about what it means to have emotional intelligence, and what this concept means.

As I said earlier, there are so many different cultures that we work with. I’m fascinated with the opportunities we have in learning emotional intelligence. Before we move forward, let me ask everyone here, how do you feel? You don’t need to say anything, but just think about how you are feeling in whatever language is your first language or whatever you are comfortable with. How is each of you feeling? Do some of you struggle with coming up with a word/sign for this? Is it easy for you to identify and express how you feel? It seems for some of you in the audience it is yes, for others, not so much. 

Five years ago, I wouldn’t have had a way to express how I felt and struggled with just understanding the concept. Whenever I was asked, I only had one word to describe how I felt, which was always “fine.” I struggled, as I am sure many of you do because as we grow up, we are told to stop crying, to suppress our emotions, to be brave. Intelligence is reinforced in the schools as important and a way to show our achievements, but your emotions just get in the way. We have been taught to keep going and, in a way, to ignore our emotions, right? For me, all I knew about how to express my emotions was to use the word “fine,” and then I started to learn the range of human emotions I could choose from. Feelings and emotions guide our behaviors and how we act. It’s the reason we do the things we do and how we can understand each other. This is an extremely important part of emotional intelligence. 

Emotions also impact a person’s memory, learning, decision-making processes. I am sure you can recall how nervous you were while in school taking a test. You may have been thinking that you would fail or that you didn’t know the information. In those situations, you can’t pay attention, and you may end up not giving it your all. I imagine it’s the same feelings that a Deaf person may have while entering a doctor’s office and not feeling a basic connection with the interpreter; the thoughts and emotions begin to take over your thought processes, which then interfere with your actual interactions with the doctor. I would imagine this would be the case. How do we as interpreters understand our behaviors in order to allow that relationship, which happens in an instant, to happen for all parties in the room so they feel safe enough to move forward with their own communication with each other? We need to always remember it is their experience that is most important.

You know, we are living in a world run by technology, and a big focus within this is ‘user experience’. How this works is that if you are using an app then people will study what that experience was like for that person, how it felt for them after using the app, what the impacts were. I think we should do the same thing for the interpreting profession. Once an interpreted event has occurred, we should find out what the experience was for the people involved, and how I was able to support, or how I blocked communication from happening.

What is thought-provoking, is that culture (and I will touch on this a bit later in my workshop) impacts emotions. I want to be sure to point out, emotions are universal, yet, culture and language impact how we understand various emotions. Interesting to point out, we discuss often the differences in Deaf culture and hearing communities but included within these groups are such a variety of intersections of human experiences which include cultures and people’s backgrounds. This means that we need to be able to understand and take a closer look at people. Just as importantly we must recognize the diversity within our field. We have hearing interpreters and CDI’s. Recognizing that each person that is in our field has a different way they can express their feelings and emotions. 


What are interpreters going to look like in the future? We will be building bridges with the Deaf community, to understand the Deaf community, but we too will need to understand ourselves as well as other interpreters. We can’t do this work alone, to do this job we must work with other people. What this means is that we must dig down deep and understand ourselves first. I know many people understand they need to do this, and I’m sure just as many of you feel, having those difficult conversations like we are doing here is not easy for many of us.  We can’t think we have finished all of our heavy emotional work once you leave StreetLeverage and get home. This type of work will last a lifetime, where you will be constantly reassessing and evaluating in order to understand yourself, and just when you think you understand, something else will come your way to throw you off, and then you will have to start all over again and learn new things. You may meet new people and will have to learn how to adjust all over again. The hard work will be ongoing, it isn’t easy, sometimes it feels uncomfortable especially when people have all these bad emotions that they must deal with. If I am feeling all these things without knowing how to label them, even though I know that I don’t like feeling them I may resort to doing two things. The first one is to suppress them, and if we suppress them, which most of us do, eventually the feelings will intensify to a point where they will find their way out. It’ll happen one way or another. At times it manifests as anger, and often it is observable through a person’s behavior. You may wonder to yourself why that person is acting the way they are acting, and often that person doesn’t even know. We can’t really blame them for not knowing. There are other times where people are emotional and don’t know how to deal with all of these emotions, so they pass on how they are feeling to the people around them. This is simply because they are not able to regulate or understand the emotions they are feeling in the first place or to understand where these emotions come from. These are the things that we will take a closer look at and discuss in the workshop later and will look at the different models that have been developed in the field of Emotional Intelligence.

This slide that I just show everyone was taken by Mayer & Salovey, who recently developed an emotional intelligence model which I will be sharing with you. What is interesting to note, is that the idea of I.Q. began long ago and was taught to people. It was around 1995, that the discussion around emotional intelligence began, which then took hold in various communities. This provided a model that people could use to self-reflect and understand themselves. This science was based in cognitive sciences, which recently has gained a lot of traction. This has given us a way to explain what we had known for a long time but couldn’t define the things that we knew were so important. There was just no evidence or data to back it up. With I.Q. it is easily measurable. We can see evidence of this by memory and what they have learned. However, with I.Q. we haven’t been able to measure how much a person can express emotions, or how their humanity is understood. Fortunately, currently, we have ways to measure and provide evidence of how we are displaying emotions, and what the impact emotions have on us. Mayer & Salovey have really led the way in terms of this research.

For these presentations, we will utilize Goldman’s model on Emotional Intelligence. How many of you have read Goldman’s book by a show of hands? It’s a phenomenal book, and for me, so much of it, I think, applies to the interpreting profession. I’m also going to be using this model as a foundation for the presentation I’ll be giving later on in the day. There are five components to that model. The first part is understanding yourself (self-awareness). There is this one tool that I have found, which has helped me so much to understand myself called the Emotion Wheel. Now when I am trying to figure out what emotions I am feeling, knowing that ‘fine’ is simply not good enough, I’ll turn to this emotion wheel to figure out how to label the emotions. We will discuss that later in the following workshop.

Self-awareness is understanding your own emotions and understanding what has triggered you to make you feel a certain way and where that is from. From there, you can figure out if that is something that is triggering you now, or if it is an emotion that stems from an event that has happened in the past which is triggering your emotional state now. The next component is how you regulate that emotion, which means if I happen to get angry, or I enter an interpreting assignment and I feel nervous, or overwhelmed, or I’m feeling anxious because I’m not developing a good rapport with the other individual in the room. Just by being able to identify and regulate that emotion, and then reminding myself of what my goal was at the assignment. I would be thinking about how I could repair the current situation or what I would need to do, how I would need to act. This is instead of acting impulsively and being angry, or taking over, or acting in a lot of different ways. This is about stepping back and thinking to yourself, what am I feeling? To identify it and to slow it down. To think about what is going on, to be mindful, to take in everything in your environment, and be in control. The most important thing here is to know how I am feeling and why and to start that you must label the emotion. 

Following this is the component of motivation, which we will discuss in the workshop. This relates to how interpreters sometimes can be incredibly excited about what they do, and then all of a sudden, they lose their momentum and aren’t looking forward to the work they are doing anymore. This can happen for many reasons, this could be their defensive ‘armor’ that they are wearing because they are in an environment where they aren’t feeling safe, or just feeling a complete lack of motivation. Motivation all starts when we are able to understand our emotions. Being motivated comes from a feeling of being joyful and excited when you feel a connection with the Deaf community. People are motivated when they know their reason WHY they wake up every day, why they go to work. These are the people that want to improve and what to keep learning. They do this because they are motivated, which is all spurred on by emotions. We see sometimes people back away from being involved in the field of interpreting, or who gradually lessen their involvement, maybe they try not to find opportunities to learn. This also comes from the emotions we feel. Perhaps they are feeling isolated and rejected. Understanding the emotions that are felt behind the actions and what is causing the person to remove themselves from the profession. This is important for everyone to recognize, especially so that if we see that another interpreter is starting to pull away we can check in with them and ask what is going on, to see if they will share how they are feeling and if they can pinpoint the situations that made them feel that way. If it is something they can do something about now, or if it is something that happened a while ago. Once they can figure this out, then we can reconnect it and the person back into our community of practice. Humans are social creatures and we need each other. We are one tribe. The Deaf community and the interpreting community partnering together and working to support each other. We need each other.

It follows the line of the story that was just shared. We can’t work separately with our walls and guards up living in fear, we will end up isolating ourselves and be in fear that the other is judging us. This will cause a divide to grow even deeper, which will never allow us to succeed. Again, we need each other. This means, even though this may be uncomfortable, that we must be able to share how we are feeling. This also means we must listen.  For us to even do this, we need to be able to first understand ourselves and understand how we are feeling. This is something we must do; we must work together. Another way to think about this is like we are all in a relationship. Some may think of a marriage, or a relationship with a friend, a romantic partner, whoever. The point is, any relationship worth having, you must fight for. If you never communicate in a relationship you will start to grow apart. Misunderstandings can start to happen, and you and the other person will begin to experience a distance between you two.  

If you are in a meaningful relationship, this means you have to share how you are feeling and why you are feeling the way you are with the other person, get their perspective on how they are feeling about that, and allow yourselves to talk it out to come to a resolution. Sometimes these conversations can hurt, but it is so worth it. It is because we know we are in this to do this thing together.

The next thing we will discuss is empathy, which is another component out of five within Goleman’s emotional intelligence model. Empathy is understanding the other person’s emotional state and point of view. It is much different than sympathy, which is when a person feels bad for another person from their own perspective. With empathy, you are connecting with that other person, trying to understand their emotional state and understand their experience and perspective. What this does is bring in the humanity of the experience and can align people together. Empathy big piece of emotional intelligence. How are we going to be able to recognize another person’s emotional state, if I don’t even know how to identify and label emotions in the first place? If a person is only able to use ‘fine’ to describe their own emotional state, how could we expect them to identify someone else’s emotional state? Knowing this alone is the reason why I feel it is incredibly important for all interpreters to begin with understanding how to identify emotions, how to connect with other humans, and how to self-analyze their own emotions and behaviors. Knowing this doesn’t only help us identify these emotions in ourselves, but it better equips us to recognize the emotional states of other people. Knowing this is so important to have relationships.

The final component is social awareness. We can see what this means to personal relationships but let’s examine what this looks like for interpreting.

My time is almost up so I am going to rush through these last few points but remember more is coming in the next workshop so don’t worry. This applies to interpreting, too. Imagine how just my presence and body language impacts the people in the room depending on how I am acting. My behavior can impact how comfortable everyone is feeling. Recognizing the tone of voice is another big one, if someone is angry then I need to connect to that message with the right type of emotions. The same goes for the emotion that is seen in sign language. Think about if someone is negotiating a deal, or you can recognize the power dynamic in the room, or are allowing the people to emotionally connect with each other. Without any emotion, communication becomes flat, almost robotic. However, adding in the component of emotion, we are adding in the humanity in the conversations and allowing people to feel engaged and able to freely communicate with one another. Recognizing emotions can make all the difference in connecting people together. 

What is so important is that we as interpreters can look to the future and think about what interpreting will be like. Interpreters are here because of the Deaf community; therefore, we are working. In thinking of our role, we must think about what the consumer experience is like within the communication and allow their experience to happen. This means taking it upon us every day to work on language, of course, understanding culture, and building that rapport. It is also very much about understanding the emotional component of the interpreted experience.

In this current age and time, technology is moving at such a rapid pace. Right? Used to be face-to-face, but now we have Facebook and Twitter which limit how much we can type and is only a surface-level conversation. Are we even seeing people anymore, we are all so devoid of emotion? What this means is that now it is a skill that needs to be learned which is something that we will talk about later in the presentation.

Before we wrap up, I wanted to leave you with that quote I just showed you. We enter people’s lives daily and interpret, but the most important thing to remember behind all of this is understanding feelings and how people are connecting with each other, and how we are understanding each other on a human level, and how we understand ourselves on a granular emotional level. The ability to self-reflect in order to understand our own emotional states is so important. Looking forward to discussing this and the other topics in more depth in the next workshop. We want to connect all of this to the basics of what it means to just be human, to communicate, and to connect with each other. Thank you. 

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