Strengthening emotional intelligence in the context of caring for a person with a disability – part 2

Part 2. Interpersonal competences of the informal caregiver

Tomasz Zając

Providing informal care for a disabled person is undoubtedly a difficult and exhausting task, which frequently involves frustration and a feeling of helplessness. If you are one of such caregivers, it is worth considering what you can do to improve your work and how to use your mental resources for this purpose.

In this article, we will focus on the issue mentioned above with a particular emphasis on the function and development of emotional intelligence serving as a helpful factor in providing informal care for a person with a disability. Special attention will be paid to interpersonal competences in the work of an informal caregiver.

Interpersonal competences in caring for a disabled person

Interpersonal competences constitute the second group of skills included in emotional intelligence (the first group of competences – intrapersonal competences in caring for a disabled person – was discussed in the first part of the article). As the name suggests, interpersonal competences refer to effective interaction with other people. Within this category, the following elements can be distinguished: empathy, assertiveness, leadership, cooperation as well as persuasion.


Empathy is the ability to experience the mental states of another person. With a few extreme exceptions (antisocial personality disorder, autism), every person has a more or less developed empathy. Basically, it can be further divided into the ability to assume someone’s perspective and to feel compassion. There is no need to explain why empathy is extremely important when caring for the disabled. Intuitively, everyone is probably aware of the fact that people struggling with disabilities are in a much worse situation than able-bodied people, on whom they are often dependent. Sadly, most caregivers occasionally forget about the limitations of the ones they provide the care for. Fortunately, the competence of empathy may be developed.

To develop a better understanding of how someone with a disability may be feeling, ask a friend to use adhesive tape to stick your thumbs to the inside of your hand and try functioning like this for an hour or two. Then, think about how you felt and what emotions accompanied you. When you do this, think that the person you provide the care for is in a 10 times worse situation and cannot escape it. Your ability to empathize should improve significantly over time.

Interestingly, in the United States, professional assistants of the disabled participate in workshops during which they must stay in wheelchairs throughout the day.


Assertiveness is the ability to take care of one’s own boundaries without violating other people’s boundaries at the same time. It is sometimes described as the ability to say “no”, but this is only an oversimplified definition. Assertiveness is a much more complex construct, something like the ability to actively maintain the dynamically changing balance between a submissive and an aggressive approach. For this reason, it is impossible to behave assertively all the time. What is more, in everyday life people encounter situations in which it is more advisable to adopt one of the more extreme attitudes. For example, someone who is professionally involved in brand image creation needs to be more dominant, unlike someone who is engaged in delivering services and must constantly ensure the satisfaction of his or her client.

When it comes to assertiveness, as a caregiver you are in a slightly more difficult situation than the disabled person, because it is much harder to say no to those who are unable to cope with many things on their own. Regardless, you need to know your limits. Think about what you can and cannot do while performing care and then discuss it with that person. If, for some reason, you decide to refuse to do something, try communicating it directly, but be sure to provide a reason. This advice applies, of course, only to those individuals who you are able to make logical contact with. The problem of being assertive does not matter much in a situation where the disabled person does not understand the reality around them. It is hard to talk about boundaries with someone who, due to their disability, is no longer able to grasp the complexity of interpersonal interactions.

Leadership and cooperation

As the name suggests, leadership is the ability to lead other people in order to facilitate effective collaboration. There are already plenty of books advising on how to be an effective leader, but it is important to keep in mind that not everyone has the aptitude for leadership. As an informal caregiver of a disabled person, you are in a difficult situation, since, even if you do not feel like a leader, in the interaction with a disabled person you are still one, because they are dependent on you, and not vice versa. Therefore, you need to be aware that there are different leadership styles. The most important axis runs along the spectrum of directiveness, where authoritarianism is at one extreme, and participation at the opposite one. In the case of caring for a disabled person, the cooperation of both parties is important. A participatory leadership style, in which a caregiver and the person under care communicate with each other on an ongoing basis and agree on the terms of “cooperation” appears to be more advisable. Indeed, this is the way it should work, yet there are some exceptions. Certain activities, to a greater extent than others, require the disabled person to indisputably submit to the will of the “manager”. In other words, there are situations in which, due to a much broader perspective, the caregiver simply knows better and should take full initiative. Such issues may include securing transportation or distribution of medicines. Certain activities simply must be carried out in a strictly defined way without negotiation, and it is necessary to be aware of this. Therefore, it is recommended for the caregiver and the disabled person to have an early conversation about what scope of duties should be performed in a more authoritative way, and in which aspects of care it is possible to allow for participation. Always remember to clearly and openly inform the person with a disability why a particular form of help is, in your opinion, the most suitable in a given situation. Remain open to suggestions. No miraculous solutions exist here. A good leader is one who communicates with those he leads on an ongoing basis: somebody who is ready to listen to their advice, is familiar with their needs and is open to dialogue. It may sound like a piece of advice from a lifestyle magazine, but in this case the truth is extremely trivial: conversation is the key.


The last component of the interpersonal aspect of emotional intelligence is persuasion, i.e. the ability to effectively influence other people in such a way as to enforce desired attitudes and behaviours or to eradicate the ones that are not socially approved. There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of described techniques for influencing the people in one’s surroundings. Due to the limited space, it is impossible to discuss each of them in detail. What you should remember in the first place, and what is crucial when it comes to the issue of persuasion, can be put very briefly: kindness works better than anger. In other words, rewarding and approving is more effective at reinforcing desirable behaviour than punishing and reprimanding others for making mistakes. This is a fact that has been repeatedly proven in psychological research over the decades. Therefore, let your persuasion towards the person you care for be based on positive reinforcements. Praise and appreciate all the efforts of the person under your care. Your appreciation and approval will soon begin to serve as a long-awaited reward for them, and will constitute the expected culmination of every activity you do together. Refrain from criticism and unnecessary comments when the disabled person fails to cope with a challenge, as it causes guilt and effective demotivation. Always keep in mind that disability limits one’s possibilities. Patiently explain and show what can be done better, but never rebuke mistakes and failures. In this particular situation, where one person is strongly dependent on another, this attitude is even more harmful than in standard conditions, since it touches the sphere of helplessness.


Goleman, D., Jankowski, A. (1997). Inteligencja emocjonalna. Poznań: Media Rodzina.

Goleman, D., Jankowski, A. (1999). Inteligencja emocjonalna w praktyce. Poznań: Media Rodzina.

Krakowski, M., Rydzewski, P. (2004). Inteligencja emocjonalna. Łódź: Imperia S.C.

Sadowska, M., Brachowicz, M. (2008). Struktura inteligencji emocjonalnej. Studia z psychologii w KUL, 15, 65–79.

About the author

Tomasz Zając is a psychologist. He graduated in applied psychology at the Jagiellonian University and doctoral studies at the Institute of Psychology of the Jagiellonian University. He is preparing to defend his PhD dissertation on individual differences in the context of aggression and violence. For years, he has been cooperating with various institutions specializing in rehabilitation, helping people with disabilities and palliative care. He conducts individual consultations and Support Groups for informal caregivers at the KRAKÓW GRZEGÓRZKI Informal Caregivers Support Centre, operating at the Fundacja Małopolska Izba Samorządowa in Krakow at 16, Ignacego Daszyńszkiego Ave.

This publication has been carried out under the HomeCare for Dependent Elderly People  Educational Path for Informal Caregivers,  2019-1-PL01-KA204-065703

The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.