brainpuzzleI am currently involved with two different companies that want to improve the “Emotional Intelligence” of their senior leaders.  It turns out that the work of these organizations tends to attract people who are high in analysis and task accomplishment.  As you might imagine I’m getting more than a few looks of skepticism when we start talking about emotional self-awareness (understanding one’s emotions), emotional expression (constructive expression of emotions), and empathy (understanding and appreciating how others feel).A lot of those looks are because they believe that they will need to become some sensitive, soft skill person capable of holding people’s hands during difficult times, and having all kinds of ‘meaningless’ chit chat during the day as a way to ‘relate’ better.  They are relieved when I tell them that’s not necessarily the goal.

What I do tell them is that leadership is a by-product of relationship and the ‘currency’ of that relationship is influence (thank you RWS).  How aware they are of their emotions at any given moment, how well/appropriately they express them in any given moment, and how well they understand and appreciate what and how others are feeling are all instrumental in the quality of their relationships and how well/quickly they build trust.

These ‘emotional touchpoints’ are the areas that have the chance to open the ‘window’ to who they are as a person.  They are some of the pieces that allow others to see them as more fully human.  In doing so they become easier to relate to.  Some people may even describe them as more ‘understanding,’ ‘approachable,’ and someone that they feel closer to.  All of these things are signs of a stronger relationship.

If these areas of emotional intelligence are not strengths for you, there is hope.  These areas don’t need to be strengths in order for you to be more effective, but they do require some ‘intention’ and focus to improve.   Here are some ways for you to strengthen your ability in these three areas.

Emotional Self-Awareness

  • Work conflict is not uncommon.  To deal with it well you need to be aware of stimuli that result in negative emotional triggers for you.  It is helpful that before the triggers occur that you make a list of the tools you have to help decrease the negative emotion.  If you are feeling anger towards someone it may be helpful to employ some empathy toward their situation, or employ your own problem solving and ability to be objective and see things differently.  As a side note, there are two behaviors that I find that are often at the core of emotional reactions that are not as helpful – taking something personally that really isn’t warranted; making assumptions about a person’s message or a situation.  Often, making assumptions cause us to take things personally.  Both of these often cause us to stay in our ‘emotional brain’ much longer than is productive.
  • Begin to ask people how they are ‘feeling’ about decisions.  Practice describing and understanding emotions, both yours and others.
  • Make a point of watching other people’s emotional reactions during intense interactions; listen to the words others use that may have emotional content.  This will allow you to perceive and understand other people’s emotional information more accurately.

Emotional Expression

Our emotional self-awareness is tied to how we express our emotions in the world.  The proper expression of emotion can be invaluable to others as to how we feel about a situation or a subject, or project.  Our emotional expression is often how we know what to prioritize and what is most important.
  • Practice expressing emotion at a time you may not have in the past.  Take a moment to Pause, Process, and then Pick the best solution.  This sequence is invaluable in assessing what you want as an outcome and applying the appropriate expression(s) to achieve that outcome.
  • Ask friends, family, and co-workers to describe what your body language and physical expressions are when you are happy, angry, or frustrated.  Make note of what you intend your body language to be and if you are succeeding in giving an accurate impression in those situations.
  • When expressing emotions to others watch their reactions.  If they aren’t responding the way you expected ask them how they feel about what you are sharing.  Look for immediate opportunity to align your thoughts and feelings with what you are expressing.


One of the keys to empathy is active listening, or what I like to call being fully present.  That level of attention enables you to more fully connect with the other person.  They will feel more respected and more understood.  Empathy is one of the key ways we connect with others.  While it doesn’t require a lot, it does require an authenticity in the moment that you genuinely understand and appreciate how they feel.
  • Use on the job interactions as opportunities to practice your empathy skills.  This gives you the chance to listen more closely, provide appropriate feedback for the situation (response, additional questions, etc.).
  • Listen to the emotional content, and pay attention to tone, body language/posture.  Provide feedback to the individual(s) as to what you are seeing and ask for verification that you have it right.
  • Seek feedback from a few trusted colleagues or family members on a regular basis.  Let them know that you are working to improve your empathy and welcome their comments.  This will help them provide better feedback.
Building our emotional intelligence in areas we are not as strong in is like building a muscle – it takes repetition over time.  Also, it has been my experience that often a little improvement can have large gains in strengthening our relationships.