Emotional Intelligence. We hear the term all the time, thinking it's some abstract leadership model that only the elite use to improve themselves and their teams.
I'm here to tell you that EQ is real and the opportunity to use it occurs many times a day, if you're willing to listen and use it. Here are three recent stories of how I successfully, and unsuccessfully, used my EQ in challenging situations.
I spoke at a team retreat, and although the word "retreat" might conjure up team building in a forest, these sessions took place in a classic Washington, DC corporate conference room, complete with overhead lighting, and a mammoth, glossy, wooden table surrounded by black chairs on wheels.
It Never Occurred to Me That My EQ Was About to Get Tested
While teaching a class on the 3 levels of listening, I asked an older man to share a 2-minute story about a time in his life when things just couldn't get any better. The purpose of this exercise was for the rest of the class to listen and share what they heard at each of the 3 levels of listening, which are what you hear, what body language you observe, and what you feel energetically as you listen. I've used this exercise many times; it never occurred to me that my EQ was about to get tested.
As the man shared his story about taking a vacation with his wife, it was clear there was a misalignment with his words and his body language. He spoke about enjoying delicious food, meeting interesting people, and learning about new cultures, yet his voice was monotone, his mouth was turned down and his shoulders slumped. You could hear a pin drop when his concluded; I looked around the room, trying to fathom what just happened during a simple exercise.
I Was Trying to Fathom What Happened
I found out. Sadly, his wife had just passed away.
I had just unknowingly walked into an emotional land mine, where the man was clearly upset and the rest of the room was silently staring at him with tears in their eyes.
- Ignore the story and say, "Who else would like to share?"
- Avoid the emotions of the moment and announce that it's time for a 15-minute break.
- Encourage the man to continue to share his story with the group for another 10 minutes.
- Use my EQ.
At a very basic level, EQ is about self-awareness (what am I feeling now?) and social awareness (how will my emotions impact the people in the room)? So while all this was happening, I had to quickly self-assess my feelings, which were sadness, embarrassment, panic and a host of others. I then had to self-manage my emotions so they didn't impact the rest of the training. So here's what I did:
- Acknowledge the enormity of the situation by saying gently and with emotion, "I'm so sorry for your loss," then waiting a few seconds before speaking again.
- Acknowledge the man by saying "Thank you for your courage in sharing this moment with all of us. I know that must have been difficult for you. You are a brave person.", then waiting a few seconds before speaking again.
- Acknowledge the others by saying "I know many of you may be feeling a variety of emotions right now. Please take a moment and jot them down for yourself."
- Use the moment as a learning opportunity by saying "These types of personal, emotional conversations occur at work more frequently than you think. People often have hardships in their personal life that they inadvertently bring with them to work. As leaders, you need to embrace these moments instead of running away from them. You don't have to go into therapy with the person, yet you do need to treat the situation with humanity and dignity before moving on. They will respect you for it."
This was one of the hardest teaching moments in my life. Why? Because using EQ takes courage. It's choosing the conversation that may be uncomfortable, scary and unfamiliar. Yet the rewards are trust, credibility and confidence.
Scenario 2: My Appetite Ate My EQ
Now let me take you to a hip tech company, the kind of wide-open office where you might see a French Bulldog sleeping under a desk, or a few guitars laying around. Don't get me wrong, this company is full of professionals, but they work hard to keep their culture unique, welcoming, and people-centric. The conference room I spoke in was airy and full of fresh, fun energy.
While teaching a course on energy management, I was working with a group of young, emerging leaders on setting achievable physical goals that would help them reach peak performance. We were overdue for a break and I could tell that everyone was getting antsy; my own stomach was grumbling for a snack.
I Could Tell Everyone Was Getting Antsy...
One young woman shared that her goal was to go to the gym for an hour daily, while also running 3 times a week. Since the topic was about achievable goals, I asked her how achievable it was. I meant it as a rhetorical example for the group; she took it literally and started to share that she knew he could do it. I politely suggested we talk about it after break; she persisted and wanted to share how she was going to do it. I then again politely suggested we discuss it after break and called a break for the group.
I Was Stunned
During break, within earshot of others, she told me that I was rude and disrespectful to her. I was stunned and angry; that was not my intention at all. How dare she call me disrespectful?!
I had just unknowingly walked into another emotional land mine, where I was hungry, only had 6 minutes left for break, was called rude and the rest of the group was quietly watching this encounter.
- Loudly disagree with her, allowing the conversation to escalate.
- Dismiss her point and tell her to "Grow up; it's just one comment."
- Tell her to talk to her boss if she didn't like the training.
- Use my EQ.
Self-managing my emotional reaction was not easy because I had low-blood sugar and needed to eat; I also knew the clock was ticking and people were watching. However, looking at it from her perspective, I also knew she was right. I could have handled it better. I had failed this EQ test.
I Got an "F" On This EQ Test
So I apologized for the misunderstanding. I looked her in the eye, apologized if I had offended her, and told her my intention was not to be disrespectful. I then shook her hand and thanked her for teaching me a valuable lesson. It was challenging to do this while my emotions were still running high and my stomach was still grumbling, yet I know that although I failed the initial EQ test, I had redeemed my EQ in that moment.
Luckily at this gig, lunch was part of the program! Specifically, I was teaching a class on coaching at a "Lunch & Learn" for a large tech company, only this time--to a room full of scientists.
Coaching skills are one of the hardest management skills to learn, especially for people who work with data and facts on a daily basis. Why? Because coaching involves watching for non-verbal cues which can be hard to quantify.
It Was Time To Move On When a Woman in the Back of the Room Said...
After completing an exercise on non-verbal cues, it was clear the group was starting to understand how to watch for, and interpret, non-verbal cues. It was time to move on to teach the next phase of coaching when a woman in the back of room said in a loud, strong voice, "I don't see how watching someone's non-verbal cues is going to make me a better scientist or move our science ahead of the competition." Every eye turned to me, to see how I was going to handle this woman and her comment.
I Walked Into a Land Mine
Yet again, I walked into a land mine. We had three more exercises to do in a short period of time, the rest of the group seemed to understand the importance of non-verbal cues and I was irritated that this person had thrown me a curve ball.
- Shame her by saying, "If you had been paying attention to what I had said earlier, you would be able to answer your own question."
- Ignore the actual question and ask her to talk to me after the session.
- Redo the exercise, despite the fact that the rest of the group seemed to understand the point.
- Use my EQ.
As I mentally checked in with myself, I smiled to the group and took a deep breath to help self-manage my emotions. I then said, "Great question! What do others in the room think?" Two people then explained non-verbals from a scientific perspective, which not only helped the woman who asked the question but also complemented my information for the rest of the group.
Using EQ happens daily, in real-time. Challenging or uncomfortable conversations appear at random times, unexpectedly, at work, at home, in the community and everywhere in between. Your next text message may even require the use of EQ!
Yet, globally recognized leader in talent strategy and a pioneer in building the business case for brand humanization, Meghan M. Biro, Founder of TalentCulture, says few people actually exhibit emotional intelligence.
Maybe people don't display emotional intelligence because it's not always easy. Often the conversations that need EQ the most are the messiest ones. Choosing to have the messy conversation, instead of avoiding it, takes courage. But if you are willing to be in uncomfortable territory, you can look at these challenges as an opportunity to build deeper relationships and develop trust.