As a communications strategist, I’ve spent close to 20 years across the table from clients and colleagues as we worked together to solve our consumers’ problems, or struggled with a personnel issue, or tried desperately to learn why a brand had fallen out of favor with its audiences. More often than not, we were asking the same questions we had been asking for years.
It wasn’t until I developed my own emotional intelligence that I achieved a tectonic shift in the quality of my work product and in the relationships with my collaborators.
The change point was evident: I stopped asking the obvious questions, and instead used my emotional intelligence to ask the RIGHT questions. The ones that truly mattered to the situation and ultimately moved us toward a more meaningful solution.
I believe everyone is inherently emotionally intelligent, but I am certain many of us do not understand the concept, much less know that we are. After all, it is earned not learned.
In my experience, the spirit of emotional intelligence in the workplace is simple:
See the whole board.
By the end of this article, I want you to understand how seeing the whole board will make you a better worker who also creates a better work product. And you can employ all of these tactics without anyone knowing you hacked your emotional intelligence in the first place. It will be our dirty little secret.
1) MAKE LIKE JANE GOODALL BY WATCHING AND LISTENING WITH INTENTION
Newsflash! Unless you work in solitary confinement, how you relate to those around you matters. Your soft skills are as important as your technical skills. It is not enough to do your job well. You must also work well with the people around you.
Understanding this - and accepting it - is typically achieved through personal and professional maturity, and is usually the difference between being a manager and being a leader.
A hallmark of emotional intelligence is intentional observation.
I am an insatiably curious student of human nature. Very few things please me more than people watching at an airport, or Tinder-spotting at any given bar on a Friday night. Given a simple change in grade school curriculum and I would’ve followed Jane Goodall into a jungle.
But I realize not everyone is wired the same way, and often times must act with intention rather than wonder. If you watch and take it all in, you’ll be shocked by what you learn about the dynamics surrounding you - and how to manipulate them.
For example, an old boss had a critical conversation with me in which he told me very tersely that I needed to “learn how to read a room.” Because of the source, I learned very quickly that he meant I needed to learn how to read him, and therefore know my place and keep my mouth shut.
If reading that made you want to punch something, I totally get it. Me too.
But the thing is, I never forgot it. In recent years, I’ve let go of the negative memories of that exchange and instead used it as a bigger learning moment and career changer.
If you sit back in intentional observation of the dynamics around you, much like Jane Goodall does with her chimps, you’ll very quickly map out the social ecosystem of your workplace.
Start with the obvious questions: Who hangs out together outside of work? How do people behave - or don’t - when leadership exits the room? Who is deferential to whom? Where is there obvious tension? Who is aligned? And who isn’t?
And then use your newly hacked emotional intelligence to ask the right questions: Who do people openly respect, disdain, or ignore? Who appears to be making the decisions? And who’s actually making the decisions? And who does that person trust as an information source?
Perhaps most important. Who stocks the coffee??
Sitting in intentional observation and actively listening will offer you critical information. How will you use what you learn to accomplish your goals?
2) UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EMPATHY AND RADICAL EMPATHY
I’m sure you’ve heard other terms for emotional intelligence, including “soft skills,” “cognitive empathy,” and EQ - or “emotional quotient.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines emotional intelligence as:
The ability to understand the way people feel and react and to use this skill to make good judgments and to avoid or solve problems.
What really strikes me about this definition is it’s intentionality. It infers that once you acknowledge your own empathy you make a conscious choice to use it to your advantage.
A hallmark of emotional intelligence is radical empathy.
Emotional intelligence is essentially the difference between having empathy, and being radically empathetic. If you are dumbfounded by this because you lack empathy, then you have bigger problems. Like being a psychopath. But I’m not a psychiatrist, so who am I to judge?
I’ve always known I was empathetic, but I didn’t understand the concept of radical empathy until an Ignite talk at SxSW. Scott Wayne, a former British intelligence agent, explained radical empathy in terms of negotiating. It is the ability to move beyond the notion of walking in someone else’s shoes to instead understand their culture, motivations, history, and personality as it relates to what they ultimately want.
I challenge you to sit in intentional observation and active listening to gather information, and then filter that information through your radical empathy lens to ask the right questions.
This approach will help you better understand your boss, your direct reports, and even your end audience. This is the difference between doing passable work as a mediocre employee and doing meaningful work as an exceptional employee.
3) RESPECT YOURSELF AND OTHERS BY SETTING BOUNDARIES
Have you ever had a boss or coworker who seemed withdrawn, maybe even cold? Who wasn’t as involved in the goings on around them? Perhaps they were pleasant and kind enough, but generally inaccessible?
I have. Many times. I assumed they were indifferent jerks because they weren’t as emotionally invested in our work and our coworkers as I was. This was also a time in my life when I thought being “authentic” meant all of your emotions were valid and had a rightful place at work, and every coworker should be your best friend. Ahhh...youth! *Insert shrug here.*
What I didn’t see at the time was these "indifferent" coworkers also had an incredibly measured demeanor, especially during conflict or “courageous conversations.” I didn’t see that their work relationships were highly curated. Or that maintaining a nature I could only describe as “happy in neutral” allowed them the space and time to do all of that intentional observation and active listening we just talked about it.
A hallmark of emotional intelligence is emotional regulation.
Emotionally regulating yourself comes with practice. You will essentially remove yourself from the equation. You’ll get out of your own way to see things for what they really are, and not how they make you feel. And once you achieve this, I’m confident you’ll see a dramatic difference in your relationships at work and the quality of your work product.
The bottom line is: You can’t see the whole board if you’re on it.
I learned all of this through experience, but I maintain I would’ve had a very different career arc had someone filled me in on these techniques much earlier. All of this informs my purpose: To help you shortcut the learning curve to make your emotional intelligence work hard for you, not the other way around.
Meghan E. Butler is on a mission to create a more emotionally intelligent workforce. She’s written for Rhapsody Magazine and Austin Lifestyles Magazine, and her workplace articles have been published by Fast Company, Inc. Magazine and The Muse. She is a seasoned communications professional and career mentor with close to 20 years of consulting, corporate PR, and agency experience. Check out her website or follow her on Twitter.
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