I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Ben Ari from Authority Magazine. He asked me some thought-provoking questions. This blog is an edited version of the interview, shared with permission.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
In 2000, I was working in a communication management role in the field of adult learning in the non-profit sector. I enjoyed my job, but wasn’t sure where I wanted to go next in my career. Then I was offered an opportunity to join a peer learning group, where I met Maggie who was the group’s facilitator.
Not only did membership of the group help me progress in my existing role, but it opened-up new possibilities. I realized that facilitation and coaching was the career path for me. I was excited by a more hands on role in helping people learn and develop, rather than a desk-based role.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
In my very first job, I was an assistant to the HR manager of a small company. I was asked to organize a coach trip for staff to visit one of our branches in another city. I made a decent job of organizing the first part of the day, the pick-up, liaising with the other branch etc. But when it came to the return journey, I hadn’t really thought about drop-off arrangements. People were asking if they could be taken to various locations. In my desire to be helpful I said yes, and the result was that we ended up getting back to the head office late for those expecting to get off there.
This taught me, firstly to think through endings as well as beginnings, which is valuable in training and coaching. And I also learned that you need to balance the needs of individuals with the needs of the group.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
An approach that’s served me well was to develop a vision of the kind of work that I wanted to do, and then say yes to opportunities that took me in this direction. And having the courage to say no to work that didn’t feel well aligned.
I believe there is a place for a structured approach to career development, particularly if you are following a well-trodden path such as in medicine or law. But we know the world of work is changing at an unprecedented rate, so I believe that the combination of a clear sense of direction combined with a flexible attitude is a pretty good success strategy for the 2020s.
My advice is to keep learning, and to follow lines of study that interest you even if you’re not sure where they are leading. Learning can open the door to opportunities that you may not yet able to see.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” by Susan Jeffers had a big impact, perhaps because it was the one of the first personal development books that I read. A particular takeaway was Jeffers’ advice on no-lose decision making. Essentially, she taught me not to waste mental energy on wondering if I’ve made the right decision. She says that when you make a choice between different paths, each of them can lead to “goodies”. I continue to see the truth in this in going through life. We cannot know the future, but we can make what we believe are wise choices at the time.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“The breath of life and the sharp winds of change are the same thing.” From a poem by DH Lawrence.
Life is a continual process of change. Reminding myself of this has helped me deal with difficult changes such as loss and grief, as well as giving me the courage to say yes to opportunities and take some risks.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Working on my book has been exciting! The process of writing Crafting Connection: Transform how you communicate with yourself and others has given me an opportunity to share some of the transformative and practical methods of personal and professional development that have helped me and others over many years.
The book makes a wide range of approaches accessible, and I hope it will reach and transform the lives of many more people than I possibly could through my direct work with individuals and groups.
Another excitement is being part of a project delivering a peer learning experience for members of a US based professional membership body. It’s the first time I’ve worked for a US based organization, and it’s exciting to be working in a different cultural context, compared to my work in the UK and Europe.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority about Emotional Intelligence?
The managers I work with are dealing with challenges such as difficult conversations, facilitating effective meetings, and navigating change. Emotional intelligence is at the heart of my facilitation and coaching, as I help emerging leaders to develop their self-awareness and their ability to connect and communicate with other people.
And, importantly, I practise what I preach! I’ve been on personal and emotional development journey for over thirty years, embracing methods including somatic and mindfulness practices. I use and teach methods that are evidence based, creative and effective.
For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?
Emotional intelligence starts with you. It’s the ability to recognize and understand your own emotions, and to regulate your emotions so that they work for you, not against you.
Emotional intelligence also includes the ability to understand other people’s emotions. And it includes the interpersonal social skills needed for effective personal and professional relationships with others, given that we are all emotional beings.
How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?
Emotional Intelligence differs from purely cognitive or logical intelligence. To work out a math problem, or write computer software, is a cognitive task. But when you are dealing with people, cognitive intelligence isn’t enough, as people are driven as much by their feelings as by their thinking. Some thinkers, notably Howard Gardner, have identified a range of intelligences. These include cognitive intelligence, and both the intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects of emotional intelligence, as well as other intelligences such as musical and spatial intelligence.
Can you help explain a few reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?
It helps us enjoy life more, and deal with the ups and downs with greater equanimity. When we avoid the so-called negative emotions, we can end up feeling less of the positive ones too. Being open to experiencing the full range of emotions connects us with our own humanity and allows us to see more of what we have in common with other human beings, rather than what divides us.
Would you feel comfortable sharing a story or anecdote about how Emotional Intelligence has helped you in your life? We would love to hear about it.
This is a personal example. My lovely father died a few years ago. I believe that my emotional intelligence helped me because I was able to feel the grief when it came along in waves, without feeling I needed to push the feelings down. Although the waves of grief were intense, by allowing myself to really feel the feeling in my body, I noticed that the waves of emotion moved through me quite quickly. They returned of course, but over time the waves came less often, and the intensity decreased in its own time.
Can you share some specific examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?
An essential area is leadership. Leaders need to able to connect with people, and it’s difficult to do this if you don’t understand yourself and the impact you have on others. It’s hard to lead and manage effectively if you lack sensitivity to others’ feelings, or if you are too reliant on other people’s approval. A leader or manager with poor emotional intelligence may have a devastating effect on the wellbeing and morale of their team, and consequently the performance of the business. There’s a good reason why emotional intelligence is such an important component of many leadership programs.
2. Decision making
It’s also an important component of effective decision making in business. We may like to think that we make decisions logically and based on facts but there is evidence that we often make decisions based on emotion and post-rationalize afterwards. Understanding how our emotions affect our thinking helps us to recognize this risk, and look for ways to mitigate it, such as inviting different viewpoints, and being open to being challenged.
A third example is self-motivation which is often considered a core component of emotional intelligence. Being able to motivate ourselves helps us through the inevitable challenges of working life. It allows us to stay on track in our jobs and careers when times are tough.
One way to increase your ability to self-motivate is to understand how to tap into positive emotional states. Consider what you say to yourself when you feel motivated, and what body language and posture you adopt when you really want to do something. Find ways to transfer that self-talk and posture to other contexts. Something else that I find helpful is to break down a big task into small steps. This motivates me with a sense of ongoing progress, as I take a moment to acknowledge each mini achievement along the way.
Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have better relationships?
It can help us connect more deeply and sensitively with other people and makes it less likely that we will project our negative emotions onto others and blame them for how we feel. It’s important to be honest in relationships, whilst taking ownership of our own thoughts and feelings. To give you an example: I may feel irritated when I get home late from work and the kitchen is a mess. Owning this feeling, and saying “I feel irritated when…” is very different to projecting blame on the other person, for example by saying “You’re lazy because you didn’t clean up…” The latter is likely to provoke defensiveness and arguments, the former can open-up a conversation about what matters to each person in a relationship.
Another example is that emotional intelligence can make it easier for us to enjoy and celebrate other people’s success. Empathy allows us to step into another person’s perspective and allow ourselves to share their joy.
Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?
It can help us to recognize more quickly when pressures in our lives are getting on top of us, and work out if we need to make changes, such as reducing our workload or improving our sleep routine. Being aware of our emotions can alert us when we’re not coping and might need professional support. Emotional intelligence can allow us to seek help before we break down.
It can also help us to notice when we are putting pressure on ourselves. Sometimes this may be a reaction to an external trigger, that we then amplify through self-criticism, or an unwillingness to forgive or let go of resentment. A degree of emotional intelligence can prevent us moving into a downward spiral, by helping us to understand and accept ourselves more easily.
We all get angry for example, but if we can accept this emotion, we’re less likely to metaphorically “beat ourselves up” for getting angry. Instead, we can identify strategies to release excess anger and return to a calmer state of mind. Even where our anger is justified, we can make better choices about how to respond and take action, once we’ve calmed down a little.
Ok. Wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you recommend five things that anyone can do to develop a greater degree of Emotional Intelligence?
Yes of course, here are a few ideas.
1. Increase Emotional Awareness
Firstly, start to notice your emotions. At different points during the day, simply stop and ask yourself “how am I feeling?” I’ve just asked myself this question and have realized I feel quite calm on the surface, but with an undercurrent of mild irritation because I’ve been interrupted several times this morning.
Can you observe how your feelings change continually? And can you notice your triggers, the ways in which different people and situations affect you?
A good technique for increasing this level of awareness is writing. You might like to use a prompt question, such as “how am I feeling now?” and spend a few minutes writing down everything that comes to mind, as honestly as you can. If you do this every day for a few days or weeks, you might like to read back over your notes, to see what you notice. How easy did you find it to identify your emotions? What patterns do you observe, in your emotional reactions?
2. Learn calming strategies
Be aware that when we are in the grip of strong emotions such as anger or fear, these prevent us from thinking clearly.
In working with your own emotions, it’s helpful to identify short-term strategies that can help you stay calm when you need to be, as well as strategies that may help you deal longer term with difficult emotions.
In my experience, the most effective short-term strategy is to bring attention to your breathing. Breathing normally happens outside our conscious control, and yet we can also consciously change the way we breath, and this can affect our physiology quite significantly, in a short space of time.
When I’ve been in situations where my emotions start to take over, such as waiting to give my first-ever keynote talk, I found just focusing on my breath helped me to stay calm and focused.
Practice slowing down your breathing, a little, and allowing the outbreath to be slightly longer than the inbreath. I find a comfortable count of 5 for the inbreath and 8 for the outbreath works for me, but experiment with a rhythm that’s comfortable for you, and never force it.
To learn about the power of breathing for health and wellbeing, I highly recommend the book: “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” by James Nestor
3. Tune into other people, through listening and observation
My third recommendation is to become more aware of the emotions of other people, by developing empathy.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to try and see the world through their eyes. You don’t need to agree with the person. Instead, it’s about becoming more skillful in understanding how another person thinks and feels.
The key to empathy in my view is being able to listen accurately and without judgement. This means put your own thoughts and emotions to one side for a while, and fully focus on another person. Listen to what they are saying, and importantly, how they are saying it. Notice someone’s body language, and tone of voice as well as their words. For example, can you observe tension in their face or the way they hold their shoulders? Is their tone of voice consistent with what they are saying?
To help you relate empathically, I recommend approaching a conversation with a clear intent to really listen to the other person. If you find your attention wandering during the conversation, then remind yourself of this intent. Refocus on the other person and allow yourself to stay interested in discovering their perspective. How do they see the situation? How do they feel about it?
4. Support others in expressing emotion
My fourth recommendation links to the previous one, and it’s a way you can support other people in dealing with their emotions.
As mentioned earlier, strong emotions can prevent us from thinking clearly, and often the best way to help people is to simply listen to them. Allow them to talk through or vent how they are feeling. Show people that you’re listening, by checking your understanding of what they’ve said.
Once people feel heard, they are much more likely to be open to your ideas or words of wisdom. Honoring people’s emotions by being willing to listen can be very powerful. An example is when someone is grieving. You can’t take away someone’s grief, but you can make it ok for them to express it.
To give a work-based example, imagine that a team member is upset about the introduction of a new way of working. Try allowing them time to express their negativity for a while, without judging them. Once you’ve done this, they may be more open to moving on to a practical discussion about how the change can be implemented.
5. Read novels!
My final tip is slightly different – read novels!
A good novelist will take us inside someone else’s reality and help us really see the world through their eyes. There is also research evidence that reading novels can help people develop empathy.
Watching quality drama and film may also help, if reading isn’t your thing. I personally feel that great novels do this best because they take us directly into someone else’s thinking, so we are seeing their world from the inside out.
Ok, we are nearly done. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
To live peacefully and well in a plural society, I believe we all need to develop a willingness to listen and try to understand other people, even when we don’t agree with them. Become more curious about different points of view. Why do other people see the world the way they do? What can you learn from people who see a situation differently?
So, I think the movement would be to encourage more conversations that are about genuine openness to hearing different points of view, without setting people against each other. A good conversation in my view is one where both people go away feeling they have expanded their understanding of other people and other worldviews. As a professional facilitator, I know that good facilitation can help enable these kinds of discussions.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.
Source: This interview was first published in August 2022 in Authority Magazine.