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Emotional Intelligence 101: Leaders Listen

by | May 1, 2018 | Emotional Intelligence

Given how popular the topic of emotional intelligence has become in the past two decades, I expected my Google search on “emotional intelligence” (EQ) to pull up over at least a million results. In 0.74 seconds, it only pulled up 701,000 results. “Only” is a relative term when it comes to Google searches – clearly there are still plenty of data out there. So much, in fact, that coming up with original content on the topic is a bit of a stretch. Authors may have different styles on how to present the information, but the content (except for original research results) will remain steady, hopefully with a stylistic twist that will appeal to a certain audience.

So, given that there are 700k+ other resources on this topic that you could read, why should you read this one? Truth be told, I’m sure that thousands of those other articles are fabulously researched and full of insights into how to increase your EQ – and why you should even want to. What’s my angle?

It’s that active listening skills are a critical yet implicit component of emotional intelligence and are therefore a good starting point for professionals seeking to increase their EQ. If effective listening skills and emotional intelligence are of any interest and you have about 7 minutes to spare, then forge on…

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The Case for Emotional Intelligence

The case for emotional intelligence and an overview of its many theories, dimensions and scales is too extensive to document here. Ever since Daniel Goleman wrote his breakthrough book Emotional Intelligence in 1996, the topic has continued to rise in popularity, particularly in a professional context. Dozens of books have been written on the topic, and researchers have successfully quantified the relationship between high EQ and professional success. But for those of you unfamiliar with EQ, what follows is a tiny glimpse into this world that focuses more on what you feel than what you know as the key determining factor in your success as a leader.

Emotional intelligence is an array of noncognitive capabilities, competencies, and skills that influence one’s ability to succeed in coping with environmental demands and pressures.

At least, that’s the definition provided by Dr. Reuven Bar-On, the creator of the EQ-i 2.0 emotional intelligence assessment that I am admittedly partial to. As you can imagine, there are many definitions of EQ, and I adapt this one due to it’s real-world practicality.

The results of countless studies on the impact of EQ on leadership leave no reason to doubt the correlation between strong leadership abilities and high emotional intelligence. They’re way too numerous to review for this particular posting, although I will try my hand at such a project in the future. In the meantime, here are just a few quotes and research findings on the topic:

  • Laura Wilcox, director of management programs at Harvard Extension School, writes in her article Emotional Intelligence Is No Soft Skill, “a command of emotional intelligence is a proven differentiator in the competitive climb up the corporate ladder.”
  • Daniel Goleman, forefather of the modern-day emotional intelligence movement as we know it, stated that “a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he won’t make a great leader.”
  • In his Inc.com article, Travis Bradberry explains that TalentSmart found that EQ is the strongest determiner of performance.
  • 90% of top performers are also high in emotional intelligence, as are just 20% of low performers (see previous reference).
  • Employees with high EQ make an average of $29,000 more per year than those with low EQ (see previous reference).
  • in his Fast Company article “Why Emotionally Intelligent People Are More Successful“, Harvey Deutschendorf explained that the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) found that the main reason leaders derail is due to “deficiencies in emotional competence.”
  • 6Seconds research states that executives at PepsiCo selected for EQ competencies generated 10% more productivity
  • 6Seconds also quotes Jamie Dimon, President and CEO, JPMorgan Chase, as saying “It’s not IQ that leads to success…EQ is more important: emotional intelligence, social skills, how you relate, can you get things done. That’s what makes a difference, especially in management.”

…and the list goes on and on…

Listening as a Core EQ Skill

Many people associate emotional intelligence (EQ) first with self-awareness, and then perhaps a few other characteristics such as self-management and social skills. I certainly don’t disagree that self-awareness is a foundational aspect of emotional intelligence. But it’s a broad concept that can be challenging to define and then apply to professional development.

If your boss told you today that he wanted you to focus on being more self-aware, what would that mean to you?

What would immediately come into your mind?

What actions would you take?

Chances are, you don’t have clear answers to those questions. If that’s the case, it’s ok. Most people don’t.

Translating some of the core concepts of emotional intelligence into practical behaviors in the workplace is a challenge that many don’t know how to overcome, so they simply ignore EQ altogether. In working with clients, I’ve discovered that simply converting one key EQ concept into a concrete behavioral change can have a significant positive impact on their emotional intelligence and, as a result, their leadership abilities. The one I encourage many clients to pay attention to first is active listening because it has the power to singlehandedly pivot tense relationships into positive ones, and simultaneously build trust and rapport. Too often, people who are “listening” to their team members are actually only paying just enough attention to grasp what the other person is saying. They hear it, but they’re not really listening.

Active listening is the fastest way to build rapport, trust,

and respect with anyone in your life.

Probably because it’s such as specific behavior, listening is not an official scale or subscale of the EQ-i 2.0 emotional intelligence assessment. I selected this assessment as my tool of choice to use with my clients and their teams because of its high reliability and validity – right now I consider it the gold standard of EQ personality assessments. (I will provide an overview and a pros & cons analysis of the most popular EQ assessment tools in a future post.) It’s difficult to separate emotional intelligence from listening skills – there is a strong correlation between the two.

Being an Active Listener: The Easy Steps

Call me old fashioned, but the two actions listed below demonstrate simple common courtesy. They’re the visible behaviors indicating that you’re physically present with the other person. If everyone exhibited just those two behaviors in their everyday conversations – at home, at work, and everywhere else in between – relationships would improve significantly.

Put your technology away. Silence your phone and put it out of sight. If it vibrates in your drawer or purse, ignore it. If your desk phone rings, don’t check to see who’s calling. (If you’re expecting an important call, reschedule your meeting.) Shut your laptop screen – if you need to take notes, use a pen and paper.

Be visibly present. Look at the person in the eyes when they’re talking, and turn your body to face theirs. Don’t keep looking out the window or at people walking by, and try to lean into the conversation when possible.

Being an Active Listener: The Hard Steps

If you followed the basic steps above in a conversation, you’re on the right track. But to be an authentically present and active listener, you need to do more than shut off your phone and look your colleague, spouse, boss, child, or anyone else in the eye. Those were easy to do…the rubber meets the road when you commit to authentically tuning into the other person.

Step 1: Turn off the monkey mind. What differentiates an active listener from a passive listener is what no one else can see: your mental and emotional presence. Most of us have a hard time even being fully present for ourselves. We allow ourselves to be incessantly distracted by anything around us that’s shiny or loud enough to grab our attention. To a large extent, we are enablers to our own lack of presence, checking our phones every five minutes or whenever it chirps at us, whichever comes first. And we find it more and more difficult to focus on big projects as we flitter from task to task. It’s no small wonder, then, that it’s difficult to be fully present for others. A couple of ideas I share with my clients to help shut off the monkey mind include:

    • Give yourself permission to be an active listener. Why does this even need to be stated? Because most people feel a responsibility to be continuously “on” – checking their phones at all times for texts and emails, for example. When they don’t, they either feel irresponsible or that they’re missing out on something important. Say to yourself something to the effect of “I give myself permission to be fully present with [my colleague, etc…] during this entire meeting, because they deserve my time and respect, and it’s important for them that I unplug from everything else during this focused time.”
    • Before the conversation, tell yourself that anything else going on in your life that needs attention will still be there after your meeting. Keep the mental clutter out of your mind, knowing that you can pick it right back up where you left off just as soon as you’re done giving the other person or group your full attention. Say to yourself something to the effect of “nothing is going to vanish from my life while this meeting takes place. Anything that could come to my mind during my meeting will be there for me to think about when I’m done. So, just for the duration of this meeting, I won’t worry about anything else other than actively listening.”

Step 2: Turn off the emotionally charged reactions and judgements. It’s nearly impossible to engage with someone in a meaningful way when something they said triggered an emotional response in you. It’s easy to get so caught up in your reactions to their comments that you stop hearing a word they said, and meaningful dialogue becomes impossible. Laura Wilcox wrote that with even very minor provocation, our ability to be rational and logical can drop by 75%, and it can take nearly 20 minutes to recover from an emotional interaction. In that state, the person who was trying to engage in a conversation with you didn’t stand a chance of being heard. Self-regulation in active listening situations is a cornerstone of high emotional intelligence. It’s a really tough thing to do, but such mastery is an invaluable skill that turns rising stars into long-term leaders. A couple of suggestions I share with my clients to help them keep their knee-jerk emotional judgements and reactions at bay include:

    • Try to remember that whatever comment triggered your emotions was probably not directed at you personally. Unless the other person is actively criticizing you, try to realize that the meeting isn’t about your feelings about what they’re talking about. It’s about the topic that you came together for, and that should be addressed first. You can have a separate conversation to discuss any emotional reactions you had around something the other person mentioned – there can be a time and place for that. Knowing that your own feelings can be addressed in a separate conversation if needed can free up your internal availability and allow you to be more present in the here and now.
    • Tell yourself that you will give yourself time and space after the meeting to think about why you were so judgmental or emotionally charged by what the other person said. At that time, you’ll also decide how to handle those feelings, either internally, with the other person, or both. This is another “table it for now” tactic that gives you the reassurance that your own feelings will be addressed too, allowing you to be more available in the moment

Active listening is a skill that needs to be learned. Even the best listeners find themselves drifting from time to time. Improvement in this area takes consistent effort and commitment. We master it over time as we are rewarded with the positive relationships and outcomes it brings to every aspect of our lives.

Your Challenge

We’ve established that a high EQ is critical to be successful as a leader, and that effective listening is a low hanging fruit to work on to help raise EQ. What now?

For the next 48 hours, observe yourself in your conversations. Pay attention to the things you are really thinking about when others are talking to you. You may find yourself thinking about completely unrelated topics such as what time you need to leave to pick up the dry cleaning, or about something relevant, such as how you’re going to respond to what the person just said – building up a counter-point in your head.

Just observe how present you really are in your conversations – how much you listen to the other person’s words without letting your own thoughts dominate your internal dialogue.

Then, over time, focus on closing off your own thoughts and judgements so that the words of the other have more room to fill your mind and create a more meaningful exchange. Use some of the tips I mentioned below to navigate your emotions and reactions in your meetings.

To some degree, your mind has to be working during a conversation, otherwise there would be “thinking time” between exchange of thoughts. That’s not how fluid discussions take place, I realize that. But when you take control of your mind and thoughts when speaking with others, you create a shared space of mutual respect where meaningful connections are co-created.

Whether you and a colleague are analyzing Q4 financial data or discussing quality control compliance, being an active listener is a sign of true leadership – a sign that the other person’s contributions to the conversation deserve your full attention and respect.

The Bottom Line

The most effective way to increase EQ is to focus on improving one relevant skill at a time. Small changes in behavior can have dramatic and positive long-term impact. As you take on active listening as your first skill to improve, remember the following:

Active listening does not necessarily lead to agreement, nor is that the intention.

Active listening demonstrates caring, respect, and a willingness to understand.

Active listening is the fastest way to build rapport, trust, and respect with anyone in your life.

And now the ball is in your court…leave a comment below about your journey into active listening, or share your own tips and tricks on how to be an active listener.

The Author – Marina von Bergen

I’m a leadership coach and consultant focusing on effective communications and emotional intelligence in the global workforce. To learn more, please visit the About Me page for details on my professional background, my educational accomplishments, my global experience and perspective, and my arguably excessive number of certifications and credentials.

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