A well-developed emotional intelligence is evident in our ability to set boundaries, like giving someone the mental Heisman. This is especially important for Highly Sensitive Individuals who are prone to be deeply affected by the moods around them. It is possible to be present without also feeling someone else’s despair. Setting boundaries between your emotions and others’ is a key component of self-care.
As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewing Meghan E. Butler, founder of Emotional Intelligence @ Work.
Meghan E. Butler is a business strategist and published writer. She is a founder of Curry+Butler: Writing to Influence, a strategic writing collaborative and speaker coaching service — the latter for which she was trained by TED; and a founder of Frame+Function, a strategic communications and branding consultancy. Throughout her 20 year career, her award-winning PR, branding and writing work has supported Seventh Generation, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, Dell, RadioShack, General Mills, Bumble, and Nike, to name a few.
Meghan is on a mission to create a more emotionally intelligent world. Her “Emotional Intelligence @ Work” editorial platform and leadership development service are designed for emerging leaders and leaders navigating major change points. She contributes to Thrive Global and Fast Company, and was a columnist at Inc. Magazine. Her writing has also been featured in Rolling Stone and PRWeek. She has been invited to speak at universities, school districts, young professional societies, consumer product organizations, and Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network conference in Singapore. She is certified by MHS Systems to administer and coach to the EQ-i 2.0 and EQ-i 360 psychometric assessments.
In 2019, Meghan was recognized by Austin Under 40, and was named a finalist for Austin Business Journal’s “Profiles in Power,” for her contributions to communications, journalism and leadership development.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Thank you for inviting me to participate! I am the only child of only children — a father who is a respected leader and civil servant, and a mother who is a free-spirited artist and organizer of people and services, both of whom are deeply compassionate. I was born and raised in Austin and relocated to Burlington, Vermont and then Nashville, Tenn. I eventually returned home to Austin but travel extensively and often.
I am a late bloomer and didn’t really “grow up” until my mid-thirties. This truth not only provided me a thrilling life of adventure and surprises, but it allowed me the space and time to learn in such a way I can do this leadership development work now.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I am exactly 50 percent of each of my parents. My mom-brain met my dad-brain in college when I discovered public relations as a career path. It was the perfect combination of business strategy and the art of influential writing. I earned a degree in PR and never looked back. 20 years on and I’ve done everything I wanted to do in my career. Now I’ve grown a diverse and exciting business tailored to meet the specific needs of my clients.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
It is only in retrospect that I understand the most influential bosses were the ones associated with the most painful career experiences. That is to say I learn the most from those who challenged me the worst. From these experiences, I learned a few lessons that I would tattoo on the back of my eyelids if I were brave enough:
1) You are not for everyone. And everyone is not for you. And that’s ok.
2) True and respectable grit is when you stick around to learn the hard stuff knowing you might not leave friends in your wake.
3) If there’s crap coming in the door, climb out the window. You are allowed to change your mind, grow out of something, or simply move on. But you must leave the door open for the person coming in behind you.
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?
Early in my PR career, I managed publicity for major studio DVD releases. This was before streaming, and home entertainment was the moneymaker for studios. We were in the exact moment when industry media speculated the theatre-to-home window was closing but no studio would go on record about it.
Until I made a massive, amateur mistake.
I bcc’ed a pitch about future DVD release dates intended for long-lead publications and I included all of the short-lead industry reporters who were being denied the corporate commentary they craved. My mistake gave key reporters the ammo they needed to force a studio on record. Bosses way over my head had to work directly with the studio to pull an executive off a beach in Fiji to take the call with the reporter and promise him something else for holding that news a bit longer.
In spite of all of this, I did some things RIGHT. I realized my mistake right away and took it to my bosses with a mitigation plan. I managed to keep it together and get through the solution before allowing myself to be emotionally impacted. And my bosses didn’t need to castigate me further because I knew exactly what I’d done and how to avoid repeating the mistake.
I haven’t used BCC since.
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?
Set intentions — not goals — to leave room for extraordinary magic.
Ambitious high achievers are likely to make a mental list of everything they want to accomplish in their career. Chances are, they’ll tick them off the list before they’re even half way done. And they’ll miss out on a lot of accomplishments because those events didn’t show up the way they engineered them to.
These high achievers are left with two realities: Swiss cheese memory because they missed out on the magic moment, and contemplating the black hole on the other side of achievement — “I did everything I wanted to do, now what?”
Shift from goal setting to intention setting.
As a multi-hyphenate — someone with a myriad of interests and professional capabilities — I took stock of the experiences I wanted to have and the impact I wanted to make, not the accomplishments. In doing so, I remained present and flexible, earning extraordinary, life-affirming experiences. My presence and openness allows me to recognize when I experience something I intended and to honor the moment appropriately.
The secret to intention setting? You’ll never run out of steam. It’s the cure to burnout.
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?
One of my favorite bosses and I were pondering different stereotypes of professional roles. We wondered what it would be like to clock in and out and live a life unburdened by ambition. He suggested I read “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity” by Kim Scott.
Scott draws from her experience as an executive at major tech companies who basically control the world — and most of her time was spent during the “build the plane while you fly it” stage of organizational growth. For me, the most impactful takeaway was her breakdown of superstars vs. rock stars.
Everyone will be both a rock star or a superstar at different points in their career. And every team needs both.
A rock star is the stabilizing force — the teammate who is great at what they do, exceeds expectations, and is good with what they have — they aren’t asking for more or thirsting for achievement. (This can be hard for superstars to understand and therefore manage.)
The superstar is the innovator, internally driven by ambition and wanting to do more and often. Superstars often earn their way back to rock star — where they can slow down and enjoy the process rather than the outcome. This often happens mid-career or during early parenthood when the world outside of work takes precedence in a way it hadn’t before. Similarly, rock stars become super stars when they have the capacity to embrace opportunities to do more and be better.
This is what makes teams dynamic and agile.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
How about my personal mantra?
What makes grass grow? Manure. The grass is greener on the other side of the fence because both lawns are covered in crap.
Everyone has their own challenges regardless of how great their life looks.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
If I had to choose one corner of my desk and only work on that for the rest of my life, I would go with my “Emotional Intelligence @ Work” collaborations where I am challenged with bringing out the best in emerging leaders, leaders at major change points, and the intelligentsia.
My intention is to work with folks who are brilliant at what they do, but need help getting out of their own way to 1) optimize their professional experience, 2) influence teams, and 3) create pathways to achievement.
I’ve always believed in the adage, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” Selfishly, my leadership development sates my curiosity and my drive to constantly learn something new from clients whose expertise might be wildly different from my own. For my clients, it transforms their ability to both create impact and experience success.
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?
I am on a mission to create a more emotionally intelligent world by helping people make real-time connections that matter. The inspiration is simple: The majority of content relating to emotional intelligence is created for a mature executive, usually one sitting in the C-suite with a significant professional development budget.
However, I firmly believe the people who need this content the most are emerging leaders who haven’t had time to develop poor social and management habits. We need to hotwire their maturity curve, especially in a modern, fast-growth workplace that expects them to be excellent, not become excellent. If we can catch them earlier in their career experience, we can create a more emotionally intelligent world now, not 20 years from now when they ascend to the board room.
I developed an expertise in emotional intelligence by decoding a complex and nuanced paradigm for myself through the lens of my own career experiences. I’ve basically created the content I so desperately needed earlier in my career.
I shamelessly share the “secret” insights to professional and personal maturity I wish someone shared with me. I debunk myths and unpack the social complexities of humanity — especially at work — for the benefit of those who will ultimately create a thriving and prosperous future for all of us.
For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?
Contrary to popular belief, emotional intelligence is most definitely not your capacity to “read people.” It is an ability. This is important to understand because every decision we make — however big or small — is rooted in what we feel now, plus what we want to feel or avoid feeling as a result.
Emotional intelligence = The ability to understand and manage your own emotions + the ability to understand and influence the emotions of others.
The evolution of emotional intelligence is a cumulative progression through the following competencies: Self management, self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship management.The definition itself is in two parts — first pertaining to self, and the second pertaining to another person. And if you match the definition up with the four cumulative competencies, you’ll notice the first two are about self, and the last two involve others.
Self awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. No matter how old you are — or aren’t — you can take a beat and ground yourself. Here’s how.
“You need to learn some kung fu. You feel the world and it just socks you. WHAM. Harder than most people. Well, sure, if you take the emotional force of that punch, it will get you every time. But Kung Fu masters can take the force that is coming to them and throw it into their next move. The harder they get hit, the stronger their game. Master that kung fu, and you have yourself a superpower.”
How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?
Emotional intelligence — our ability to influence — is the very thing that separates us from animals. It can be measured as an “emotional quotient” — EQ — and it can fluctuate over time. However, there is no universal scale. Conversely, intellect, measured by a universally accepted “intellectual quotient” — IQ — is static. It is your ability to reason and to think logically. You get one score and it fluctuates very little over the course of a lifetime.
The best example of emotional intelligence I’ve seen outside of corporate America is in the intelligence community. If you ask any spy about their goal when negotiating with terrorists to stop the next 9/11, they’ll tell you something akin to, “Our job is not to understand what makes them a terrorist. Our job is to understand what makes them human and then meet them there.”
Emotional intelligence — our ability to influence — is the difference between listening to respond and listening to learn.
Can you help explain a few reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?
Emotional intelligence is the difference between informing and influencing. It is also the difference between individual contributors or managers, and leaders. My journey to high EQ always worked in my favor, but it wasn’t fully formed for quite a while.
Early in my career, I had a natural ability to connect with others in a mutually beneficial way. As an empath, it is quite easy for me to stand on the other side of the equation and understand motivations. This made me exceptionally successful with media relations. But I couldn’t naturally flex that ability at any given time. This made the “soft skills” part of my professional life — the part that accounts for far more of our success than a technical ability — quite difficult. I had a torturous time navigating complex systems and understanding my role within them.
It wasn’t until I transformed my self-awareness that I was able to more gracefully exist in the world — and specifically in a team environment. Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. If you cannot master this ability, you’ll never become your most influential self.
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.
Emotional intelligence builds the capacity to exist within complex systems — and to think in systems.
I am a fast and decisive thinker. While this is an exceptional trait in crisis management, it was a living hell for me in client and team management. I would often land on the right insight or solution and insist it was “the way.” Some of my favorite bosses told me my ability to see around corners was tremendous, but I would be so far ahead of the group or client that I’d leave them behind. These hero bosses helped me understand that knowing the answer is just one part of the equation. You must also know how you arrived at the answer, and how to bring others along with you. That in itself is influence.
Can you share some specific examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?
Unsurprisingly, most pain points on teams or within social dynamics can be boiled down to a breakdown in communication. And emotional intelligence is the essence of effective communication.
1.) You’re either a chess piece or the one moving the chess piece. Emotional intelligence is closely connected to self advocacy. When you have the self-awareness to exist within a complex system, and the ability to think within the system itself, you are much more capable of advocating for yourself — what you need, what you want, and — perhaps most importantly at work — what you think.
2.) Another hallmark of emotional intelligence at work is understanding the difference between compassion and empathy. This is exceptionally important if you are working within a system that — mistakenly — assigns gender stereotypes to the concept of empathy. Let’s debunk this once and for all.
Compassion is a feeling (emotion). Empathy is an analysis (logic.) This alone should dispel any notions that empathy is a “soft” female or feminine trait.
Case in point — Compassion is how you feel for someone. Or, more colloquially, standing in someone else’s shoes.
Empathy — and in this case, radical empathy — is an analytical assessment. It is a rapid, often unconscious checklist we run to better understand what the other person wants based on how they exist in the world and what they believe.
Radical empathy is not just standing in someone’s shoes. It’s sitting in their seat at the dinner table to understand their environment, social orders, motivations, fears, family or team dynamics, etc. Because once you understand what they want, you can determine the feeling associated with their decision making and act accordingly. “Radical empathy” is running this social analysis on purpose and with a specific goal in mind. Do this enough and it becomes an unconscious way of thinking rather than an actual assessment.
3.) One of the most important components of emotional intelligence is the ability to endure discomfort. If a cowboy can ride a bull for eight seconds, the equivalent of a high-speed rollover car accident with no seatbelt, then you can endure an uncomfortable conversation with a colleague. Brene Brown says it best, “You can either have courage, or you can have comfort, but you can’t have both.”
This endurance for discomfort is illustrated so profoundly by the Stockdale Paradox. A former POW in Vietnam, Commander James Stockdale was asked to explain why others didn’t survive captivity. He said:
“That’s easy. The optimists. They were the ones who thought they’d be out by Christmas. And if not then, then Easter. And if not then, then Thanksgiving. Etc. etc, year after year. They ultimately died of a broken heart. The lesson is simple — You must never confuse the faith that you will prevail or survive — the very belief no one can afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”
4.) Bad behavior in the workplace commonly tracks back to a deficiency in emotional intelligence.
Consider these examples on a spectrum of exceptional emotional intelligence to underdeveloped emotional intelligence:
- Active listener v. steamroller
- Calm, cool, collected v. A volcano
- Validating v. dismissive
- Seeks to understand v. Seeks to win
- Open to feedback v. Apathetic to feedback
- Can endure, manage, solve conflict v. Conflict avoidant
- Social equity v. Pot stirrers
- Engaged v. Disengaged
- Delegates v. Micromanages
- Strategic v. Manipulative
- Collaborative v. Single conduit
- Open v. Secretive
- Avoiding culture clashes v. Forcing a culture fit
- Open to ideas v. “Smartest person in the room”
- Inclusive v. Playing favorites
We have ALL performed at the unfavorable end of the spectrum at one point or another. I still do sometimes. (Shrug). When working with others to advance their emotional intelligence, the nuance is understanding if the behavior is situational, or how they are wired.
Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have better relationships?
I read a most powerful story on Humans of New York where the subject said, “At all times, people are doing one of two things: Showing love or crying out for it.” I haven’t forgotten it because it is THAT profound.
If you are self-aware, understand your role in the dynamic, and can think in systems, while also understanding the other person in the equation, you can very quickly determine if they are showing love or crying out for it. It is the difference between confidence and arrogance, between fear and encouragement, between delegating and empowering. It is also the difference between being affected by someone’s mood or being displaced by it.
Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?
1.) One of the tactics I often use with my clients is a very calculated gut check. It is a more formal practice of “grounding” often used in cognitive behavioral therapy. In a moment of fear, uncertainty, or anxiety, etc., ask yourself these questions:
- What do I feel?
- Why do I feel it?
- How do I know it?
- What does it look like?
- How does it inform my presence?
- How does it affect others?
This assessment undoubtedly sets you up for a greater chance of success tackling whatever comes next.
2.) A well-developed emotional intelligence is evident in our ability to set boundaries, like giving someone the mental Heisman. This is especially important for Highly Sensitive Individuals who are prone to be deeply affected by the moods around them. It is possible to be present without also feeling someone else’s despair. Setting boundaries between your emotions and others’ is a key component of self-care.
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? Please share a story or example for each.
1.) Improve your self awareness. As a highly-sensitive individual, I’ve always had big emotions. I had zero boundaries and very little emotional regulation. If I felt it, you knew it. I thought that was just how I was wired. As you can imagine, this was problematic in the workplace.
While my management team respected my passion and engagement, they struggled with my inability to regulate my emotional expression. It eventually came down to impulse control. Once I understood how my moods affected the room, I became much more cognizant of unpacking my emotions internally, and controlling my impulses to emote or interrupt externally.
Self awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. Internalizing and mastering this self assessment will help you transform your self awareness and self management. Over time, it will become how you think.
- What do I feel?
- Why do I feel it?
- How do I know it?
- What does it look like?
- How does it inform my presence?
- How does it affect others?
2.) Learn how to coach a direct report through self awareness transformation
It can be as uncomfortable as having to earn it. I created this framework to help leaders assess their direct reports, and subtly work with them along the way. In this case — leadership is a lot like parenting — you do the hard part in teaching them, but you may not now or ever reap the rewards. Eventually someone else will, so consider it your legacy gift to humanity.
If you or your direct report were to earn a degree in self awareness, this is what it would look like:
- Freshman — I have emotions and I can name them
- Sophomore — PLUS I know why I feel them and how they affect my performance
- Junior — PLUS I know how they affect those around me & I can recognize the same in others
- Senior — PLUS I can regulate my emotion
- Graduate school — PLUS I can set boundaries and I can remove myself from the situation and see the whole dynamic
- Post-doctorate — PLUS I can influence others
Use these benchmarks to engineer the kind of conversation that helps them understand where they are in their self awareness development and how it affects them personally, but also how it affects their job and even the organization.
3.) Become a systems thinker
Systems thinkingis the ability to understand your role in a complex system and also understand how the parts work together. For example, a medical doctor cannot be effective if he doesn’t know how a damaged lung will affect the brain or the heart, etc. If you or someone you manage is having a difficult time onboarding systems thinking, do the Jane Goodall exercise. Observe your environment — industry, organization, leadership, team, micro-team, client, etc. — by answering these questions:
- Who appears to make decisions?
- Who really makes decisions?
- Who hangs out together outside of work?
- How do people behave — or don’t — when leadership exits the room?
- Who defers to whom?
- Where is there obvious tension?
- Who is aligned? And who isn’t?
Mapping out your ecosystem can help you better understand how you relate to the rest of it, and — perhaps most importantly — how decisions are made around you. What you learn might surprise you!
4.) Revisit your understanding of compassion versus empathy
Consider how a new perspective changes how you relate to those around you.
5.) It’s not about what you want to say, it’s about how the other person needs to receive it
Emotionally intelligent communication isn’t just about what you want to say, it’s about what your audience needs to hear and how they need to hear it in order to be influenced. Before initiating a courageous conversation, or when you’re designing a presentation, run this audience assessment. The more you do so, you will internalize it and it will become a way of thinking and not just an exercise.
- What do they want?
- How does it make them feel?
- What do they WANT to hear?
- What do they NEED to hear?
- How do they need to hear it?
Understand the bigger picture. Designing your communications to the people you need to influence sets you apart from the rest of the pack.
Do you think our educational system can do a better job at cultivating Emotional Intelligence? What specific recommendations would you make for schools to help students cultivate Emotional Intelligence?
Absolutely. There is a measurable trend in primary school administration to introduce social and emotional learning to both staff and students. It is my opinion that emotional intelligence curriculum is as important as math or science. We shouldn’t hoard the information and use it only when there is a problem to solve at work. To create a more emotionally intelligent world, this curriculum should be incorporated into every classroom.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. 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.
If COVID has given us anything, it’s the capacity to endure discomfort and to consider the whole person, not just the employee. The pandemic has proven to the conventional workforce what I have known to be true for quite some time — You can’t optimize people but you can improve their outcomes by allowing them the freedom to optimize how they work.
An emotionally intelligent, post-pandemic workforce does not chain us to a desk for eight hours sandwiched between unproductive commutes. It allows us the opportunity to design how we work in a way that matches how we’re individually wired and how our lives flow. We can design our worktimes and availability based on a combination of work priorities and our internal rhythms.
Decentralizing teams in favor of home-based work will solve a number of problems:
- Work products will improve.
- Happiness quotients will increase.
- Urban drive times and traffic patterns will decrease, easing stress on civil infrastructures.
- We’ll collectively reduce our carbon footprint.
- Corporate overhead will dramatically reduce, freeing up budget for opportunistic hires and an emphasis on innovation.
- Quality time with the family will become more common, not a special event.
- We’ll rethink the “weekend” and personal time off. If we have the freedom to do life AND work in the same day, or to work from a location of our choice, then PTO will become a thing of the past. We will no longer need a vacation to cure burnout.
There is a way to have it all, but our organizations must be willing to truly put their people first.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
- Amaryllis Fox, former CIA agent and author of “My Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA”
- Kim Scott, author of “Radical Candor: How to be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity”
- Sarah Blakely, founder of Spanx
- Ray Dalio, hedge fund founder and philanthropist
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Twitter / Facebook / Instagram — @meghanebutler
Instagram — @emotionalintelatwork
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.