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“Hit the pause button”, Melissa Thornley and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Hit the pause button. Stop before you take action or reply to an email to ask yourself a couple of questions. Do you have the information you need? Have you considered the impact of your actions a month or year down the road? As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure […]

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Hit the pause button. Stop before you take action or reply to an email to ask yourself a couple of questions. Do you have the information you need? Have you considered the impact of your actions a month or year down the road?


As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewingMelissa Thornley.

As an advertising industry veteran, Melissa Thornley found that leveraging emotional intelligence was the secret to successful projects for high profile clients like McDonald’s, Nike, and Coca-Cola. After 2 decades leading teams in Chicago, NYC and London, she shifted gears to focus on emotional intelligence and creative leadership.

In 2013, Melissa started her firm Melissa Thornley Consulting to focus on leadership initiatives for organizations like USG, Abbvie, Nisource and Publicis. What makes the strongest impact on her clients is understanding emotional intelligence skills so they can drive better results for themselves and the communities they serve.

Melissa holds certifications in the EQi2.0 assessment which measures capacity in emotional skills, as well as Kolbe, which looks at natural strengths and problem-solving instincts. She also holds certifications with the ICF (International Coaching Federation) as well as a CPCC from the Coaches Training Institute.

As the former Chicago Director of the Institute for Management Studies, Melissa collaborated with talent departments of Fortune 500 companies to serve emerging leaders to senior level executives.

In addition to her traditional business background, she draws upon her training in improv, mindfulness and kung fu.

You can find Melissa’s five part blog series on Emotional Intelligence here.


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?

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a book in my hands. My Mom was an elementary school teacher and passed on her love of learning. In kindergarten I started playing the piano. My grandmother played the organ so during our Sunday visits we would both play the organ and then I’d dance around to the 45s we played on their record player. My love of books led to my love of writing and stories told in any format: movies, plays, television and radio.

Early on I became very sensitive to other people’s emotions. My Dad had a horrible temper which was easily and often set off. If he didn’t like the look on your face, you might get sent to your room. Being able to decipher his moods was critical to feeling safe and maintaining some semblance of peace in our house.

What was even more confusing as a kid was that I experienced these mood swings as well. I couldn’t explain where they came from or what caused them. I just knew they scared me and I wasn’t sure what to do about them. Focusing on school, practicing the piano and being a good girl held me together. Starting in middle school I sought out mentors and friends who offered different perspectives that helped me better understand my emotions and how to better manage them. These relationships along with leadership positions in high school and university set the stage for my current career.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

My career path has been a winding one and I’ve been blessed with many mentors to guide me along the way. My former boss Valerie Anderson inspired me not only as a leader in the film and advertising industry, but as I made my transition into leadership consulting. We met through a mutual client when she was working for a competitor. From the very start Valerie demonstrated the power of transparency and tenacity. When I had the opportunity to work for her, I jumped at it. Never pass up an opportunity to work with a mentor!

Over the course of working with Valerie, I gleaned many leadership insights, especially in terms of navigating tricky politics as a woman in a male-dominated industry. When I decided to shift my career focus to consulting, she couldn’t have been more supportive. Her leadership and mentorship continues to serve as a reminder of the impact we can have on people which then drives results for organizations.

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?

My Uncle Grant models the values I hold dearest: creative self expression, spirituality, authenticity, and bringing compassion and beauty into the world. He always treated me with respect and as my own person even when I was a little girl. He didn’t shy away from tough conversations or questions.

When I was thirteen, he shared with me that he was gay and what that meant both to him and in the world. He gave me some historical context and talked to me about how he was going to be on a political task force to work for LGBTQ rights. To a seventh grader back in the early 80’s, this was a big deal. He demonstrated to me that courage and vulnerability go hand in hand. I learned that being true to yourself is a non-negotiable which has influenced every major life decision I’ve made.

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?

One of the more interesting situations happened when I was being forced by upper management to let go of one of our employees due to a corporate accounting error. It was a directive that I refused to follow (which did not make upper management happy). Although it came with political costs, I stood my ground until I could find another option to keep this key member of our team.

This process taught me a few things. First of all, there’s always a third option. When confronted with a tough decision, look for other perspectives that may shine a light on an option that wasn’t clear before. I also learned that it’s okay to sacrifice short term political capital if it means you stay in alignment with your values and the mission of the organization. I was risking my reputation and potentially my job. I also trusted another solution was possible, and it was.

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?

Grow your capacity to listen and ask questions. Your clients and colleagues want to be both heard and understood. Asking the tough questions can reveal an overlooked solution or the common ground needed to move through a difficult situation. Listening also allows you to connect not only with others, but to your own inner wisdom.

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?

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. I’m a recovering perfectionist. Even now there’s not a day that goes by where I hear that little voice in my head reminding me of all of the things I should’ve done differently. Luckily the voice is not as loud as it used to be, but it’s still there. The Gifts of Imperfection connected me to the power of self-compassion rather than relying solely on my tireless drive to strive and improve.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

It always seems impossible until it’s done. — Nelson Mandela. As a creative entrepreneur, a great idea may seem out of reach. When the inspiration hits, worrying about the ‘How’ can stop you in your tracks. You simply have to take the smallest possible first step and new steps will appear. Once you start, the momentum builds and other people join in to make it happen. Before you know it what once seemed impossible is now a reality.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I’m writing a book that explores the joy of saying no. One of the many things 2020 has taught me is how to say no on a variety of levels. It’s not just about declining an opportunity or request. It’s about deeply understanding your values and how you want them to show up in your life. Sometimes we need to say no to a habit or a pattern in our relationships that no longer serves us. Learning to say no to ourselves is a powerful way to say yes to accomplishing a goal we never thought possible.

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?

In one way, shape or form, I’ve been studying Emotional Intelligence since I was a kid. Throughout my career I’ve used Emotional Intelligence skills to better understand clients, lead teams and drive results for companies. Over the past decade I’ve studied its impact on individuals and organizations and how we can all learn and expand skills that increase our capacity to create more truly successful lives.

For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?

There are many ways to define Emotional Intelligence. The definition that resonates most with me is that Emotional Intelligence is a set of skills that allow us to understand and communicate emotional information so we can build relationships, face challenges and make decisions that build a life we love.

How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?

Typically when we speak of intelligence, we’re referring to IQ and how we reason and process information and solve problems. When we layer in the emotional aspect, it acknowledges that most information includes emotional data with it. For example, a number is just a number, but we often attach meaning and emotion to that number. Last quarter’s sales numbers, your weight, your credit score, a salary: these numbers will elicit a variety of emotional responses from people. Emotions are simply a different form of data to incorporate into a decision-making process.

Can you help explain a few reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Emotions play a large role in our decisions, even when we don’t realize it. Think about the big choices you’ve made in your life, like finding a place to live, taking a career leap, or making a major purchase like a home or car. How did you approach making those decisions? Did these decisions impact other people in your life?

Gaining awareness of our emotions and increasing our skills at expressing them, managing them and using emotional information to make decisions allows us to think with all of who we are. We are more than just our brains.

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.

As I learned to more deeply understand my emotions, I realized my responsibility in managing them. Learning how to clearly name and work with my emotions has helped all of my relationships, both personal and professional.

Now when my nerves feel amped up before a presentation, I can use that energy to connect to my audience. When I notice anger is present, I know to look at what lies underneath that anger to find what I truly value. Then I can put my energy into making a positive difference rather than just feeling upset.

Can you share some specific examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?

Growing as a leader means increasing your influence so that you can drive better results. This is not a solo job. So much more is possible when you’re able to inspire and bring on board people with skills that complement yours.

Experiencing success doesn’t mean avoiding failure. In fact, it’s the opposite. We can expect to make mistakes throughout our careers. Taking responsibility for our mistakes and also being compassionate with ourselves will allow us to build trust with others and ourselves so we can learn from the experience and move forward.

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have better relationships?

One of the most useful Emotional Intelligence skills is empathy. Seeing things from other people’s perspectives allows us to have more authentic relationships with our friends, family and colleagues.

Taking the time to ask people about their experiences lets you in on why they may hold a certain position. Reflecting back to them what you heard allows them to feel seen and respected. This is especially important in those tough conversations. When you are able to see things from the other person’s point of view, you’ll be able to communicate with more ease.

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?

When we can clearly name the emotions we’re experiencing and why, we can more accurately get our needs met. For example, if we’re feeling overwhelmed, we can look at the factors creating that frustration. Maybe we need to implement some new email habits or communicate our expectations more clearly. Increasing our stress tolerance and ability to meet our own needs greatly optimizes our well being.

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.

Hit the pause button. Stop before you take action or reply to an email to ask yourself a couple of questions. Do you have the information you need? Have you considered the impact of your actions a month or year down the road?

Ask where you’re wrong. We all need to account for confirmation bias. It’s natural to seek confirmation for our plan or perspective. This can keep us from optimizing and innovating. Find someone with a different perspective and ask what you may be missing.

Look underneath that initial emotion. When something ticks you off, pause. Look a little deeper. What’s underneath? Maybe there’s a fear or loss hanging out there. What values got stepped on? What values were missing? Now you can take action to honor those values.

Have the talk. Sometimes our feelings get in the way of making that tough call. Rather than avoiding difficult conversations, let your empathy support having the talks you’d rather not have. Put yourself in that other person’s shoes and express yourself so your points are understood.

Check your alignment. Sometimes being flexible pulls us or members of our team out of whack. Maybe the team is burned out. Maybe the original vision is getting lost in the details. Take a step back to reconnect with your values and vision and move forward from there.

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 our school systems can do better. Cultivating Emotional Intelligence at an early age is key to a better learning experience for not only the students, but the teachers and administrators as well. Developing emotional literacy so everyone has an expanded language to identify, express and manage emotions means teachers can better meet the needs of students, parents, as well as their own. Dr. Marc Brackett has developed a robust training program and model schools can immediately put into practice: https://www.rulerapproach.org/

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.

Pay attention. The Pay Attention! Movement. All of us are pulled simultaneously in multiple directions on a daily…okay let’s be honest here…on a minute by minute basis. It requires focus and discipline to pay attention to what really matters. Whether it’s a conversation or a project or a drive into the city, pay attention to where you are, who you’re with and what you’re doing. Our attention pulls us into the present tense and that is the door to everything.

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 🙂

No contest. Brene Brown. Hands down.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

https://www.facebook.com/MelissaThornleyConsulting
https://www.instagram.com/melissathornleyconsulting/
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