“Choose kindness and practice empathy.” With Dr. Cassandra LeClair

Cultivate Compassion. Choose kindness and practice empathy. Again, start with yourself. When we have compassion for others, we show them that we see them, we hear them, we value their experiences, and we want to work to end their suffering. You cannot do that for another if you have yet to do it for yourself. […]

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Cultivate Compassion. Choose kindness and practice empathy. Again, start with yourself. When we have compassion for others, we show them that we see them, we hear them, we value their experiences, and we want to work to end their suffering. You cannot do that for another if you have yet to do it for yourself. When we practice loving kindness with ourselves, we can more easily extend it to others. We can increase our capacity for compassion, just like we can strengthen a muscle through exercise. We can critique and provide guidance without being harsh. We can lead and motivate without tearing others down. Your heart is as much part of emotional intelligence as your brain. Don’t let it harden.

As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewingDr. Cassandra LeClair.

Cassandra Fay LeClair, Ph.D., is an award-winning professor, author, and communication consultant. She is an expert in communicating feelings and improving connections.

Cassandra earned her Ph.D. in Communication Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she focused on Interpersonal and Family Communication, with a specialization in Women’s and Gender Studies. Dr. LeClair teaches a variety of classes at the collegiate level, where she encourages her students to explore their own patterns and improve their communication. Her book, Being Whole: Healing from Trauma and Reclaiming My Voice, highlights a personal journey of breaking unhealthy patterns and maladaptive coping mechanisms created in the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse. Dr. LeClair’s mission is to educate individuals on how to enhance their personal and professional relationships through healthy and effective communication. Her dedication is fueled by the desire to increase understanding about communication surrounding crisis, stress, and traumatic events. Her work can be viewed at www.cassandraleclair.com

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?

Igrew up in rural South Dakota with my mom, dad, brother, and sister. We lived in a deserted town full of abandoned buildings. It was a great place to explore and let your imagination take over.

I am fortunate to have a loving and supportive family. I was taught to work hard, be kind, and do my best. Those ideals have been my foundation as I have worked to achieve success in my career.

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

I am a Communication Studies professor and relationship expert. My purpose in life is to teach others to communicate — and use their voices to enhance their relationships and professional lives with effective communication. This quest was, in part, born out of my early inability to do that for myself.

I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was 39 before I could say those words out loud and speak clearly about everything that happened to me without being retraumatized. I pushed it away and developed deeply engrained coping mechanisms to ensure it would stay a secret. I negotiated my life cycling through intense emotions and continuously working to manage my feelings. I was acutely aware of my own reactions and the ways I was being triggered, but I lacked the awareness and skill, early on, to change things.

During college, I inadvertently started my journey to healing. I took my psychology and communication studies classes very personally. I loved learning about the brain and the human need for connection. I had yet to process any of my traumas, so I was also in a desperate cycle of wanting to learn more in an attempt to fix myself.

Although I struggled to make sense of my own emotional reactions, I realized that I was very good at helping other people feel comfortable in discussing their feelings. I deeply understood intense emotions, and I found I could describe those feelings and teach others how to articulate what they needed when faced with emotional situations. I worked in several facilities focused on behavior and mental health. I considered becoming a counselor, but at the time, it was challenging for me not to take on the emotions of others. I pursued my Master’s and Ph.D. in Communication Studies with a focus on interpersonal and family relationships and a specialization in women’s and gender studies. My goal was to become a professor. We create connections through our communication and our interpersonal awareness influences our ability to communicate. I wanted to teach others to have healthy relationships — with themselves and others.

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?

There are two people who encourage me to be the best version of myself every day: my children, Alexandra and Kellen.

They were born at different periods of my graduate school career. Having that additional responsibility was a challenge, yet I think it was a push I needed. I never questioned if I would finish. I never thought twice about working hard to get a good job and what I would do next. They were always there, giving me a reason to move forward. They should have honorary communication studies degrees because they hear most of my lectures and help me test a lot of my classroom activities.

My children were also instrumental in the completion of my book. As things were wrapping up for my book, some expenses changed my budget. I had been saving to take them on vacation, and I had to sit them down and tell them I wanted to use the money for my book. They didn’t think twice. They told me I would help a lot of people and that was more important. I believe I can do things because I see myself through their eyes.

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?

My career does not look the way I envisioned. One interesting thing about my career is that I’ve been hired by Texas State University in three different roles. I started as a tenure track assistant professor in 2008. I planned to gain tenure and continue my academic research on coping and compassion. However, in 2011, I became very ill. I went on medical disability, resigned from my tenure position, and left the university in 2012. Dealing with the loss of my identity as a professor was, in many ways, more difficult than my actual physical illness. One of my most powerful outlets for healing, processing, and helping others was gone when I had to quit my job. Helping others was and is my passion. I had no idea the depths of emptiness I would feel when I was too sick to do anything but sleep and wake up for meds. What I discovered in that time was that my identity was not tied to my profession. It was connected to my desire to help others.

The interesting mistake I made was thinking that my personal value was inextricably linked to my professional status. I returned several years later as an adjunct, teaching only one or two classes before becoming healthy enough to come back full time. I’ve been through new faculty training on three separate occasions.

The exciting part of this is that I’m happier in my current position and I am more able to articulate the things I want and need from my workspace due to the changes I’ve endured.

What do I think the take-away is? Mistakes and setbacks happen. Admit when you are wrong, apologize when necessary, give yourself grace and, above all, learn to recognize that your profession does not define your worth as a person.

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?

Trust that everything will work out and don’t be afraid to do things that might be outside of your original plan. When I finally got healthier physically, I started exploring ways to expand my reach beyond academia. I accepted more speaking engagements, workshops, and consultations as a way to share my expertise. When I returned to the classroom, I brought a new perspective and range of skills. I am a better educator as a result.

In 2019, I wrote a popular press book, Being Whole: Healing from Trauma and Reclaiming My Voice. I was accepted as a speaker for the RAIIN speaker’s bureau and I was also selected as a speaker for TEDx Texas State University. These speaking opportunities allow me to reach non-academic audiences to grow awareness of the need for better communication skills and emotional expression.

Without my personal challenges, I doubt that I would have reached beyond academia to share my love of human communication with people worldwide. I’m learning more about myself and having that setback enabled me to see that it’s not necessarily being a professor or even teaching, but it’s about helping, and I can use my expertise to help people in various ways. This is both professionally fulfilling and personally exciting. It’s enabled me to create a broader network and foster connections with individuals I would never have met.

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?

When I was writing my book, it was hard for me to get out of my head. I felt guilty reading because I thought I should be working on my manuscript. My escape was listening to audiobooks, in particular, Becoming by Michelle Obama. I could unwind as I listened to Michelle weave beautiful stories about her life. As I worked on my final chapters, I was fortunate to hear her speak in Austin, TX as part of the book tour. When I listened to her, I felt such strength and power. I envisioned myself finishing my book and standing on a stage talking about it to a crowd of people. Almost a year later, I gave a TEDx talk that was born from my book. I like to think Michelle helped manifest that situation.

Another mentor of mine is Oprah. Yes, Oprah is my mentor — she just doesn’t know it yet! I have looked up to her from the time her show started. To me, she embodies resiliency. Hearing her be so open about her struggles and her methods to overcome adversity inspired me greatly. She works to be emotionally grounded and healthy as she seeks to help others and change the world. I follow her content across multiple platforms and feel uplifted, inspired, and encouraged.

My point? Mentors can be people we’ve never even met. If you don’t have a real-life mentor, seek one elsewhere.

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

“Compassion for others begins with kindness to ourselves.” Pema Chödrön

The self-talk we engage in is so important, and we need to examine the areas of our lives where we may have disordered, unhealthy, and/or unproductive thoughts. Coping with unresolved trauma, I engaged in plenty of maladaptive inner dialogue, and this is always a work in progress for me. I am very open with my clients about this, and we work to identify ways that their patterns impact their communication and relationships.

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 in the process of outlining my next book. It focuses on coping with chronic illness and the ways multiple people are impacted when a family member becomes ill. I am also designing a new series of courses for my website. My most popular topics for business workshops are conflict, boundaries, and improving client relationships, so I am expanding my offerings in those areas. Many people are afraid of presentations and one of my superpowers is helping people overcome that fear. I love watching others embrace their power as they improve their communication!

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 my work as a communication studies professor, I specialize in interpersonal relationships. My work focuses primarily on the ways we communicatively cope in the face of unexpected relationship challenges.

I conduct trainings to help businesses, community organizations, and individuals enhance their connections through improved interpersonal communication. I facilitate workshops about improving communication, learning empathy, and processing feelings. Additionally, I possess expertise in communication relating to trauma, crisis, and stressful events. I live with lupus and am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I use my education, research, training, and life experiences, to advocate for others to use their voices and share their stories.

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

Emotional intelligence helps us recognize, understand, and manage our emotions, so we may empathize with others and communicate more effectively. The more we understand our identities and our own emotions, the more we are able to understand others.

The five main components of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, self-regulation, internal motivation, empathy, and social skills. Emotional intelligence also relates to the degree to which individuals are aware of and use emotional cues to guide their communication

We are all born with a certain level of emotional intelligence, but we must also practice and embody the principles to sharpen those skills. We use emotional intelligence to apply that awareness across different contexts to enhance connections with others.

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

Measures of standard intelligence are those we traditionally think of in terms of logic or the ability to solve problems. Emotional intelligence involves an acute understanding and knowledge of ways of relating to others. General intelligence refers to possessing knowledge, wisdom, logic, and complex problem-solving. We can all think of examples of brilliant people who struggle with how to relate to others, how to read people, and how to establish connections. That is where Emotional Intelligence comes into play.

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 allows us to create deeper connections with others. We can demonstrate to others that they are seen, heard, and valued when we are able to tune into their emotional frequency and hear and relate to their perspectives.

Emotional intelligence aids in our recognition and awareness of our own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. You can take that awareness and translate it across different contexts. It helps you read a situation, environment, person, or relationship and enables you to better understand the communication climate.

Your emotional intelligence allows you to show others they are seen and heard. It enhances your effectiveness across different social contexts. Emotional intelligence helps us empathize, understand, and communicate more easily.

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.

Although I have studied emotional intelligence and taught about it for decades, I still struggled with the emotional regulation aspect of emotional intelligence. I had to go back to do some more in-depth work to understand why my own emotional regulation wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I think that is a vital thing to acknowledge and recognize.

I was unaware of how to help myself, all while excelling at teaching others these skills. I had a highly successful and happy life in many ways, but I was plagued by nagging feelings of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. These feelings were my constant companion because of unresolved trauma. Working to recognize, acknowledge, and release the fear, guilt, shame, and blame was incredibly challenging. Deep down, I did not think I was valuable enough to have needs. I did not believe I was worthy of success, triumph, or happiness. I had to look at my triggers and work to understand why I felt pain even when I “should” be happy. Sharing my truth has been the hardest thing I have ever done, but it has brought me tremendous peace. I no longer have constant fear, worry, or panic. My relationships have deepened, and my interactions are more authentic because of my increased self-awareness.

I had to go back and work to heal from the wounds from childhood sexual abuse. I had to learn how to recognize some of my emotional triggers to understand why my emotions were often not matching the situation. It was like the unresolved trauma was seeping out of me, a little at a time, and it felt impossible to self-regulate. When I wrote Being Whole, I was, in many ways, strengthening the pillar of emotional regulation for myself. It is one of the critical components of emotional intelligence that I needed to enhance.

It is essential that I talk about this and address it so that I can encourage others to do this as well. It speaks to the universality of experience, and it also models vulnerability for those who may need to find a path forward to address their own struggles. There is a human element to emotional intelligence that goes beyond textbook learning.

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

Connections are important in the business world. You can utilize your EI skills to foster better relationships with clients and customers.

My parents owned and operated a bowling alley and I learned a lot about running a business from them. After school, I swept gutters, stocked shelves, and did dishes. My favorite place was behind the counter. I liked to count change and twirl on the stool that sat by the cash register. I was proud when I knew what size shoes someone needed or when I remembered what kind of candy they liked. Making those connections was important to me, even at a young age. I wanted people to feel special. I wanted them to feel like I understood how to help them.

Show others you are paying attention and that you value their business. As an employee, you can also use these skills to connect with others in your organization. Work to cultivate genuine relationships. You will be able to draw on others for their expertise or be the solution someone else needs.

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

Many of us are working through generational trauma and healing patterns that have nothing to do with us. The more we can home in on our personal emotional intelligence, the more we can release some of the situations that cloud our judgment and overtake our emotions. Learning how we process and make sense of our emotions and others’ emotions provides us with valuable insight. We can use that information to foster closeness with others.

My children have taught me a great deal about what it means to be emotionally intelligent. They’ve also shown me how to be adaptive in many different emotional situations. Because I am a single mom, there is a lot of emotional labor involved. We’ve cultivated a space of closeness and connection because of the ways that we talk about things.

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

Once again, emotional intelligence helps us empathize, overcome, and grow. We can always work to raise our awareness of ourselves. Throughout this, remember that it is a work in progress. This is hard work. We are often stuck in patterns and tend to shy away from analyzing our own emotions because it can bring up pieces of our identities that we don’t embrace or acknowledge. Learning to love each part of yourself enables you to be more accepting of your emotions. Giving yourself grace is a big step to being more emotionally intelligent.

When we become more self-aware, we recognize areas we need to improve. We are better able to understand our emotions and identify our triggers. Having the vocabulary to discuss our feelings can help us feel more in control of our experiences. Being able to name your emotions and discuss them clearly can also open space for us to ask others for support when needed.

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. Increase Awareness. Get to know yourself on every level. What personality traits are your strongest? How can you utilize your personal authenticity to communicate more effectively? While others might serve as role models for us, we can be most effective when we concentrate on being the best version of ourselves. I recommend taking a step back to look at your own patterns to help raise awareness so we can acknowledge areas you wish to change or improve. Seek to learn more about who you are, what you like, and what you need before looking at what others can bring to your life. Your relationships will deepen and grow through your awareness and reflection.
  2. Acknowledge and Accept Your Emotions. Managing your emotions is a crucial piece of emotional intelligence, but first, you must understand what you are feeling. Take a look at your own emotions and ask yourself where they come from and what they mean. What is your emotional history? Do not push away feelings that you don’t like. Accept that all emotions are healthy and learn from those reactions. Name your feelings, find ways to describe them, recognize your triggers, and work to understand when they arise. Learn how to talk about your emotional needs. Look at how your emotions impact your thinking across different situations. In addition, remember that managing your emotions doesn’t mean shutting them down. Work on recognizing where the emotions come from and understanding the appropriate spaces for expression of those emotions. When we know our emotions, we are better equipped to understand the emotions and needs of others.
  3. Actively Engage. Learn to be present, even if distractions abound. Listen to understand so that you can provide an appropriate response. What is needed of you at this moment? Increase your nonverbal immediacy by nodding, leaning in, or smiling. Seek to respond — not react. As you engage, do not let your emotions take over your ability to respond with care and intention. Sit with your initial reaction and think about your response verbally and nonverbally. In addition, recognize that emotions that differ from yours aren’t inherently wrong. Have patience as you listen and seek to acknowledge another feelings and emotional space. Emotional processing is an essential piece of my self-care routine. My mental health and emotional well-being suffer if I don’t take time to acknowledge, feel, and release the feelings I’m experiencing. Learn from your mistakes and don’t be afraid to talk to others about areas of improvement. Recognize that each moment can teach you if you are open to change.
  4. Recenter. Emotional intelligence involves recognizing what you need to be emotionally healthy. Meditation, mindfulness, and journaling are daily practices that help me recenter. I build time into my schedule to make sure these things are a priority. You have to take space to regroup and take inventory of what you need for optimal emotional health before you can be there for others. Boundaries are essential, and they do not look the same for everyone. Learn to set boundaries at work and home. Practice self-care so that you can keep your own emotional health intact. Self-care isn’t selfish!
  5. Cultivate Compassion. Choose kindness and practice empathy. Again, start with yourself. When we have compassion for others, we show them that we see them, we hear them, we value their experiences, and we want to work to end their suffering. You cannot do that for another if you have yet to do it for yourself. When we practice loving kindness with ourselves, we can more easily extend it to others. We can increase our capacity for compassion, just like we can strengthen a muscle through exercise. We can critique and provide guidance without being harsh. We can lead and motivate without tearing others down. Your heart is as much part of emotional intelligence as your brain. Don’t let it harden.

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?

We are emotional beings, yet we are not all equipped with an understanding of these emotions. We can work to improve our competence. It would be much easier if we started this at a younger age. Incorporating EI into the curriculum would give students space to better understand themselves and their peers. As they learn more about self-awareness and self-esteem, they can also be given tools to improve their daily lives. This helps build a foundational practice of caring for one’s emotional health. We can provide kids with safe spaces for freedom of expression. When they feel more comfortable in their learning space, they have a better capacity to learn.

We can teach kids to name their feelings and give them the tools to describe those feelings. Learning about means of expressing themselves and working to understand how their emotions may differ from those of their peers is important.

We need to support educational systems with more resources. Talking about EQ gives open lines for children to communicate. We can teach them more specifically about inclusion and empathy. Many teachers work to build this in, but anyone in education can tell you there is not enough time and they have to focus on the content that is tested. That highlights a larger issue.

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.

I would love to see a world with more empathy and compassion. We can give this to others if we first practice with ourselves. We can increase our capacity for compassion by being kinder to ourselves. Our voices carry us through all of life circumstances. We have to look at our inner voice before we can adequately discuss our communication with others.

Given that we all have the capacity to provide compassion and empathy, why is it that we only teach it to a few? How do we prepare ourselves to respond to a crisis when we are never trained as crisis responders? How can we equip ourselves to handle things that come up unexpectedly when we’ve never prepared for the idea that we could be the person someone needs?

In my classes, I work tirelessly to create a climate of mutual respect. This safe space creates an environment rich for discussions, especially in classes where sensitive and controversial topics are prevalent. I firmly believe that these climates can be created outside of classrooms. I seek to teach others how to cultivate healthy communication, even amid crisis, trauma, and stress. Remaining silent was damaging me in ways I never realized. I had to take the monumental step of choosing to work through the trauma I had endured. By processing and releasing the events, I grew as a person, but I have also grown as a teacher. As such, my overarching goal is to continue to build a platform for other voices to be heard. I have changed the way I teach at the college level and have developed workshops and speaking events in a continued effort to create a space for others to share their stories. It is my wish for my story to stand alongside many others who have shared their truths.

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 🙂

I would like to sit at Oprah’s avocado farm while we laugh in the sunlight and sip lemonade. I know many cite Oprah when asked about influential people. I don’t think that speaks to a lack of originality or authenticity. I believe it is a testament to the energy Oprah gives back to the world. When people have a bright light, it is natural to be drawn to them. I think Oprah renews people’s spirits because she reflects their own troubles back to them. She manages to be super relatable, which is mind-blowing when you consider the level of success she’s achieved. Kindness, humility, compassion for others. Yep. Oprah is my hero.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

To learn more, you can visit my webpage at www.CassandraLeClair.com

You can also find me on social media at: www.facebook.com/DrCassandraLeClair or


My TEDx talk can be viewed at: https://youtu.be/oPNjukt7cww

I’d love to connect with readers and learn more about how they use Emotional Intelligence!

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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