Dr. Jeremiah Gruenberg: “Empowerment of self-honesty”

…Empowerment of self-honesty. You can’t be emotionally intelligent with others if you cannot first be emotionally intelligent with yourself! Be brutally honest with yourself, and you will be clearer on what you need to do and when you need to do it. Emotional intelligence begins with how you relate to yourself. As a part of […]

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…Empowerment of self-honesty. You can’t be emotionally intelligent with others if you cannot first be emotionally intelligent with yourself! Be brutally honest with yourself, and you will be clearer on what you need to do and when you need to do it. Emotional intelligence begins with how you relate to yourself.


As a part of our series about Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeremiah Gruenberg.

Jeremiah Gruenberg, Ph.D., is a consultant, speaker, and coach on the empowerment of authenticity in the corporate, church, and family settings. He helps individuals, leaders, and organizations discover new levels of creativity, productivity, and fulfillment. Jeremiah’s background is diverse, including roles as an author and editor, freelance writer, pastor, and teacher and curriculum developer in higher education. He has served on the board of directors for his family’s private company for the last fifteen years. Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters.


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 was born in a beach house in Hawaii, to the sound of waves crashing on the sand. I am actually the seventh generation of my family to have lived in Hawaii. While my earliest years were spent in that tropical paradise, just a few blocks from the beach, I ended up in Los Angeles for my teenage and college years (at UCLA). So I feel like I have an approach to life that is a mix of the relaxed Hawaii attitude and the always-going, always striving vibe of LA. And that’s good! Sometimes it’s all about productivity, and sometimes it’s all about recharging and enjoying life.

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

When I was eight years old, I was fascinated by the idea of being an ambassador. As an eight-year-old! It’s what I wanted to be when I grew up: someone who worked toward agreements between people and nations. It seemed like such a cool job. Even when I was young, I thought mediation was cool. Of course, now that I understand a lot more about politics I’m glad I didn’t go that route!

But the fundamentals of why I was drawn to being an ambassador are still there for me. Ultimately, I just want to help people! It may sound too simplistic, but it is what drives me. I’ve since applied this ambition to consulting and coaching on authenticity — helping people become more emotionally intelligent, particularly about themselves. But what I’m doing isn’t that far away from what my eight-year-old self wanted to do: helping people, finding agreements, establishing connections, and growing trust in mutually beneficial relationships.

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?

One of my formative professors was Joy Harjo, who is now the poet laureate of the United States. I studied poetry writing under Harjo, who was a visiting professor at UCLA. Her poems are really an example of the power of emotional intelligence. To truly grasp them, you must feel them with your heart just as much as you understand with your mind.

I found that reading poetry is a deep way to learn the language of emotional intelligence, which is much more holistic and, I guess, personal. So learning to read and write poetry with Joy Harjo was a masterclass in interacting with the expression and language of emotion.

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?

I remember in one of the interviews for my first job in the publishing industry, I was so excited about it that when the question of payment came up, I literally said, “I will work for peanuts.” The interviewer smiled and said, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” So yeah. In my first few jobs, I made the mistake of not knowing what I was worth.

I think people with naturally high emotional intelligence are very giving, often to their detriment. This was definitely my problem in my twenties. I was just happy to be involved. But people who are deeply authentic know their worth. So I guess you could say that this story illustrates the downside of being a giver without self-knowledge. And this is an issue I work with people on in my coaching, especially. When you achieve authenticity, you know your worth, and you will stand by it.

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?

Just get in motion, somehow, in some way. Even if you don’t know what to focus on, just try stuff! Waiting to figure things out before taking action is a waste of time. If you try something and realize you are terrible at it, that’s great! It is a win to discover what you don’t want to do, because it gets you closer to what you do want to do. Doing anything, even in the wrong direction, is better than not taking any action because you aren’t sure what to do.

Also, prioritize what is important to you. If you don’t establish your priorities, then someone or something else is establishing your priorities for you. When that happens, you will end up spending a lot of time doing things that don’t really get you closer to what matters. Even if your life circumstances are such that you don’t have a lot of time, just set aside at least an hour a week to put your priorities into motion.

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?

Groundhog’s Day. This is probably the greatest movie about emotional intelligence of all time. The main character starts with nearly zero emotional intelligence. He is rude and abrasive and self-centered. He doesn’t care about anyone or anything. And then fate steps in and makes him relive the same day until he learns to be more emotionally intelligent.

The arc that Bill Murray’s character goes through is exactly the progression that we all make in our lives — although most of us learn these lessons much earlier! We all start as people unaware of anything but our own desires and needs. Then we learn just enough about other people in order to manipulate them to get what we want. Then, when doing that doesn’t make us happy, we get confused and unsure. However, the moment we work on self-improvement, some little changes happen and encourage us enough to keep us going. And we learn that since focusing on ourselves can only go so far, we start helping others just for the sake of helping — because people matter. And then finally, we start to feel like we matter because we’re making a positive impact on the world.

Bill Murray goes through all of these phases. And even though I couldn’t have explained all of this when I saw it as a teenager, I knew that it captured the human experience with so much humor and grace. I’ve seen it too many times. So, definitely, Groundhog’s Day.

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

Roy Disney said “It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” I think that values — that is, the foundational things that make each of us distinctly who we are — are the keys to emotional intelligence, self-knowledge, and authenticity. Roy was talking about this in terms of business, but I think it’s perfectly applicable in everyday human life. And actually, I think it’s much easier to see the truth of this quote when you think about it in reverse:

If you are having a difficult time making a decision, it’s because you don’t know what your values are.

Emotional intelligence requires that we know ourselves. If we can’t listen, understand, and respond to ourselves, how can we possibly do so with others? One of the foundational things that can tell you who you are is your set of personal values. If you value kindness, you will be unhappy if you don’t practice it! If you value creativity, you will not be yourself if you do not have some outlet of creativity. The connection between our values and what we do is a central issue in emotional intelligence, and Roy Disney captured the connection in a powerfully simple quote.

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

I’ve recently put a number of one-page resources on my website. They address everything from emotionally intelligent approaches to conflict to how to change a workplace culture. I’ve always found it to be true that if you can’t explain something in simple words in a short amount of time, then you don’t really understand it. So I’ve taken a lot of the material that I’ve developed and used in a number of different contexts and tried to boil them down to one page of information on one topic.

These resources have the potential to guide people who want to implement effective changes in their lives, their families, and their businesses. I think the most important thing I can do is give people tools to make choices that are reflective of what matters to them. And that’s what the one-page resources are meant to do.

I’ve also been putting together a proposal for a book that is tentatively titled Internal Leverage: the Empowerment of Authenticity. I’m very excited about the prospect of being able to take the various things I’ve discovered about authenticity and put it all in one place. The title reflects the bottom-line result of authenticity: it gives you internal leverage. There is an amazing level of empowerment that comes from having a clear, productive definition of yourself. And, in turn, this gives you a lot of relational strength, increases your creative decision-making, and leads to greater contentment and satisfaction.

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’ve been coaching people toward authenticity and emotional intelligence for nearly two decades, in many different contexts. And the same principles apply across the board, whether in business, personal, family, religion, education, etc. I’ve always found it fascinating to dissect the reasons we make our choices. Usually, we are not at all aware of why we react the way we do!

So I have this internal drive to help people understand their own motivations. My particular focus in emotional intelligence is to equip others with the tools of authenticity — and those tools are essential tools of emotional intelligence. I’ve found that my clients are surprised at the efficacy of the principles of emotional intelligence.

So in my work, I consult, coach, and speak on the application of authenticity and emotional intelligence in our professional and personal lives. And it’s no surprise how much they interact. For many of us, our work and careers can define us. We often see the quality of our work as a reflection of our quality as individuals. The more we can intentionally connect with our own thoughts and feelings (which can be deceptively difficult), then the more we can make choices that reflect who we truly are. I see my role primarily as a “mirror” of sorts. I help my clients see themselves and their situations as clearly as possible, and that takes the mystery out of their personal and professional challenges.

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

My definition is this: the capability of understanding and effectively responding to the human motivations of others and ourselves. Whether we like it or not, emotions impel us far more than objective knowledge. Our emotions are our raw impulses. They cause us to react in invisible and confusing ways. However, the more emotionally intelligent we are, the more we will understand and properly respond to human action and interaction.

Another definition that I love is found in Daniel Goleman’s book of the same name (Emotional Intelligence). It was published in 1995, and I see it as a transformative moment in the culture. He gives this quote from Aristotle a few times, and it captures the application of emotional intelligence: “to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way.” In other words, be smart about managing your feelings! It’s okay to be angry, as long as it is appropriate in the context. I’m a big fan of the idea that we don’t need to hold ourselves to the obligation of perfection. It’s okay to be angry. The issue really is: what do you do with the anger? For example, if you are angry at someone from work, don’t take it out on your kids at home. To do so would be emotionally unintelligent.

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

Intelligence is about facts and problem-solving in a world of (usually) straightforward rules. However, emotional intelligence is about navigating the mystery of human behavior. Although there are particular psychological principles that are universal (such as the effects of shame on the human psyche), the way such principles function in practice is always individualized. In math, any equation that is properly utilized in the right context will provide the right answer. Choosing and using the right equation is a matter of brute intelligence. However, expecting similar effective formulas in human relationships is one of the quickest way to be sorely disappointed!

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

I don’t think enough attention has really been paid to Bronnie Ware’s book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. The author was a long-time palliative nurse, working with people who were at the end of their lives. She put together all of her observations of what people really care about once their time on earth is at an end.

One regret is that they wished they had the ability to express their feelings, and another regret was not allowing themselves to be happy. These two points are both reliant on emotional intelligence. Those who share these regrets at the end of their lives would have greatly benefitted by more emotional intelligence. So if these are some of the primary things that truly matter to us when all is said and done, we must work toward greater emotional intelligence, if only for the benefit of our future selves!

The very first regret discussed in the book was not having the courage to live the life they wanted to live, regardless of the expectation of others. This is a bottom-line issue of authenticity. People who are emotionally intelligent are more aware of themselves and what motivates them. And when you are more aware of yourself and what you want, and you truly accept it, then you can begin to pursue your priorities and feel comfortable saying no to things that don’t fit with who you are.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, people are always asking the age-old questions: What gives life meaning? Who am I? What are the things that actually matter? Emotional intelligence not only helps us to see the answers to those questions a little clearer, but it also pushes us toward what is meaningful.

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.

I’ll tell you a story from when I was dating the amazing woman that would become my wife.

I’m generally pretty free in saying “I love you” to people. Partially because my family was always free with saying it, and partially because it’s true. And I can differentiate between loving a friend and loving a romantic partner. So, within the first three days of dating, I was saying “I love you” to my future wife. And in an age where it’s kind of a stereotype that men can’t say “I love you,” I thought it would be appreciated.

But I was wrong! She came from a family that doesn’t really say “I love you” a lot. For her, she only wanted to say it when she really meant it and really felt it.

So at some point, within a week of dating, as we were on a late-night walk, she said she had something important to tell me but that she wasn’t sure how I would take it. She was clearly nervous and I thought it was adorable. She laid it out. She said she wasn’t comfortable with me saying those three words, because it put pressure on her to say it, and she wasn’t ready to say it.

And I think I surprised her when I was like, “That makes sense!” I said that was not a problem. I said, “I can totally respect that, and I won’t say it anymore.” This was a pivotal conversation because it was in that moment that she realized I would not make her feel bad about what she thought. She took a risk in being vulnerable to tell me the truth, and she found that I would treat her vulnerability with care. But at the time, she didn’t know me enough to predict what my response would be.

So, months later, when she told me “I love you,” I knew what it really meant.

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

An issue of emotional intelligence that I find so amazing is that measuring soft skills — such as communication, teamwork, and positive attitude — are just as indicative of future success as measuring hard skills. Therefore, to succeed in any career is equally dependent upon emotional intelligence as it is dependent upon particular skills and knowledge. And soft skills are largely a product of emotional intelligence.

This need for emotional intelligence in business is even more true for people in leadership roles! Effective leaders have deep skillsets in listening, motivation, flexibility, honesty, humor, collaboration, and general interpersonal skills. All of these qualities are founded on emotional intelligence! I mean, one of the most important qualities a leader can have is to navigate conflict or disagreements in a positive manner. If you can’t do that, then I’m not sure you’ll be in a leadership role for long.

It’s amazingly counterintuitive that IQ and SAT scores are not necessarily predictive of success. In other words, intelligence is an asset that must function with a number of other things in order to generate achievements. In this way, emotional intelligence is more of the x-factor than brainpower.

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

Emotional intelligence is really the root of success in any relationship.

The most important thing is that each person in the relationship must take ownership of themselves and their emotions. This is where the emotional intelligence issues of self-knowledge, self-awareness, and self-regulation are essential. If someone does not know themselves, can’t see themselves clearly, and can’t control their own thoughts and actions, then there is no way they can have a positive, creative, mature relationship with anyone else. So if you want your relationships to be healthier, you have to commit to deeper emotional intelligence.

Another tool of emotional intelligence is to engage in what I call “meta-communication.” That is, in the relationship you can talk about how the communication is going. Whether we are aware of it or not, we each have personal ideas of what relationships are all about. We may not know what our individual definition is, but it’s there in our expectations! Emotionally intelligent people can talk about individual expectations, and discuss how those expectations may or may not be met in that relationship. Emotionally mature people recognize that the other person in the relationship may value very different things, and will attempt to show their care and attention in a way that works for the other person. We have to put in the work to discover what we want in a relationship, and then be courageous enough to communicate it.

The very nature of an open, honest relationship (in any context) is that everything is on the table. It’s about expressing and managing wants, desires, needs, and expectations. There is a saying that “expectations are premeditated resentments.” But we should amend this: “Unspoken expectations are premeditated resentments.” If we communicate what we expect or desire in any relationship (business, romance, friendship, family), we can work things out before it gets to the point of resentment. So recognizing what you want or need in a relationship is the first step, and then communicating it clearly in the second step.

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

I had a friend who was an accountant, and she told me this amazing story about trying to work with someone who needed to put together a monthly budget. So my friend was guiding her through the process, and they got to the very end of inputting all the monthly expenses into Quicken, and this person refused to input the very last expense. And my friend was like, “What are you doing? The budget won’t be right if you don’t put in all your expenses.” And the person said “But if I put in that last expense, I’ll be in the red.” This person just didn’t want to face the truth. So instead of being real and truthful with her budget, she was trying to hide from the truth. She didn’t want the budget to reflect reality, because then she’d have to do something about it.

I tell that story because I think a lot of frustration and unhappiness that we face is due to us not being real about what is actually true. We don’t want to face what we want and need. We don’t want to face the fact that reality does not line up with what we want to be true. Cognitive dissonance is horrible for our mental health!

But someone who has a high level of emotional intelligence will be willing to face the facts and act accordingly. You will find much better emotional health if you can be honest with yourself, at the very least. So put that last expense in your budget. Don’t be afraid of it. Face it with courage and address it. The worst thing you can do with a problem is to ignore it. It will only get worse, and it will wear down on your emotions. Authentic people do not avoid their problems.

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.

The most important thing someone can do to develop greater emotional intelligence is to realize its importance. This may seem basic, but the more someone sees their personal need for greater emotional intelligence, the more that person will seek to increase it. If you want to be motivated toward greater emotional intelligence, consider this: your level of emotional intelligence determines the direction and the outcome of every interaction you have, in any circumstance. So take some time and evaluate your level of emotional intelligence. Think about how better relating would change your life for the better. And that visualization may motivate you to grow your emotional intelligence.

The second thing I’d recommend is to write out your values. I was working with a client recently, and at first he wanted to work on anything but his values. He thought that writing them out was unnecessary because he felt he already knew them. And he said he’d already done similar work in the past. However, once he actually sat down and wrote out the principles that he wanted to guide his life, he immediately called me up and talked for ten minutes straight about how enlightening it was, and how it was already prompting him to take important steps in some of his business relationships. We are all mysteries to ourselves. Writing out your values will end the mystery and bring clarity. The more you can see the values that drive you and make you who you are, the more you can act on them. And when you do that, you will be your authentic self.

The third thing is the empowerment of self-honesty. You can’t be emotionally intelligent with others if you cannot first be emotionally intelligent with yourself! Be brutally honest with yourself, and you will be clearer on what you need to do and when you need to do it. Emotional intelligence begins with how you relate to yourself.

The fourth thing is to focus on being responsive, rather than reactive. Let me tell you a story. A few years ago (pre-COVID) my family was traveling to visit my mom for Christmas. My daughter was freshly two years old. And since she hated being in the car seat for more than ten minutes, I was dreading being on a plane with her. She hated sleeping anywhere but in her own bed at home. In addition, I personally enjoy being at home, so all of my immediate reactions were forming anxiety about the trip. I wasn’t looking forward to it. So I knew I had to move beyond those reactions and make a choice about my response. I had to take ownership of myself and practice self-regulation. Once I was honest with myself and my wife about my negative reactions, I was able to make a decision to be content throughout the trip, regardless of the circumstance. And the trip ended up being great! But only because I chose my response, rather than allowing myself to be a victim of my reactions.

In the middle of the pandemic, someone close to me called me in tears. She was in so much emotional pain. All the rioting was going on, and the isolation and the news were getting to her on a heart-shattering level. This is an example of how our emotions can be get so tangled and overwhelming that we can’t process them. But as we talked it all out, she was able to get some perspective, and she left the conversation in much better shape. This brings me to my last point: it is emotionally intelligent to ask for help, and it is emotionally intelligent to look for ways to help others. Calling someone and saying you need help is a mature thing to do! It is emotionally intelligent! So send a positive text. Compose an encouraging email. You can’t do everything on our own, and no one expects you to! You will find meaning in kindness.

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?

No matter how well we’re doing, we can always do better!

The first recommendation I would make is to make steps toward improving the emotional intelligence of our teachers. I know most teachers already possess solid emotional intelligence, but as I said, we should always strive to improve. The truth is that people of all ages learn just as much (or more!) from modeled behavior as from direct teaching. There are a lot of studies that show a strong connection between a teacher’s emotional intelligence and the impact of their teaching. Educational outcomes are so much better for teachers who display and utilize emotional intelligence in the classroom. The more our educators display emotional intelligence, the more the students will learn in every area.

The second recommendation I would make is to increase the implementation of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), which is a system for teaching and exercising emotional intelligence. CASEL (The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) is already doing a lot of great work in this area, and I think they and other orgs that promote the importance of emotional intelligence should be given more attention in the educational system.

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.

It would be a movement toward a holistic, values-based life. I could go on and on about this, but I’ll try to keep it short. I think that people are unhappy and frustrated with their lives when they are disconnected from what matters to them. These are our values. It’s very simple: what do you value? What do you care about? When you know your values, then you can bring your life into alignment with them. Further, our lives are holistic. That means that they are highly interconnected, individually and collectively. Each aspect of my life is connected, in some way, with every other aspect. When I make improvements in one area, it leads to an overall improvement in every area. Similarly, I have to recognize that when I work on improving myself, it improves the lives of others, and vice-versa. We are connected together, and your success is connected to my success.

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 am particularly inspired by the Evergreen Corporation and Certified B Corporation movements. They are both working toward a higher level of ethics in business, and that means working with values and improving life for everyone. Taking care of employees is a very emotionally intelligent thing for a business to do. That is, if one can speak about a business as “emotionally intelligent.” Which I just did. So there you go.

That being said, I’d love to have breakfast with Jay Coen Gilbert (who started the B Corp movement), and/or Dave Whorton (who founded Tugboat Ventures, which invests in Evergreen Corporations).

How can our readers further follow your work online?

A lot of what I do is invisible because it consists of private consulting for businesses and families, as well as one-on-one coaching. However, I have a few documents up on my website that give some insight into the kind of work I do: www.jeremiahgruenberg.com

In general, I prefer one-on-one communication, so people can always reach out by email: [email protected]

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

Thank you so much! It was a pleasure speaking with you.

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