“Learn how to listen to and reflect back the emotions of others.” with Douglas E. Noll

Studies have shown that if you are working in a STEM — type job, such as engineering, science, math, computer science, or accounting, the need for emotional intelligence is not so great. If you are emotionally intelligent, you can be much happier outside of work because you will have much more fulfilling personal relationships. As […]

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Studies have shown that if you are working in a STEM — type job, such as engineering, science, math, computer science, or accounting, the need for emotional intelligence is not so great. If you are emotionally intelligent, you can be much happier outside of work because you will have much more fulfilling personal relationships.

As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewingDouglas E. Noll, JD, MA.

Douglas E. Noll is an award-winning author, speaker, and trainer. After 22 years as a trial lawyer, Mr. Noll became a peacemaker and mediator. Today, he helps people solve deep and intractable conflicts and teaches others to do what he does.

Mr. Noll is the co-founder of the award-winning Prison of Peace Project, in which he teaches life and long term inmates in maximum security prisons to be peacemakers and mediators.

Mr. Noll’s honors include California Lawyer Magazine Attorney of the Year, a Purpose Prize Fellow, and Best Lawyers of America Lawyer of the Year.

Mr. Noll has written four books, his latest entitled De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less (Atria/Beyond Words).

On a personal note, Mr. Noll is a jazz violinist, aircraft and helicopter pilot, ski instructor, 2nd degree black belt, tai chi master, and whitewater rafter. He lives with his wife Aleya Dao in the foothills of the central Sierra Nevada south of Yosemite National Park. His website is htps://dougnoll.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?

I was born left handed, partially deaf, almost blind, and crippled with two club feet into an affluent upper-middle-class family in Southern California. I was the oldest of four boys. My parents decided that I had to be tough, so I had a challenging childhood, physically and socially. However, I was blessed with a sharp mind. I attended Dartmouth College, where I graduated with a degree in English Literature. After college, I enrolled in law school and was admitted to the California Bar in 1977.

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

I was a hard-core trial lawyer for 22 years. In the mid-nineteen eighties, I took up the martial arts and obtained my 1st° black belt in 1990. In 1992 after being awarded my 2nd° black belt, my teacher told me to study tai chi. Tai chi has two paradoxes. The first is, the softer you are, the stronger you are. The second paradox is, the more vulnerable you are, the more powerful you are. So in tai chi, you must be soft to be strong and vulnerable to be powerful. Frankly, this did not compute. I was a hard-core trial lawyer and a 2nd° black belt. The idea of being soft and vulnerable just did not work for me. However, I persisted in my training.

In the late nineteen nineties, I was trying a case in court, and the thought came to me, “What the heck am I doing in here?” After the trial, I had a vacation planned with friends, Whitewater rafting on the Main Salmon River in central Idaho. I spent 10 days thinking about how many people I’d really served as a trial lawyer and could only come up with about five names. I decided then that I was knocking to spend the next 40 years of my career only serving maybe 15 people.

When I returned home, I heard a public service announcement on our local public radio station for a new Masters Degree in Peacemaking and Conflict Studies. Intrigued, I wrote the number down and made an inquiry. Ultimately, I applied and was accepted into the Master’s degree program at Fresno Pacific University. That decision completely changed my life.

For the next three years, I studied human conflict from every imaginable dimension. I was introduced to neuroscience and was tutored by a Caltech professor. I began to see that all human behavior originates in the brain. Understanding human behavior’s underlying neurological foundations would be necessary for my future peacemaking work.

I left my law practice in 2000 to start my own peacemaking and mediation practice. In 2004, I was confronted with an intensely challenging, highly emotional mediation between a divorced couple. I had no real clue about how to help them because all they could do was scream vile insults at each other. The idea came to me out of the blue to “listen to the emotions.” I had each of them ignore their words and just listen to and reflect back emotions. It was magic. Within 45 minutes, they had come to an agreement had walked out, holding hands. An hour before, if they had had knives, there would have been blood on the floor. I didn’t know what I had done, but I know I had done something significant.

Three years later, I came across a brain-scanning study by UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman that explained what was going on in the brain with the process of listening to emotions. That empirical study, coupled with my experience set me on the course for the next two decades.

Today, I devote my life to teaching people about emotions and listening others into existence. I am all about teaching the “how” and not talking about the “what.” And, I only teach based on empirical science, not on theory or speculation.

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?

I’ve had a lot of wonderful teachers along the way. I would probably select Dalton Reimer as the most influential person on my journey to becoming a peacemaker. Dalton was my mentor, advisor, and chief teacher in my Master’s Degree studies. He’s a brilliant man who immediately understood my strengths and therefore structured my readings in a most useful way. We had hundreds of fascinating discussions on all kinds of topics relating to human conflict and peace.

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 was mediating a case early in my career that involved a group of convenient store owners suing the franchisor. At about two hours into the mediation, the lawyer for the franchisor announced that the mediation was over and there was to be no more discussion. I went into the other room and told the plaintiffs what I just been told and dismissed them. I went back into the room with the franchisor and his lawyer and announced that I had dismissed the plaintiffs. The lawyer went ballistic on me, telling me he was just posturing. In that mediation, I learned that most lawyers often make big mistakes in settlement discussions. From that mediation forward, I never accepted lawyer posturing as real. Turns out, I was right.

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?

Spend time getting a solid education. Get a graduate degree in a subject that interests you. However, just because you have a graduate degree doesn’t mean that you will necessarily work in that field. You need the discipline of school to learn how to learn. Once you have completed your education, try not to chase the dollar. Instead, follow your passion. You might be surprised where that will lead you. I have found that it is better to be happy and make a little less money than to make a career based on making a big check.

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?

Interestingly, I have not owned a television set in 40 years. I do not go to the movies, and I only occasionally read books for entertainment or self-education. The book that has had a significant influence on me is Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. She has developed a theory of constructed emotions that fits well into my experience as a peacemaker, practitioner, and teacher. Her work helped me understand why my de-escalation skills work.

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

My life lesson quote is “Listen Others Into Existence.” I made this one up to describe the profound effect that occurs when we validate another person’s emotional experience. It sums up my work’s goal because when we listen to others into existence, we stop conflict, create trust, and build relationships. As a side benefit, we build emotional competency that leads to emotional intelligence.

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

Today, I am building online training courses for my students and interested people to teach de-escalation and emotional competency. The more work I do in this field, the more I realize how unintentionally abused most of us were in childhood. Our parents did not know any better, but they were unable to teach us to be emotionally competent beings because of their ignorance. As a result, many people suffer, and the worst end up in prison. I’ve made it my goal to teach parents, among others, how to listen to their children’s emotions. If I can stop one kid from going to prison, I will have lived a life well served.

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?

My interest in and study of emotional intelligence comes from my work as a peacemaker and mediator. I have been intensely interested in human conflict, its causes, and its cures. My study of psychology and neuroscience has led me to develop effective practices for de-escalating intense emotions.

This work has led me to a broader understanding that we humans are 98% emotional and only 2% rational. This insight flips 3,000 years of western philosophy and theology on its head. With this insight, my understanding of conflict completely changed. And, my approach to bringing peace changed as well. Conflict is not a rational process; it is a deeply emotional process. People that measure average to low in emotional intelligence tend to experience more conflict than those with higher emotional intelligence. My work has been to distill out the specific skills needed to grow emotional competency, reduce conflict, and teach them to those willing to grow.

As I developed my de-escalation skills and taught them around the world, I began to realize that what I’m teaching is a foundational life skill. It’s applicable in any relationship, whether there is a conflict or not. By listening to and reflecting back the emotions of another, we deeply validate the other person’s existence. Until you have experienced it, the transformative power of this simple gift is unimaginable

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

Technically speaking, emotional intelligence measures the abilities, skills, and traits of emotional competency. I believe that emotional intelligence cannot be learned, and attempts to teach emotional intelligence are doomed. You cannot learn a test or measure. However, you can learn to be emotionally competent, which means you will score high on emotional intelligence assessments. So, my focus is really on building emotional competency that leads to emotional intelligence rather than on emotional intelligence itself.

There is a sharp division between the academics that study emotional intelligence and the commercial emotional intelligence enterprise started by Daniel Goleman in 1995. Most academics believe that Goleman and those that have followed him grossly overstate claims about the efficacy of emotional intelligence.

For example, one of the seminal scholars in emotional intelligence, John Mayer, cautions “the popular literature’s implication — that highly emotionally intelligent people possess an unqualified advantage in life — appears overly-enthusiastic at present and unsubstantiated by reasonable scientific standards.”

With that caution, I would define emotional intelligence as the measure of emotional competency, including emotional self-awareness, awareness of the emotions of others, emotional self-regulation, emotional (or psychological) safety, empathy, and resiliency.

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

Standard intelligence employs logic, reasoning, critical thinking, abstraction, problem-solving, and scenario creation to adapt to new situations and to make decisions.

Emotional intelligence employs knowledge of emotions, self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills to make decisions, collaborate, and cooperate with others.

Standard and emotional intelligences arise from two very different brain systems: a task-focused system that employs standard intelligence and a default mode or social system that employs emotional intelligence. Our culture and our educational systems focus on developing the task-focused system to the exclusion of the social system.

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

Think about it. If we are 98% emotional and only 2% rational, what aspect of our being should we be educating? It seems to me that we need to focus much more on emotional competency. This isn’t to say that standard reasoning and critical thinking are unimportant because they are. However, all decisions are emotional. Therefore, learning about emotions and emotional competency seems wise.

In 2010, my colleague Laurel Kaufer and I founded the Prison of Peace Project (www.prisonnofpeace.org). Prison of Peace teaches lifers and long-termers in prison to be peacemakers and mediators. I’ve collected hundreds of amazing stories about the transformations inmates have made when they learn to be emotionally competent.

The very first story occurred in the fourth week of training our first cohort of women in the largest, most violent women’s prison in the world.

That day, we showed up at the prison early in the morning. I still had not gotten used to the heavy steel doors clanging shut behind me. We began the quarter-mile walk through D yard to the program offices and the shabby conference room that had become our classroom.

A tired fluorescent light flickered. One inmate, Sarah, had gotten there early. She was seated in a metal folding chair in a far corner. She was quietly sobbing. Laurel kneeled beside her. I stood at a discrete distance.

Laurel asked softly, “Sarah, what is going on?”

She was silent for a moment and then told us, “I’ve been in prison for years. I have a son who lives with my mother. I’ve written to him every week but haven’t heard from him in three years. I only learn how he’s doing through my mother.

“Two weeks ago, I decided to use the techniques you guys have been teaching me. I wrote him a different letter, using these new skills, describing how he must have been feeling all of these years. I reflected his emotions in the letter, without ever talking about myself,” she said, referencing one of the core listening skills we had taught a few weeks earlier.

Then she held up a piece of paper and a photograph. “Today, for the first time in three years, I received a letter from him. He’s really angry with me but finally felt like I was listening to him. He’s got a girlfriend, and he wants to come visit me,” she said as she started to cry again. Obviously, they were tears of joy and happiness.

This was the moment that I realized what we were teaching could change millions of lives.

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.

Many months later, in that same prison and we were teaching the second cohort of Prison of Peace students. Because the group was much larger than our first cohort, we were teaching in the visiting area. I was shuttling between groups, monitoring their practice, when a well-dressed professional woman marched up to me and angrily said, “Who are you, and what are you doing with these women?” It turns out she was the prison psychologist. LOL

I said to her, “You are angry, frustrated, and frightened. You feel disrespected and unheard.”

She said, “Yeah, exactly!” Within moments, her anger had dissipated. I introduced myself and explained what I was teaching.

Before I had taken up this work, my trial lawyer mode would have turned on, and I would verbally have ripped her to shreds. Instead, all of my training and practice in emotional competency allowed me to react calmly and compassionately to this obviously upset and probably traumatized professional. What could have become ugly turned into peace in literally seconds. I’ve had similar experiences thousands of times as I work with people suffering from intense emotions.

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

I don’t think that any broad statements can be made about the efficacy of emotional intelligence in the workplace. Studies have shown that if you are working in a STEM — type job, such as engineering, science, math, computer science, or accounting, the need for emotional intelligence is not so great. If you are emotionally intelligent, you can be much happier outside of work because you will have much more fulfilling personal relationships.

On the other hand, if you work in places where relationships are important, such as sales, HR, and leadership, developing your emotional competency to a high level of emotional intelligence is advantageous. Research shows that psychological safety is the single most important factor for increased performance in teams. The only way to create psychological or emotional safety on teams is to develop emotional competency. And, of course, emotional competency grows emotional intelligence.

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

When you learn how to listen another person into existence, you create an emotional intimacy. Depending upon the context of the relationship, that intimacy could be friendship, romance, or parenting. Knowing how to manage your emotions and reflect the emotions of those you are close to is the single most important relationship skill you can master.

Every one of my students in a relationship has reported that their ability to listen to and reflect their partners’ emotions has deepened their relationships in ways they could not imagine.

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

For most people, emotions are chaotic, confusing, disturbing, upsetting, and even dangerous. Because many people suffered emotional abuse as children, they have repressed the pain of the hurt, leaving them emotionally unavailable or numb. This leads to all kinds of compensating behaviors such as drug addiction, overworking, overtraining, watching TV… doing anything to avoid confronting the pain buried deep inside. When you become emotionally competent, emotions no longer scare you. You can face your own emotional history, knowing that you have the skills and the strength to process them out, so they no longer drive your behavior.

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.

Learn how to listen to and reflect back the emotions of others.

You would say, “You are angry and frustrated. You don’t feel listened to. You are unappreciated. You are sad.”

Learn how to listen to and reflect to yourself, your own emotions.

You would say to yourself, “I am angry and frustrated. I feel disrespected. I feel betrayed.”

Build a working vocabulary of common emotions.

Emotions come in layers, like a cake. The basic layers are:

Anger and frustration

Injustice, disrespect, not listened to, unsupported, unappreciated

Fear and anxiety

Shame, humiliation, embarrassment, and guilt

Sadness and grief

Abandonment, unloved, unlovable

Get coaching because it will speed your learning.

These skills are counter-normative and counter-intuitive to what we have been taught. Having a coach can help you overcome the initial fear and awkwardness of listening to and reflecting back emotions.

Teach others how to do what you do.

Teaching the skills to others strengthens your skills. Even if all you do is model emotional competency, people around you will begin to learn. We are great imitators.

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?

Short answer: Yes.

Socio-emotional learning (SEL) has been discussed in education for many years. The problem is that the educational professors that train the teachers do not understand how to teach emotional competency. Consequently, the teachers are not given the tools to deal with emotional kids. Our educational system, based on the myth of rationality, assumes kids are rational. This is a big mistake.

I would encourage schools to train their teachers on de-escalating angry, upset children using affect labeling and emotional reflection. Through this process, the teachers will grow their emotional intelligence and model emotional intelligence to their students.

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 create a movement around “listening others into existence.” If every person made this their daily goal, we would see some amazing changes in our communities. It’s not hard to learn, it costs nothing to give, and its transformational effects are enormous.

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 think I’d like to have lunch with Bill Gates. He pivoted from co-founding and leading Microsoft to become one of the most prominent philanthropists in the world. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation great work, and I’d like to introduce them to the idea of emotional competency and why it is so important to grow emotional intelligence.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My primary website for this work is https://dougnoll.com. People can find my many blogs and articles, find my online training and coaching, sign up for my email list to learn about my latest thinking, and receive deep discounts on my teaching.

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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