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“Learn to Better Tune-In to Your Body” with Dr. Michael McElhenie

Learn to Better Tune-In to Your Body: As has been said above several times, self-awareness is the most important and powerful domain of emotional intelligence. Often in EI training and development efforts, we focus on emotional self-awareness as a primary competency. This is good and proper, but it often leads one to focus simply on […]

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Learn to Better Tune-In to Your Body: As has been said above several times, self-awareness is the most important and powerful domain of emotional intelligence. Often in EI training and development efforts, we focus on emotional self-awareness as a primary competency. This is good and proper, but it often leads one to focus simply on feelings rather than what exists upstream of emotions. Upstream of emotions? What’s this mean? Simply this: Emotions/feelings are a cognitively-derived assessment of our underlying bodily sensations. Said differently, feelings are a thought-based interpretation of sensations occurring in our bodies.

Asa part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewingMichael McElhenie PhD.

Michael has 30 plus years of experience as a coach, advisor, and consultant to global leaders. With deep expertise in guiding big changes, plus a foundation in neuroscience, emotional intelligence and crucial communication, Michael helps leaders navigate the dynamics of executive team and board relationships, and he is often called upon to help leaders scale, merge, integrate and evolve their organizations. Michael received his PhD in Organizational, Clinical and Experimental Psychology following his undergraduate degrees in Neuroscience and Psychology.

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?

Iam the son of a US Air Force/airline pilot and a spirited, captivatingly beautiful French woman my father met at the base exchange in Chateauroux, France in 1961. I was born in August of 1962 — very soon after a C-130 carrying my very pregnant mother landed at Dover Air Force base. Ever since, my life has been about international travel and varied cultural experiences. Before the age of 20, I had visited over 30 countries and nearly every region in North America and developed a deep appreciation for the varied cultures and people I cheerily met along the way. Meeting people and learning from them is deeply embedded in my nature. And as an inquisitive person and avid reader learning came easily to me. In college, I accumulated degrees like Skee-Ball tickets. I deeply studied anthropology, psychology, biology, and neuroscience, which ultimately earned me a PhD that covered organizational, clinical, and experimental psychology. When I learned that consulting would allow me to continue traveling and experiencing diverse people, cultures, and the world, my career trajectory became ultra-clear.

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

In graduate school, I was on the path to becoming a Clinical Psychologist. My clinical supervisor Dr. Joseph Doster was a keen observer. He noticed quite early on that I seemed unenthused about conducting one-on-one therapy sessions. Yet, each time he asked me to deliver an undergraduate lecture, my energy kicked up and I gave it my all. He shared these observations with me and invited me to consider organizational psychology, which would allow me to pursue consulting and training as core pursuits. The prospect of influencing rooms full of leaders and guiding executives in improving their organizations excited me like nothing else!

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?

After launching headlong into the world of organizational consulting, I started traveling, feeling as if I was making a difference in the world, and making the big bucks. I nearly stopped my academic pursuits to devote myself fully to my budding career. Were it not for the encouragement of Dr. Michael Beyerlein, I would have quit my PhD program. Michael asked me a simple question one day: “So imagine you are being introduced by a CEO to give a particularly important talk to the company. How would you prefer to be introduced? As Dr. Michael McElhenie or Michael McElhenie?” At the time, that’s all it took. Within a year I was defending my dissertation and a short time later I held my doctorate diploma in my hand.

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 had a strong relationship with a construction industry executive that later went on to become the CEO of a much larger company in the same industry. At the time, I was overwhelmed with really great work that had me traveling extensively. Yet, I also had many talented consultants around me at the time — many of whom were smarter than me and even better consultants. I was confident that with a little help from my colleagues, I could deliver any work that I promised. When my friend the construction CEO called asking for a relatively complex leadership development and organizational change intervention, I was certain that my team could deliver. And they did. Technically, every aspect went according to plan. Nevertheless, half-way into the process, the CEO called me to cancel the contract. His reason was clear: I was not present in the engagement nearly enough. He made it quite clear that he did not hire my team, he hired me. I learned that people, particularly top leaders of major enterprises, do not hire a consultant just for their knowledge and talents. They hire for relationship too. They hire people they deeply trust. I failed to honor the nature of my relationship with the CEO, and I’ll never made that mistake again.

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?

Take care of yourself along the way. Early on, develop the discipline and routines necessary to care for your mind and body NO MATTER WHAT. Life on the road with clients everywhere can take a major toll on you. The consultant lifestyle, with its travel, hotels, and restaurant food, is not naturally conducive to caring for mind and body. Develop a NO EXCUSES plan for exercising, eating healthy, and resting your busy mind. There are so many things one can do to take care of oneself. And yet, the specific practices only matter if they fit who you are and can be sustained (and evolved) over time. For me, I learned about 30 different exercises I could do in my hotel room, I set up meal guidelines that gave me the nutrients I needed, and I developed regularly-practiced meditation and mindfulness routines. These work great for me to this day. What matters most is to implement practices that work for you. Create YOUR wellness plan. Evolve it as you need to, but never stop … no matter what. In this way, you will never suffer the ups and downs, highs and lows, and good health and bad health cycles so many road-warriors succumb to.

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?

In 2000, the Arbinger Institute published “Leadership and Self-Deception.” This excellent book changed my approach to consulting and coaching forever. It added an entire “track” to my emotional intelligence development repertoire and what I generally highlighted as “development work” for my clients. Prior to this book, I saw my work as primarily about behavior change. After reading it, I came to appreciate the central importance of one’s mindset, about development for sure, but also about how much our mindset DETERMINES how much growth and development is possible. I learned that mindset is upstream of behavioral change. If you can’t think it, you cannot do it. Said another way, mindset is causative. Once I added the exploration and intentional alteration of mindset, or ways/patterns of thinking, to my coaching and consulting toolkit, I became a much more powerful, productive coach and change partner to my clients.

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

Attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, the quote “Be the change you want to see in the world” has immense power — particularly to those I am called upon to influence and coach. I often find that an organization’s development is either limited by or enhanced by the developmental capabilities of its top leaders. Said another way, more pessimistically, leaders inherit the organization they deserve. This concept is particularly important today as most organizations are striving to become more agile and responsive. However, if top leaders’ mindsets lack agility or if they find themselves more reactive than responsive, they will have a terribly difficult time creating a more agile and responsive organization. If leaders want to see change in their organizations, they must first look inside themselves and find the headwinds and tailwinds that impact their growth and development as these are bound to influence the larger organization and the people around them.

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

In am in my third year of leading THE most important project I have ever led. I cannot reveal too many details for confidentiality reasons, but I can describe the project in the most general terms, and even at this level, I believe you will find it quite exciting. I have been serving the oil and gas industry for decades, and sometimes with mixed feelings as I have strong environmental sensibilities. Yet given the work I do, particularly in helping to evolve mindsets, I felt my influence was better inside the industry than outside of it. With my current project, I am helping to transform one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies as it strives to create more agile manufacturing processes and facilities to produce essential products that are profoundly less damaging to our environment. Given my expertise on the people and culture side of things, I am working with leaders to cultivate agile mindsets, behaviors, and cultures, all within an industry that has seen very little substantive change, though considerable growth, for over a century. My work currently focuses on one pilot site where considerable investment is being made to prove that an agile, multi-capability manufacturing platform can be developed, staffed, and led to produce high-quality, clean, and easily recyclable custom products. Though the project keeps as low a profile as possible, you can rightly guess that thousands if not millions of people are watching us.

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?

As I progressed in my consulting and coaching career, I met academics, business leaders, and writers who were particularly fascinated by my deep knowledge of neuroscience — particularly the aspects pertaining to decision making and success in relationships. Applied neuroscience was beginning to catch on as more “real-life” applicable research was being conducted. About a quarter of the way into my career, I was asked to join the HayGroup in 1999 and was responsible for taking emotional intelligence assessments and training out into the world. I met Dr. Annie McKee at Hay, who later went on to write “Primal Leadership” with Dr. Daniel Goleman and Dr. Richard Boyatzis and later “Resonant Leadership” with Boyatzis, and we immediately bonded and became dear friend and colleagues. I soon after became part of what I call the “EI family” — a group devoted to the study and application of emotional intelligence development offerings. While at Hay, we did incredible work across industries — learning to apply EI to leadership, customer service, and culture. Annie and I quickly realized that the HayGroup was not the right consulting firm to carry EI into the world; it takes a modicum of EI amongst leadership to be able to represent EI to the world, and at the time, Hay was poorly led.

Soon after the events of September 11, 2001, Annie, Dr. Frances Johnston, and I left the HayGroup to form Teleos Leadership Institute and thus created a firm that could, with integrity, represent emotional intelligence to our clients. Many called us crazy for starting a consultancy during such difficult, uncertain times. Little did they know that United Nations Development Program leadership had asked Annie to consider forming a team to bring an EI-based leadership and action-learning program to countries around the world devastated by HIV/AIDS. Annie knew that such low-margin, high-impact, and high-risk work would never be adequately supported by Hay leadership. Thus, we began a decade-long odyssey filled with deep learning, profound impact, and further refinement of EI applications in the most challenging of real-world circumstances. The program became known as UNDP’s Leadership for Results (LfR) and is considered by many to be the most successful UN-launched learning and development program ever. Independent analysis of LfR’s impact revealed that millions of lives were saved and countless others were vastly improved due to the remarkable work tens of thousands of “Change Agents” (what we called the graduates of LfR) all over the planet. Almost two decades later, LfR’s spirit and even core aspects of its original design are still helping people and communities everywhere transform and solve their “wicked” problems.

When it comes to EI and its seemingly endless developmental applications — from creating societal-level change to improving individual leadership capability — there are very few who have had the depth of experience that I have had. I have become a consultant’s consultant and a coach’s coach — particularly in the EI domain. I’m passionate about teaching others to bring EI offerings into the world. Obviously, I am proud of what I and my EI family have been able to achieve. And I am (and we are) far from done. There are big problems in the world still, and EI and its related ideas and practices remain foundational to solving them. My current work serves to evolve our understanding of the critical human intelligences. In mid-2021, I will be publishing a book on a set of practices that revolve around a concept called Responsive Intelligence (RI), which further evolves the EI concept. The RI book is essentially a practice manual, which helps people deal directly and personally with THE primary issue of our times: The human tendency to impulsively react rather than thoughtfully respond. The trials and tribulations of 2020 inspired me to publish (ASAP) this book based on decades of study. My EI family enthusiastically supports my current work, and I am deeply grateful to them. I stand on their strong, emotionally intelligent shoulders.

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

First and foremost, Emotional Intelligence is about awareness — our ability to be aware of our own feelings and those of other people. Most humans have an innate ability to pick up on our own feelings and the feelings of others, yet many fail to nurture this ability and put it to practical use. When we are able to tune in to feelings, we unlock the further ability to motivate ourselves, to manage our own feelings well, and to manage well the emotions in our various relationships. EI is a collection of competencies that help us deal with our own emotions in such a way that allows our feelings to be expressed appropriately. EI also helps us face the sometimes-painful truths about ourselves and increases our ability to face others with painful but necessary truths they may be avoiding. And in group contexts, EI helps us to create a climate in which people can smoothly live and work together with shared values and towards common goals.

When talking about and measuring emotional intelligence in an organizational and leadership development context, we often refer to EI’s four clusters and their associated competencies:

Self-Awareness

  • Emotional Self-Awareness
  • Accurate Self-Assessment
  • Self-Confidence

Self-Management

  • Self-Control
  • Trustworthiness
  • Adaptability
  • Conscientiousness
  • Achievement Orientation
  • Initiative

Social Awareness

  • Empathy
  • Service Orientation
  • Organizational Awareness

Relationship Management

  • Influence
  • Developing Others+
  • Leadership
  • Communication
  • Change Catalyst
  • Conflict Management
  • Building Bonds
  • Teamwork and Collaboration

Each of these competencies can be measured. Each competency is also not simply something you either have or don’t have, but there are “levels” to each competency and one can development up these levels as the complexity of one’s work context and role demands increase.

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

When we consider general intelligence, we are often referring to our ability to learn, retain, analyze, and intentionally manipulate cognitively-stored information. Much of what we call intelligence points primarily to the operation of our most complex brain structure — the outer cortex. Emotional Intelligence involves not only the entire brain — from the outer cortex to what’s called the reptilian brain — but also our entire bodies. While one person’s cortex may hold greater capacity than another’s, when it comes to our bodies and sum total brain structures, we humans are on a much more even playing field. This means that while one may be more intelligent than another cognitively, potentially due to genetic differences, when it comes to emotional intelligence, people most likely have relatively equal capacities to learn it.

All this is incredibly good news. Everyone can learn to be more emotionally intelligent. One does not need access to a vast library nor the best teachers. What one needs are challenging life and social circumstances and a strong desire to learn to navigate these in the best possible ways. In my life and travels around the world, I have met remarkable emotionally intelligent people who have never heard of EI. And their stories are similar. They all held a strong desire to make a positive difference in their communities and knew that developing strong, mutually beneficial, and compassionate relationships would be key to their success. They learned to tune in to others, tap into their feelings and desires, and chose to leverage this information to help them (rather than exploit them). Thus, EI development is accessible to everyone, everywhere, yet developing general intelligence requires resources that some just don’t have.

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 conducted an interview recently and one particular story from it illustrates very clearly the importance of emotional intelligence. The setting for this story is the intensive care unit (ICU) of a major metropolitan hospital — in June 2020 when countless hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases. A unit secretary named Nancy, a highly trained and capable registered nurse, was beginning to sense an oncoming perfect storm. PPE was running low. Ventilators, seen then as critical to saving COVID patients’ lives, were in short supply. They were experiencing staff shortages due to the virus. Doctors were stupefied by unexpected, highly unusual symptoms they were uncertain about how to treat. The “storm” occurred on a Saturday night when the ICU was jam-packed way beyond its capacity. And it was then that a message arrived about a massive, multi-vehicle highway accident — resulting in dozens of critically-injured patients coming Nancy’s way. Her first thought was “There is no way we can do this! Not now!!”

Despondent and scared, Nancy looked around the unit and saw the exhausted faces of her colleagues. While she felt on the edge of collapse, she knew it was not the time to do so. She said to herself then, “If we cannot do this, I do not know who can. There is nobody else. It must be us, and I know we can do this.” Nancy took a moment, focused on her breath. She felt her frustration. She felt her fear. She took full, deep breaths. And then she acted. She called together everyone who was within ear-shot and described the situation to them. She asked for their best ideas on how to deal with the oncoming wave. She listened. She looked each and every one of those gathered around her directly in the eyes, and while she does not remember exactly what she said to each of them, she connected with empathy and appreciation and called upon each to bring their very best to this moment. They were resourceful, gathered additional resources from the administrators working that night, and set up extra tents outside to do triage. They prepared surgeons for what was to be an exceedingly long night. Nancy worked the unit like an over-caffeinated bumblebee, and as she buzzed about, she checked in with everyone and ensured they had what they needed — personally and medically.

They made it through that night. They did the best they could in dire circumstances. Several people I interviewed said that were it not for Nancy, they might have indeed collapsed. Her colleagues called her a hero. Nancy would never use that word on herself, but she acknowledges the moment for what it was. A moment that called on her to bring all she had and more. When asked how she learned to respond to chaotic, overwhelming events in the way she did, she credited her dad. He was a firefighter for the largest chemical plant in the US and faced uncountable harrowing, life-threatening situations. When he learned that his daughter wanted to become a nurse, he taught her a number of techniques to see and manage her feelings and reactions in difficult moments. She said that sometimes he would test her abilities in unusual ways, some of which she did not appreciate at all — particularly the time he playfully dosed her with shaving cream after she just had her hair done for a date. As annoying as it was at times, Nancy learned to see and manage her emotions, which led her to be able to observe the feelings of others and connect with them in powerful ways.

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 come from a family that, on the positive side, is deeply passionate and full of joie de vivre. On the negative side, some family members are prone to extremes and occasionally violent — particularly with one another. In many respects, I, like so many helpers, am a wounded healer. This was my underlying, core motivation for my academic pursuits as I strove to understand my family and our sometimes-abusive tendencies. Even from an early age, I knew I did not want to repeat the mistakes of my ancestral past. When I discovered emotional intelligence in the late-80’s, I saw that I had found core ideas that would help me, my family, and so many others who suffered a similar fate.

There was an incident that occurred in the mid-90’s that showed me quite clearly that I was on the right path. After a particularly difficult morning that started with a heated family argument and traffic snarls on the way to a client site, I walked into my meeting breathing deeply and filling my head with affirmations just to get myself to a neutral if not positive state. I paused outside the conference room door and felt that whatever showed itself inside that room required me to be my absolute best. I was right. As I walked in and took my seat, the facial expression of the top guy, the VP of Sales, caught my eye. His face was sour and twisted up; he was clearly angry. Settling in, I took several more deep, cleansing breaths. Our eyes met. I could see he saw me taking deep, deep breaths. He stopped his pacing and sat down. I was unsure at the time if he was conscious of it or not, but his breathing began to match mine — pace and depth. Seeing this, I continued to center myself while being somewhat oblivious to what others in the room were doing, but quite sure that was I was doing was right and necessary. After several minutes of silence, the remaining meeting participants entered the room and the meeting began.

The meeting went well. The important topics were discussed without incident or upset, but as we began to close the meeting, the VP stop mid-sentence and said something like this, “I want to thank Michael for coming to our meeting today. I wasn’t quite sure what value he would bring to us, but what he brought exceeded my expectations. You might think that Michael’s contributions to our launch strategy are the contributions I am pointing to, but he’s done quite a bit more than that. I began today with an extremely frustrating call with our NE Regional Director that left me super angry. And I was holding some anger for some of you who I believed might be enabling the NE folks to get away with some foot-dragging. I no longer feel the need to project my anger at you. Michael’s presence here today calmed me and helped me focus on our task at hand, and in the process, I believe we have done well to develop strategies that will not only help the NE region, but the entire company. Thank you Michael.”

I later had the opportunity to coach the VP and helped him “crack the code” on what I brought to myself and to him that day. The practices I shared, all rooted in EI, were simple, accessible, and helpful to him. Turns out, his childhood had its share of verbal and physical abuse too and some of his challenges paralleled my own. This shared experience bonded us, and I am honored to have helped him at several stages of his career. However, the larger, key lesson in this situation is this: ALL the understandings, tools, techniques, and practices of emotional intelligence that I apply to myself are instrumental in helping others. This situation was amongst the first I experienced that drove this point home in salient ways.

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

Given the examples that I’ve share above and will share below nearly all derive from my coaching and consulting to business leaders, I will offer one additional case here to specifically address this question.

I’ve developed a reputation over the years in being able to coach men who find it difficult to control their emotions and behaviors. A colleague of mine refers to this specialty as “coaching bad boys.” Some of the bad boys abuse their power. Some treat others, particularly their direct reports, horribly. Some are seemingly unable to control their passions. The “bad boys” label seems to fit given that much of their behavior seems adolescent and immature. And yet I am called in to coach them because they otherwise are seen to have talents highly valued by the company. They’re given a second chance, but it is made absolutely clear that there will be no third chance.

Overall, I have had a good track record coaching bad boys. This coaching is particularly intense with nothing less than a weekly rhythm of formal coaching meetings and concentrated development activity. Given the intensity of this work and its need for continual feedback from numerous sources, I typically recruit executive assistants, family members, and even close friends to act as accountability partners. I am often given access to coaching clients’ calendars so I can stay abreast of key meetings and social interactions in order to proactively prepare clients for potential challenges and later collect “social impact data.” And, as you can likely surmise, much of the coaching is focused on EI competencies and related core practices. This is high-stakes, high-intensity coaching for sure. Some consider EI to be “the soft stuff,” but there is nothing soft about coaching bad boys to be more emotionally intelligent.

As coaching sprints forward at this intense pace, success is completely dependent on the discipline and dedication of the person being coached. Developing emotional intelligence competencies such as these requires deep commitment. As I mentioned above, these are often exceptionally talented men. And yet, it is clear to most that continued “bad boy” behavior will ultimately lead to self-destruction and/or career derailment. They often work extremely hard at developing themselves because they know that their career success, their ability to accomplish key work objectives does not depend solely on their knowledge or technical skills. It depends more so on their emotional intelligence — chiefly EI competencies like Self-Control, Conscientiousness, Trustworthiness, and Empathy. I keep tabs on every bad boy I have ever successfully coached. Those with marginal commitment or less usually exited the coaching process prematurely, and I cannot be sure about what happened with them. I do know, however, that the dedicated ones all achieved the success they were after.

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

Emotional Intelligence’s most meaningful contributions are to our relationships — no matter the kind or context. Thus, I would like to explore why this is, but first I would like to bring a bit of EI science to the fore. The thinking brain evolved from the limbic brain and continues to take orders from it when we perceive a threat or are under stress. Emotional impulses follow extensive circuitry that goes from the amygdala up to the cortex, just behind the forehead. This prefrontal area receives and analyzes information from all parts of the brain, then drives decisions about what to do. When this circuitry is working correctly — in other words, when a person shows high emotional intelligence — the prefrontal area can veto an impulse from the emotional brain and ensure that a response will be more effective. But when this circuitry fails — when anxiety is able to debilitate the brain’s ability to understand and respond effectively — the result is an “amygdala hijack.” We act on impulse and decision-making is crippled.

The brain’s circuitry developed while our main threats were competing tribes, tigers, bears, and other dangerous creatures. In today’s world, our main threats are primarily other people — mostly through their actions and words. Even in our COVID-19 times, we recognize that our core threat is not simply a virus, but the actions and inactions of our fellow citizens. With that said, we recognize how important it is that we operate with high emotional intelligence in order to effectively navigate complex and diverse social relationships and circumstances.

The first example I wish to share comes from a conversation I had one morning with a member of my team. He is in the early stages of a new intimate relationship and just yesterday evening had a “blow up” with his girlfriend. He expressed regret for having raised his voice and knew that his response to her was out of proportion to the moment. As we explored the context a bit more, I inquired into his practices for keeping calm in moments like this. He named a few helpful things he normally does, but then said, “I don’t want to do those things when I am with her or she will think that I am a hot-head and cannot control my feelings.” To quote Shakespeare, “Ah, there’s the rub.” In the spirit of our current understanding of EI, we explored his beliefs about relationships and the use of EI techniques in relational moments. As we spoke, he shifted his mindset a full 180 degrees, which is absolutely crucial before a behavioral shift can become even a remote possibility. He now sees that he is better served, and her as well, if he is completely transparent about his use of techniques — in his case a combination of breathwork and thought transformation.

Most people are aware of how difficult modern intimate relationships can be. And what I have learned through my own and others’ relationship challenges is that if we do not grow together, we grow apart. While cliché, this expression has deep truth. Relationships nearly always start in mutual fantasy. We do not begin relationships seeing the other in their full reality, but rather we see the other as we would like to see them — a fantasy of sorts. Navigating the transition from fantasy to reality is certainly one of the peak challenges of relationships. And emotional intelligence can be instrumental in doing so. EI gives us a shared foundation for developing together. Certainly, couples therapy can be strongly helpful, but not everyone is willing or able to go there. EI is accessible to more people than therapy will ever be. Thus, I suggested to my colleague that inviting his new girlfriend into his opportunities for improvement will not only serve him, but also her and the relationship.

Before I close this response on improving relationships, I would like to share one more personal example. I picked up my high-school age son from rowing practice a couple weeks ago, and he shared with me that he did not row that day, but instead sat in the launch boat and did nothing the entire time. I felt my anger rise and felt a prickly heat sensation and raised hairs on the back of my neck. “That’s not what I pay rowing team dues for” thoughts entered my head, but I held my tongue. However, fed by these thoughts, my next question about why he sat in the boat had more negative charge than I wanted. He explain how some team members failed to show up and how the numbers did not work out to fill a four- and an eight-person boat, yet my thoughts cycled around something akin to “Sure, but why was it you having to sit out.” And then my better, EI-aware self rose to intervene … finally. After a brief pause and a mind-clearing exhale, I asked, “How do you feel about having to sit in the launch?” When he explained a bit more, particularly about how this need to sit out seems to happen fairly and without bias, I started to feel better about the situation, and I stopped making up stories about how my introverted son might not be standing up for himself. I realized that it was MY fears and insecurities that I was loading up to project on him. When I had shifted away from amygdala hijack and back to center, I was able to inquire into and hear my son’s perspective AND strengthen my relationship with him.

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

First, I would like to offer a disclaimer: Emotional Intelligence training or coaching is NOT therapy and is not a replacement for therapy. I am a licensed psychologist and have had just enough training as a cognitive-behavioral therapist to know that some people need therapy for life adjustment and more severe issues. There is no way that EI can completely replace that. Emotional intelligence can, however, help people build a solid foundation for better mental health, better life/work functioning, and better relationships.

The most frequent opportunity for improvement that EI offers people is greater understanding and discernment of one’s emotions. Becoming aware of bodily sensations and arising emotions, particularly in their early stages of reaction, can lead a person to engage thoughts and actions that can effectively reduce the possibility of disabling emotional-cognitive escalation. For some and for example, anxiety can rise to unimaginable, paralyzing levels. Fostering awareness of anxiety’s early signs can help people engage in simple, powerful practices and actions that 1) remove them from the presence of anxiety triggers, 2) change their perceptions of the anxiety provoking context, and/or 3) reduce their physical/emotional reactions to the triggers and arising anxiety-related sensations. EI’s ability to address aspects of anxiety is by far the most pervasive application to mental health that I have seen.

I want to offer another example of how EI can help to improve mental health, and I will take a huge risk by telling a brief joke. A man goes to his doctor and says, “Hey Doc, every time I raise my arm like this, it really hurts. What should I do?” Doc says, “Well, in my professional opinion, don’t do that!” Silly joke I know, but my point is this: We often do things that are not good for us. I meet people all the time who are engaged in counter-productive patterns of behavior that they keep on doing despite the fact that, when pressured, they admit the behaviors are negatively impacting their lives. EI can help with this. How? Through improving emotional self-awareness.

People engage in counter-productive behaviors because it helps them, at least temporarily, feel good and/or avoid feeling bad. For example, some people over-eat often times unhealthy foods high in fat, salt, or sugar, and this is a “double-whammy.” Overeating unhealthy foods releases hormones like dopamine, which activate pleasure centers in the brain, which further helps to mask depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. This tendency to over-eat for emotional reasons, called emotional overeating, is characterized by an upset, urge to eat, regret, guilt, and then back to upset repeating cycle. Learning emotional self-awareness increases one’s ability to distinguish true physical hunger from emotional needs and can help to break the cycle. Emotional self-awareness, what I hold as the most powerful aspect of emotional intelligence, can help break the cycle of many addictions — gambling, pornography, internet, and drugs.

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.

Lots has been written about and offered as training/coaching over the past two decades about how to further develop emotional intelligence. I consider this “top five list” offered here to be fundamental. These five recommendations form a foundation upon which additional EI competencies can be built.

  1. Learn to Listen Better (Particularly When You Disagree): Listen is fundamental to every relationship. Listening allows people to “collect data” about others — about how they’re thinking and feeling. More importantly, deep listening helps people understand how others feel. There are no special skills required to listen deeply; one has to simply tune in to another without distraction. And, when I say “tune in,” I mean genuinely and fully giving others full, undivided attention. When face-to-face, deep listening means making eye contact — essentially looking at each other’s faces. Researcher Paul Ekman discovered, across all cultures, that most humans have an innate and high-level capability for accurately reading facial expressions. Reading facial expressions is the number one source for emotional information. When people tune into others’ faces, they better understand what they’re saying as well as their motivations, concerns, frustrations, and an endless combination of feelings. When people take in feelings, they then deepen their empathetic understand of others, which helps them productively navigate their relationships with others. And when they deeply listen in conversation where there is disagreement or simply differences of opinion, they increase the likelihood of mutual learning and productive discourse. It only takes one person in a paired discussion to carry an intent to listen deeply to create the optimal conditions for a productive conversation. When people feels as if they are being listened to and heard, they relax and their demeanor softens; listening paves the way for positive, productive conversation — particularly when the heat is on.
  2. Move Towards Conflict Rather Than Away: Nobody really likes conflict. It’s uncomfortable. And yet, there is no better crucible for growth than conflict done right. What is conflict done right? It’s when two people enter into the conversation about a conflict with an intent to understand the other’s perspective — as fully as possible. Even in situations where one believes that the other has zero credibility, one can (at the very least) get curious about why the other believes what he/she believes. Even when someone is boldface lying, one can get curious about why this person wants the falsehood to be believed. Thus, in every conflict conversation, the key is to activate curiosity no matter what. Allow curiosity to inspire questions that, over time, get to the heart of the matter, which often includes motivations and feelings that are important to bring to the surface, which are often key to discovering a path towards possible resolution. Perhaps more importantly, moving toward conflict allows one to develop greater confidence and capability for dealing with conflict and its associated emotions. As Dr. McKee once said during one of our Teleos meetings, emotional awareness and emotional resiliency are built in the heat of our relational battles.
  3. Seek Critical Feedback: How do you react to critical feedback? Do you invite it? Do you actively seek feedback? Research suggests that most people tolerate feedback, but certainly do not enjoy it. And yet, research also suggests that most people very much want feedback, even critical, corrective feedback. Is it possible given how much we want feedback that we can come to enjoy it, even celebrate it? How might this be achieved? Through intention and practice. Over the years I have coached all sorts of people at all levels in organizations to seek critical feedback. And in doing so, I have coached them to take responsibility for showing up in such ways that 1. Honors feedback providers, and 2. Honors themselves as feedback receivers. When people intentionally seek feedback from others with an intent to honor, appreciate them, and learn for themselves their opportunities to improve, a remarkable thing happens over time. They get more feedback, corrective feedback for sure, but also more praise too. And the more they get, the more they appreciate getting it. But again, it’s their intentions about seeking feedback that matter most. They must get clear with themselves first. They must not just say that feedback is a gift, but they must feel it as such. Like the conflict tip above, they must declare an intention to get deeply curious and allow themselves to ask questions. They must commit to learning about themselves and how others perceive them. And, most importantly, when strong feelings arise, when the criticism feels wrong, off-the-mark, or even mean-spirited, they must be committed to owning these feelings completely. Even with feedback they perceived as intentionally mean, they are called upon to own fully their reactions — whatever they are. If there were zero grains of truth in the feedback, they would not react at all. Yet, with even a smidge of truth in the feedback, regardless of how its delivered, it is perfectly normal for people to feel some sting. There’s an old Texas saying I recall that illustrates this truth: “When you throw a corncob into the pigpen, the one that squeals is the one it hit.” The most emotionally intelligent people I know have honed their EI abilities within relationships characterized as open, truthful, and direct. They don’t mind the occasional sting. They know it won’t really hurt them. Just their egos. They are willing to bruise their egos in pursuit of greater truth. Along the way, they create family and work cultures that are both psychologically safe and radically honest. They are compassionate too, and because their care for themselves and others shines through, people go willingly into uncomfortable spaces to find the learning and growth possible there.
  4. Learn to Better Tune-In to Your Body: As has been said above several times, self-awareness is the most important and powerful domain of emotional intelligence. Often in EI training and development efforts, we focus on emotional self-awareness as a primary competency. This is good and proper, but it often leads one to focus simply on feelings rather than what exists upstream of emotions. Upstream of emotions? What’s this mean? Simply this: Emotions/feelings are a cognitively-derived assessment of our underlying bodily sensations. Said differently, feelings are a thought-based interpretation of sensations occurring in our bodies. For example, let’s explore what happens when people get angry. First, there are stimuli that occur that act on receptors in the body; the stimuli could be thoughts (e.g., “I cannot believe what that jerk did to me…”) or something external (e.g., a picture of “the jerk” or a car abruptly cutting you off in traffic). These stimuli act on receptors and aspects of the sympathetic nervous system, which causes an internal response. For anger, heart rate increases and breathing quickens and gets shallower. Muscarinic receptor activation leads to sweating and piloerection; people drip sweat and the hairs on various places on their bodies stand up. All of this happens between the anger provoking stimuli and any interpretation of our feelings. This means that if we attend to our “upstream” sensations, we will know earlier what feelings are likely to be coming down the pike. And, when it comes to managing ourselves effectively, milliseconds matter. What’s the point of all this? All humans have the ability to get better and better at tuning into the sensations of our bodies. It’s a competency we can learn. Life experience can help us learn to tune in to our bodies. My dear wife learned a great deal about her body after going through three near-identical childbirth experiences. She delivered each child into water, without medication to deaden the pain, and all the while she practiced deep breathing to help her managed the process. By the third child, she knew exactly where the baby was in the birth canal and knew exactly what to do and when to do it. The attending midwives were not surprised as they had seen this body wisdom cultivated in hundreds if not thousands of mothers. And to be quite clear, people don’t have to become pregnant and give birth to learn to tune in deeply to their bodies (billions of men sigh with relief). There are many practices one can engage in. Yoga, tai chi, regular exercise, running, meditation, and many, many more core practices are available to us that can quite thoroughly and quickly (weeks, not days) teach us to tune in. However, as I have said before, the key is to carry the proper intention into the practice. You must intend to learn about your body. You must lean into and learn from creaking joints, stretching ligaments, sore muscles, and other sensations and pains that arise throughout the practice. And, as a bonus, you will simultaneously learn to stretch your mind — through and past imagined limitations.
  5. Learn & Apply Breathwork Techniques: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Famous psychologist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote these words in 1946, but we have only recently come to understand what it takes to step into and make good use of the “space.” It turns out that we now understand what millennia of Eastern practices have been pointing to when they have asked followers to “focus on the breath.” Several decades of neuroscience findings also validate the critical role breathing plays in helping us find the “power to choose our response.” Breathwork, as it is called, helps people find “that space” and with it the tremendous benefits that come from choosing their response. Nothing works better than deep, intentional breathing for re-engaging the pre-frontal cortex when people are experiencing an amygdala hijack or triggering event. Breathwork is an integral part of nearly every practice (e.g., yoga, tai chi, meditation) that holds the intention of helping people create a state of calm or peace within. The wonderful thing about practicing breathwork is that people no longer need the Eastern wrappings in order to gain access to this particular domain of knowledge and skill. My deepest learning thus far has come from Dr. Dean Anderson who teaches breathwork as a stand-alone skill — to old-school executives, engineers, and others who might never consider setting foot in a dojo or yoga studio. In today’s world, there are plenty of videos, practice guides, and teachers at the ready to teach this fundamental EI skill. And, given its simplicity and accessibility, everyone can learn breathwork and reap its benefits.

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?

Yes, our educational system can do a better job at cultivating emotional intelligence. And I know of many school districts around the US that are doing a better job at this. In Dallas, where I live, mindfulness programs are offered to teachers and students in our public schools. Mindfulness practices are wonderful in helping to cultivate emotional awareness and more accurate self-assessment. To carry this forward though, we must make EI concepts and practices more accessible to educators AND administrators; the more they are exposed to the concepts and practices, the more they can model EI competencies to the students around them. Second, the most fundamental skills — like breathwork described above — are so easily conveyable and learnable that children of any age can benefit. Once we have taught enough of education’s leaders and teachers, I guarantee that every classroom will have integrated EI and its related practices into their curricula. We humans are inherently pragmatic learners. If something works for us, we pass it on. EI-related practices yield great benefits for all who learn them. It’s just a matter of time before we reach every segment of society. When this happens, we might just realize heaven on earth.

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.

With our recent work on the Responsive Intelligence concept, we are committed to making it the most accessible EI-related work ever. We have become very skilled at being able to translate EI-concepts, ideas, practices, and even the neuroscience into easy-to-understand language. The videos we’ve created for clients have been enormously effective and we’ll be releasing similar ones to the general public within the next four to six months. My EI family has been so enthusiastic about the RI project because of its potential to become “a movement.” Given what we are learning about social media promotion and what is necessary to attract a huge following, we might be closer to the possibility of launching a movement than at any time before. This is quite exciting!

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’d welcome the opportunity to meet with people who I understand have been openly practicing EI-related skills for quite some time. People like Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Russell Brand, Katy Perry, Tom Hanks, Jerry Seinfeld, Hugh Jackman, and Lena Dunham from the acting profession. In the business world, I would want to meet William Clay Ford Jr., Executive Chairman of Ford Motor Company, Arianna Huffington, Cofounder of Huffington Post and Thrive Global, and Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn. I’d want to meet each of these people for the exact same reason: to learn from them, inquire about their practices and ways of being, and discover with them the benefits and limitations of what they do. We have so much to learn from one another, and the above-mentioned people take on great challenges and thrive. I expect that they’d all be a great source of EI-related wisdom. Wisdom that can spread to others. And that’s me, the Johnny Appleseed of EI.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website at www.metatropia.com has blogs, videos, and other resources. Also, www.teleosleaders.com has a number of EI-related articles and resources. We will soon release (Spring 2021) the next iteration of our Responsive Intelligence (RI) site at www.responsiveintelligence.com — which will share the latest thinking on how to respond rather than react.

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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