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“Self-awareness.” with Mark Bayer

I’ve been married for about 17 years, and some of the key relationship lessons I’ve learned relate to emotional intelligence. For example, I’ve learned after a tough day at the (home) office to be in tune with my emotions and not transfer negativity to interactions with my wife and kids. This type of self-awareness also […]

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I’ve been married for about 17 years, and some of the key relationship lessons I’ve learned relate to emotional intelligence. For example, I’ve learned after a tough day at the (home) office to be in tune with my emotions and not transfer negativity to interactions with my wife and kids. This type of self-awareness also can help you question and check negative assumptions to a partner’s remark or reaction, since your Emotional Intelligence helps you realize your feelings just may be driven by crankiness from lack of sleep or irritation at something in your work world. Making an effort to actively pick up on, decipher, and ask about your partner’s emotional signals without judgment (easier with time) can help avoid many arguments later.

As part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Bayer, an international keynote speaker, coach, and consultant specializing in strategic communication, leadership, and the art and science of persuasion. He is president of Bayer Strategic Consulting in Washington, DC.

A former Chief of Staff in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives during a 20-year career working in Congress, Mark helps scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs get funding, build key relationships, and achieve career goals.

Mark teaches the proven communication and leadership approaches he used when working in Congress to rapidly distill complex policies, craft and implement strategies to advance high-profile initiatives, and concisely explain them to Members of Congress and journalists from leading national media outlets.

Mark teams with major research universities, corporations, and scientific societies and has been featured in various media on leadership and communication. Host of the weekly podcast, “When Science Speaks”, he also serves as a guest lecturer in the Science Policy Bootcamp course at Cornell University’s Meinig School of Engineering.

Mark is a magna cum laude graduate of Cornell University and earned his Master in Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

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?

InMassachusetts, where I grew up, it’s said there are 3 passions: Politics, Sports, and Revenge.

The first two have big roles in my life; the third, only a bit part — and always with just cause!

Political issues were a dinner table topic in our house, and we routinely watched the nightly news as a family. I saw my parents active in community service in our town, starting projects they created and ran themselves — like piling winter coats in our basement to give to a homeless shelter and volunteering to serve on non-profit boards. When I was in high school, my mother learned of a young family in Moscow who wanted to leave the Soviet Union, hoping to start a better life in another country. The Soviet regime refused to let the family emigrate and punished them harshly for even daring to ask. Desperate after 9 years of persecution, they went on a hunger strike. So my mom decided to do something about it, launching a campaign to send telegrams (like pre-Internet email) from all 50 U.S. states to the leader of what was then the Soviet Union, contacting our congressman, and publicizing the family’s case in the press. Seven months later, the family was freed and left for Israel. My mother never claims credit, and it’s impossible to know whether her campaign had an impact, but for me, there was a clear message: One person really can make a difference. That was empowering and exciting. I decided I wanted to make good things happen in the world, not just let events unfold — to help make news, not just watch it on TV.

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

Lessons from my parents and my uncle, who was a union leader, sparked my interest in public service and politics. My older sister worked for a U.S. Congressman in Washington, DC for a few years, and we’d visit her when I was in high school. I saw and heard about what she was doing — it seemed to fit my goal of making positive change on a larger scale. It was more like a calling or a campaign than just a job, and that was attractive to me.

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?

Junior year of college, I saw a poster for an independent research fellowship in Paris while waiting to talk to my advisor. Before we got started, I asked about it (in a fortunate twist of fate, his wife ran the fellowship program.) When I was accepted, I remember him saying the opportunity was too good to pass up. My parents were lukewarm. I had never traveled abroad (except to Canada) and I’d be on my own for months, researching and studying completely in French, in a city where I knew no one. Still, with my advisor’s encouragement, I leapt…and in the experience of living in the middle of Paris, eventually becoming fluent in French, playing on my French university’s basketball team, and traveling on my own through Europe, I proved to myself I could take risks. I could get outside my comfort zone (and maybe should do it more often). That lesson as a 21-year-old has helped color my perspective on life ever since.

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?

Funny at the time or funny now? Seriously, I was standing in the little galley kitchen of my group house in DC talking to a reporter on deadline about a policy issue I’d been working on with my boss. I was still early in my career as a Congressional staffer, in my mid-twenties, and it was getting late. The reporter kept asking follow-ups to his follow-up questions, not satisfied with my deliberately vague answers. Finally, I came up with an explanation that seemed to thread the needle, and he went off to write the story. But the next morning, it was clear from his article I didn’t actually thread the needle — I got pricked. When a more senior staffer insisted it had been his fault for putting me in a tough spot, I remember saying I didn’t believe in the “just following orders” defense. I took the blame, and rightly so. The lesson for me — and the one I now teach my kids — is to admit your mistakes, apologize, and work to do better next time. Plus, it’s never the crime that gets you…it’s the coverup.

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?

After graduating college, I was offered a job answering phones in the office where I was an unpaid intern. I was hesitant to accept — an administrative position wasn’t how I envisioned my post-college employment, and I wasn’t sure if it was a dead-end job. But a senior Senate staffer I connected with through my college alumni network gave me advice I’d give any young person who might be considering a job they feel they’re over-qualified for: “Just get your nose under the tent, and you’ll be surprised how fast you’ll move up.” He was right — 8 months later, I had more responsibilities and quickly advanced in the office. Especially when you’re just starting out, be the one willing to do the “unglamorous” tasks with a smile and attention to detail. You’ll get a reputation as a valuable team player that will serve you well.

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?

“Hardball” by Chris Mathews was the first book I read after arriving in Washington, DC almost 30 years ago. Mathews’ book is about his experience as a top advisor to Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill, and it’s full of behind-the-scenes stories that revealed to me so much about human nature: how to respond in a crisis, key elements of leadership, the importance of friendship even between political adversaries, and the need to search for that common humanity all of us share. In short, it taught me a lot about what we’d now call Emotional Intelligence.

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

Life Is What Happens When You’re Busy Making Other Plans” — John Lennon. To me, this quote reinforces the importance of being present and fully participating in family life, even in those moments that may seem unimportant: a Monopoly game after dinner, an evening walk with one of the kids, a song at bedtime. When you’re ambitious, over-scheduled, or just running from one work-related responsibility to the next, you miss out on so many little moments. Hopefully, you realize, like I did, these moments will evaporate, and too soon, they’ll be gone forever. They’re so precious, you should fully experience them while you can. A few weeks ago, my 12-year-old daughter lost her last “baby” tooth. After she fell asleep, I wrote the final installment of my “Letter from your Friend, The Tooth Fairy” series. I put it in the envelope, added a few dollars, and left it on her dresser. And then I cried like a baby…

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

I help scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs communicate the real-world value and relevance of their work to their most important stakeholders — that could be investors, policymakers, senior management, or the public. Right now, I’m working with two PhDs to put together a livestream for my podcast on a new study they did about how emotional appeals can impact whether people decide to get vaccinated against COVID. I hope we contribute, even in a small way, to the understanding of how to engage with vaccine-hesitant people in a manner that helps them see why they and their loved ones should get inoculated now that the new vaccine is approved as safe and effective.

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?

Emotional intelligence is essential for effective policymaking, and I believe, leadership, two areas that have been my focus throughout my career.

For almost two decades, I tuned into, and “broadcast” on, both an emotional and fact-based frequency to advance and explain policy initiatives to Members of Congress, constituents, journalists, and other key stakeholders during my work on Capitol Hill, which included service as Chief of Staff in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

In politics, facts matter (seems quaint, I know…), but connecting on a human, emotional level also is indispensable for passing new legislation, stopping flawed proposals from moving forward, and making major change happen. After all, big decisions require humans to make them, at least for now, and we don’t just consider rational argument when making up our mind. Emotions, like how we relate to the topic itself and feelings about those making the pitch, have a big role to play in the final verdict.

Since 2017, I’ve been helping scientists and engineers — generally a data-only group — boost their Emotional Intelligence as a way to better engage the public, funders, and other non-experts. “Connect before you communicate” is my mantra; listen, have empathy, be authentic, admit what you don’t know yet.

These elements of Emotional Intelligence are vital, particularly now as scientists and experts try to persuade millions of Americans to take a major step into the unknown by agreeing to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

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

Daniel Goleman, the psychologist, New York Times science journalist, and author of the 1995 best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence, describes emotional intelligence as having 5 core pieces:

  1. Self-awareness. Self-confidence and the ability to tune into your own emotional state and identify emotions you’re feeling
  2. Self-regulation. The ability to control your own disruptive impulses and moods and being able to think before acting, be trustworthy, and open to change
  3. Internal motivation. The drive to work because you’re passionate about it — not trying to make money doing it — while focusing on what’s important in life, staying curious, and being optimistic
  4. Empathy. Understanding the emotional makeup of other people, which enables you to treat people according to their emotional reactions, be cross-culturally sensitive, and have concern for other people
  5. Social skills. Being good at managing relationships and building networks, finding common ground, leading change, and being persuasive

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

I consider Emotional Intelligence to be about how well someone can work with, and relate to, others to achieve important things, drawing on a deep understanding of what matters to partners and other stakeholders in the effort. Intelligence seems to be more a measure of knowledge of specific facts and being good at logical reasoning.

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

Leading teams, launching startups, developing legislation and building a coalition to get it signed into law — they’re all significant initiatives with the potential to change the status quo. They also require teamwork. When an effort requires a group to achieve it, I’ve found it’s critical to be able to dial into motivations of team members, their hopes and concerns, what makes them happy or upset, their self-image, work style, skills, and areas for development. In short, their backstory — both professional and, to an extent, personal (without being creepy). Initiating, coordinating, and mediating the human interactions that have to happen in these types of efforts require strong emotional intelligence — relating on a human level, not a hierarchical one.

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.

Two years ago, we decided to renovate our 1920 farmhouse. The kids were older, had stopped with the crayon drawings on the walls, and their rooms needed a refresh from the “baby vibe” we’d conjured up 15 years ago. We were definitely ready for this big transformation. During the month-long project, we treated each member of the team as we’d want to be treated (seemed obvious): coffee or gatorade for everyone; eat lunch in our kitchen if they preferred; we shared our excitement with team members as they upgraded our home. All of this seemed natural — the way humans treat other humans. But near the end of the project, a team member pulled me aside. “Most people don’t treat us the way you do,” he said. I heard about families telling workers to go down to the Dunkin’ Donuts if they wanted to use a restroom — even when a bathroom was on the same floor they were renovating. Some people treated them like intruders, as inferior, instead of as craftsmen hired to work inside the home. Imagine how it made those workers feel? I thought basic human decency, not emotional intelligence, would have been enough. After the project wrapped up — on-time and even slightly under-budget — we really missed those guys…so talented, focused, and just good people.

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

Never let leadership go to your head: Be humble and respectful, whether you’re talking to a U.S. Senator or the UPS driver who’s delivering your package. It’s the right thing to do, and it makes a positive impact on your staff/team. And tomorrow, you might not be the boss!

Stay curious: New ideas and improved ways of doing things can come from any direction. Keep learning — you’ll stay fresh, probably be happier, and build connections with people from all walks of life. You’ll enrich your life beyond measure.

Remember Newton’s Law of Motion Applies to Business: Assess the reaction to your initiatives and plans before you launch them. Think ahead and anticipate, then move.

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

I’ve been married for about 17 years, and some of the key relationship lessons I’ve learned relate to emotional intelligence. For example, I’ve learned after a tough day at the (home) office to be in tune with my emotions and not transfer negativity to interactions with my wife and kids. This type of self-awareness also can help you question and check negative assumptions to a partner’s remark or reaction, since your Emotional Intelligence helps you realize your feelings just may be driven by crankiness from lack of sleep or irritation at something in your work world. Making an effort to actively pick up on, decipher, and ask about your partner’s emotional signals without judgment (easier with time) can help avoid many arguments later.

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

Self-regulation and internal motivation are two core qualities of Emotional Intelligence that, in my opinion, can contribute mightily to optimal mental health. For example, being able to pinpoint how you’re feeling — say you’re feeling down — and then questioning yourself about whether negative self-talk — “I’ll never figure this out”; “I’m not smart”; “Why is this so easy for everyone but me?” — is compounding your down mood. This type of internal monologue can send you into a nosedive of negativity. Try rebutting those thoughts — “This is challenging, but I can do hard things”; “I bet I’m not the only one having trouble with it, maybe I can ask for help?”. Internal motivation — specifically, finding work or activities your passionate about — can make a big difference in our mental health. Staying optimistic, which is really tough sometimes, also is crucial. Try to tell yourself “These are tough times but they won’t last forever. Things are going to get better.”

Ok. Wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you recommend five things that anyone can do to develop a greater degree of Emotional Intelligence? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. “Connect before you communicate” (for building stronger social skills): This is a mantra I came up with for conveying new information to a listener or a group I want to persuade or inform. The next time you meet someone for the first time or talk to a group, think about leading by asking questions and listening as a way to surface shared values and common interests before delivering your message. Even if similarities may seem trivial — mutual love for Ohio State football, passion for playing the guitar, friends in common — connection is the fundamental building block for successful communication and influence-building.
  2. “Ask, Offer, Do” (for developing greater empathy): It’sparticularly important during these challenging times caused by the pandemic to ask friends, your partner, and your neighbors how they’re coping. And really listen to their responses. If they’re struggling, rather than following up with the generic “Is there anything I can do to help?”, try to be more specific. For example, a neighbor’s partner recently had hip surgery, and she wasn’t able to cook or move around much at all. We asked our neighbor “Hey, do you guys like lasagna? How about we bake a couple of pans and share one with you?” They loved it.
  3. Pursue a Passion Project (or Profession, If You Can)” (for Internal motivation): When I left Capitol Hill, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do next. I was looking for a new challenge, and I wanted to build something from the ground up. I narrowed down my list to two options. At the time, my first option seemed like it might make more business sense, but I was only excited about the second one (though the preference didn’t crystallize in my mind right away). I shared my thinking with a friend; he asked me to imagine working with each group and tell him how it felt. No comparison — I was passionate about the second one, and the first one….not so much. I chose the second one, and it’s made a world of difference. Sometimes it’s not possible to choose a career you love. In that case, think about picking up a hobby or a cause that makes you happy. For my birthday last year, I decided I wanted to learn to play acoustic guitar. I got one for a birthday present, and I just love learning to play, talking to other guitar players, and enjoying the journey.
  4. Think ‘New Year, New You’”(for self-regulation): New Year’s Resolutions are notoriously short-lived. Instead of pledging to lose 50 pounds, eat better, or finally start growing your savings account, think about trying one new thing a month in 2021 — it can be small like trying a new recipe or listening to a new band — or more daring like a new hairstyle. The idea is to move out of your comfort zone just a bit with small, relatively easy to accomplish changes. Who knows — maybe successfully implementing small changes and taking tiny risks in 2021 will help fuel your confidence in making bigger life changes you’ve been thinking about for a long time.
  5. Ask for Honest Feedback (for self-awareness). The self-awareness element of emotional intelligence includes realistic self-assessment. Frank feedback, which informs accurate self-assessment, can be hard to come by, and it can be difficult to receive and process. Still, think about asking an appropriately phrased version of “How’d I do?” next time you finish leading a meeting or giving feedback yourself. I recently interviewed the CEO of a technology company for my podcast, When Science Speaks. He’s a seasoned, respected, and highly-successful person deep into his career. After I stopped recording the interview, he said he had one question: “What could I have done better?” I was impressed with his directness and interest in unvarnished feedback. He’d done a legitimately great job; still, I gave him authentic, specific feedback, which I expect he’ll keep in mind for his next interview or presentation.

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, we can, and should, do much better. Before doing group work, for example, students should get training in emotional intelligence so they can put into practice specific EI tactics and strategies. Students feel pressure to prepare for tests, when they’re often expected to recall disparate facts. Instead of rote recall, students should learn how to operate effectively in groups, how to be a good teammate, and other principles of EI that will be relevant long after they’ve forgotten the main export of the Mass Bay Colony.

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’m concerned about families in the U.S. who’ve lost a loved one to COVID-19 and Americans who’ve survived the virus but haven’t — and may never — fully recover. It seems we in the U.S. have mostly lost interest or lost the ability to really see them and empathize in any broad, meaningful way. Maybe it’s the enormity of the number of victims — 300 thousand and rising (likely an undercount) or the persistent misinformation about COVID that saps this historic tragedy of emotional staying power in the public consciousness. Still, there seems to me one group in our society that has no trouble relating to the grievous pain felt by victims’ families — and that’s the families themselves, of course. To heal, they need to be able to talk to and share their pain with those who genuinely understand. What if we could create a clearinghouse that would enable victims’ families to find and talk to one another coast-to-coast, maybe starting in the U.S. but then expanding across the globe? Could zoom or telecom companies help? Could families voluntarily sign up, get vetted, and then be matched with another family dealing with the same grief? With isolation and polarization plaguing our country, might this be one small step in the right direction?

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 🙂

He retired from professional basketball the year I was born, but former Boston Celtic Bill Russell would be the person I’d like to meet for a private breakfast or lunch. Such a tiny fraction are capable of reaching even close to the highest level in their chosen sport, and Bill Russell excelled in that rarefied air: an Olympic Gold Medalist, two-time NCAAA National Champion, 11-time NBA Championship winner in his 13 seasons, 5-time MVP, 12-time All-Star. And more than just his play on the court, Bill Russell has been active in promoting youth mentoring (I co-founded a tutoring and mentoring non-profit in Washington, DC after grad school.) I’d like to talk about his time on the basketball court, naturally, and I’d also like to talk about vital social issues we both care about — race relations in Boston (my hometown), politics, his own journey, relations between Black and Jewish people, and more.

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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