The simplest way to get there? Develop intellectual muscle memory. Learn to leverage your emotions and choose specific words (the ones you use to communicate to others, and the things you tell yourself) that help you achieve your ultimate goals.
This all makes more sense when we break it down into nine simple habits, which is exactly what we’ll do below. Learn to practice each of them and you’ll find that your instincts evolve quickly, to the benefit of your emotional intelligence.
1. Learn to ask why (over and over).
We start out with the hardest question on the planet for most people to answer: Why?
- Why do you want that job?
- Why are you so interested in that reward?
- Why are you spending your time–your most valuable and limited resource, by the way–on the specific things that consume your day?
We can answer why to most things superficially, but that’s not enough. The trick that emotionally intelligent people learn is to ask why again and again, deeper and deeper.
- I want the job because I want to make money. (OK, but why?)
- Well, I need money because I have to maintain this lifestyle. (OK, but why?)
- If I don’t maintain this lifestyle, I’ll feel like a failure. (OK, but why?)
See what I mean? The question is hard to answer because ultimately, there’s often a hidden fact or emotion influencing the deepest answers.
That’s not to say that emotional motivations are never valid. But, emotional intelligence requires you to identify them so you can assess them.
If you can’t articulate a compelling, defensible why, that’s a big red flag. There’s either something wrong with your ultimate goal, or there’s something wrong with the specific activity you’re doing to try to reach it.
So, channel your inner 2-year-old. Ask why. Then ask again.
2. Learn to pace yourself.
“Don’t just stand there,” some people say. “Do something!”
But often, that’s backward. (Don’t just do something. Stand there.)
Learn to wait a minute (or an hour, or a day) before acting. I promise–there is power in restraint. There is potency in silence.
He or she who pauses before responding to almost any external stimuli — be it an email, or a message, or an insult, or a complaint, or even an opportunity — often winds up with the upper hand.
Emotionally intelligent people learn to appreciate that slower action makes room for strategic thought, and it makes ill-considered emotional reactions less of a danger.
Patience isn’t just a virtue. It’s a superpower.
3. Learn to quit when it’s time to quit.
For all the emotional baggage attached in our society to the simple, four-letter word “quit,” emotionally intelligent people understand that quite often, quitting is the answer.
How can that be? We grow up hearing that quitters never win, and that quitting small things makes it easier to quit bigger things later in life.
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. But quitting in a vacuum is a morally neutral act; it’s the thing one quits, among other factors, that lends its relevance.
We know this deep inside. We’re familiar with the sunk-cost fallacy. We know the sayings about throwing good money after bad, or doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.
We also know that quitting a job that’s a bad fit, or ending an unfulfilling relationship, or winding down a business idea that has been overcome by facts on the ground (all other things being equal) isn’t necessarily a sign of failure. Instead, any one of these can mean a new beginning.
But, it takes emotional intelligence and bravery to learn to admit the possibility.
4. Learn to rehearse what you’ll say.
We all have habits we’re not even aware of, especially language habits.
(Want to identify some of yours quickly? Have kids, or teach a class. Your children or your students will get to know every one of your idiosyncrasies. They’ll likely mimic them right back to you.)
Emotionally intelligent people recognize this, and therefore they work hard to develop language habits with intention — literally, specific words and phrases — because they understand that these choices are likely to inspire emotions.
Let me give you a specific example. Many of us look automatically for a chance to demonstrate empathy in conversations. That’s a worthy goal.
So, you might catch yourself saying: “I know how you feel,” or, “I get it,” when someone describes a challenge or a problem.
But, you might also realize over time that these phrases don’t just indicate understanding; they communicate completion, and perhaps the end of the conversation.
They certainly don’t invite the other person to continue describing their challenge or problem. And, that can be counterproductive.
So, as another option, you might train yourself to say something a few degrees away from “I understand”– something more like, “I’m listening, and I think I hear you saying X,” or else, “I’m trying to understand; please say a little more.”
No matter what you choose, you might actually do the same thing afterward: sit still, look receptive, try to listen.
But the latter language choices inspire openness and the welcoming of an ongoing relationship.
Without thinking it through beforehand, you might choose either phrase. That’s why emotionally intelligent people do think it through–and even rehearse, ahead of time.
5. Learn to look for hard truths.
We say honesty is the best policy; I think that’s right. But, it’s not just about just honesty toward other people; it’s about being honest with yourself.
Here’s an example. As a boss, you might smartly make a habit of asking your employees if they have everything they need to be successful. Maybe they tell you they do, and that’s comforting to hear.
But, an emotionally intelligent boss might put himself or herself in the employee’s shoes, and think of some of the emotional reactions that might go into their response.
An employee might think, even in the short instant it takes to reply:
- “I’ll say, ‘Yes, I have what I need,’ so I don’t look as if I can’t do my job.”
- “I’ll say, ‘Yes, I have what I need,’ because honestly, I haven’t thought about what I need.”
- “I’ll say, ‘Yes, I have what I need,’ because I simply want this conversation with my boss to end.”
If you’re looking for hard truths, that might mean asking again and again (much like asking, why) until you find them. A CEO I knew once said his executive coach taught him to ask about problems three times:
- Boss’s first question: “How’s everything going?”
- Boss’s second question: “What are the things that are getting in the way?”
- Boss’s third question: “OK, but if there were a problem, what would it be?”
Ask to get past the emotions, the assumptions, and the power imbalance–and give people implicit permission to speak up. Ask to find the hard truths.
6. Learn to dissect other people’s motivations.
This is the corollary to the second habit, above. Don’t just look for your why. Ask yourself what motivates other people to do the things they do, too.
Often enough, you can come up with a working theory. You might ask more questions to clarify. But often (this is the emotionally intelligent part) you won’t share your conclusions.
Why not? Because you’re trying to do at least two things at the same time:
- Identify other people’s emotional motivations; and
- Avoid triggering additional emotional reactions, which might be counterproductive to the result you seek.
As an example, perhaps you’re trying to close a sale, but meeting resistance. You think about it, and you theorize that your potential customer doesn’t really understand his or her own business, and thus can’t see the benefit your product can provide.
That’s an important piece of information if it’s true: it suggests fear and lack of confidence are factors. But you also probably wouldn’t share those conclusions; they’d perhaps be perceived as an insult.
You’re faced with a tricky situation. Maybe it’s not something you can find a way out of. But, emotionally intelligent people realize that it’s much better than not knowing.
7. Learn to think about conversational geometry.
People often go into conversations without a clear goal in mind, or a clear structure.
If they do think about structure, they sometimes do so only in basic terms, by articulating length and goals:
- “By the end of this 20-minute meeting, I hope we can agree on X, Y, and Z.”
- “Let’s take a minute to talk about where we want to go to dinner tonight.”
- “Can we clear the air briefly? I hope I didn’t offend you with my comment the other day.”
Honestly, these are good starts. But, truly emotionally intelligent people recognize that there are other structural dimensions to conversations, and they have to do with both structure and geometry.
Honestly, we could write an entire book simply on learning this particular habit. I may just do so. But for now, let’s focus on just one easy example: the rule of three.
In short, we’re hard-wired to respond better, and remember things more easily, if they’re grouped in threes. So, wherever possible, emotionally intelligent people try to make their three points at a time.
This is why the late Steve Jobs organized almost every product unveiling (the original Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone, etc.) with a three-point structure.
What do you do if you don’t have three points? What if you have only two, or four, or seven? (You’ll notice that I listed three numbers there.)
Reorganize. Count differently. And, try again.
8. Learn to be strategically vulnerable.
Every conversation is made up of many smaller conversations, and people with high emotional intelligence understand that there’s a sense of momentum that can ebb or flow as you proceed.
That’s why it can be so useful to structure conversations so that you pile up agreements and understandings along the way–leading (you hope) to even bigger and better understandings.
One way to learn to do that sometimes is to be strategically vulnerable.
I’ve written before about one of the most controversial manifestations of this (but one I believe is accurate): the use of vocal uptick, or high rising terminal, in which people speak declarative sentences with a tone suggesting each statement is actually a question.
I’m sure you can envision this: Their voice trends upward during the course of a sentence?
So that even though they’re making a statement, it sounds like a question? And it’s been stereotypically associated with younger people, and perhaps with women?
While I think this habit requires care and calibration, it comes from a place of high emotional intelligence. There’s an astute recognition that someone has less power in a conversation (a junior employee, for example). So, he or she has to guide others through their points, chalking off small points of agreements and understandings along the way.
But, there are also easier tactics to learn, if that one doesn’t suit you.
In a difficult conversation, for example, perhaps you can learn to structure what you’re saying so that the emotional undercurrent becomes, “We all face this common problem sometimes–let’s solve it,” as opposed to “You did something wrong and you need to fix it.”
- “I wonder if you might have forgotten about our meeting Monday? I’ve done this a few times myself; I know it’s tough to start the week that way.”
- “You promised you’d be there Monday, and you skipped it. What gives?”
There are times when you might use the second version, with a more pointed accusation. But, if your goal is simply to get the other person to acknowledge what happened, and perhaps promise not to let it happen again, the first version might work better.
Emotionally intelligent people understand the difference, and they make the choice intentionally and strategically.
9. Learn to end with gratitude.
We started with the hardest lesson to learn (asking why over and over), so let’s end on the easiest: Emotionally intelligent people will go out of their way to find something they can express gratitude for, toward the end of every conversation.
Even better: Learn to express thanks for something you know the other side will agree with, rather than something that might trigger an undesired emotional reaction.
- Good, easy examples: “Thank you for meeting with me today,” or “Thank you for taking the time to talk.”
- Tougher examples: “Thanks for understanding,” or “Thank you for coming around to my way of thinking.”
The point here is to leave people feeling good about your gratitude; rather than bothered by disagreement.
Someone once said (I think it was Maya Angelou, but there’s some controversy): “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But, people will never forget how you made them feel.”
In that spirit, allow me to end on gratitude.
Thank you for reading all the way to the bottom of this 2,200-word article, and thank you as well to the many readers who downloaded and read my free e-book, 9 Smart Habits of People With High Emotional Intelligence. The current version will disappear soon, but we’ll have a new edition for 2022 available shortly.
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