Emotional Intelligence: More than a Personal Relationship Skill

As we introduced last week, emotional intelligence, or EI, is based on the recognition and regulation of your own emotions as well as those of others. While at first glance this concept may seem to mostly apply to our personal lives, EI is actually extremely relevant in our professional lives. EI is a foundational ability that affects performance in the workplace by informing an endless number of professional consulting skills. This week, we will discuss the impact of EI on three such skills: communication, flexibility, and teamwork.

Communication. In almost every occupation, effective communication is essential. For consultants, our ability to communicate can make or break a client relationship. With an elevated focus on the exchange of information within the consulting world, it’s important to recognize how your emotions affect the way you communicate with others.

The onset of certain emotions may invoke a physical response in an individual, and sometimes people are unaware of these physical reactions. For example, if you are feeling frustrated with a coworker, you might roll your eyes when they speak (even unknowingly). Or, if a client’s reaction to your presentation surprises you, you might inadvertently raise your eyebrows.To combat these physical reactions, you should first learn to recognize your emotions that provoked them in the first place. Write down what happened, how it made you feel, and how you reacted. By learning to connect these three elements, you can begin to more effectively control your behavior. Exerting more intention and control over your reactions and behavior may lead to fewer incidents of negative, off-putting, or unproductive body language.

Just as with nonverbal communication, your verbal communication skills may be hindered when you experience strong emotions. If your manager intends to give you constructive feedback but you’re upset, you might get defensive and react with a quick rebuttal. Does this immediate reaction reflect how you really feel? Instead, listen to what your manager has to say. If you are feeling overwhelmed by your emotions, a better response would be to take the time you need to process the information and ask to continue the conversation at a later time. Taking a step back to mull over the assessment can be a useful practice to ensure you are communicating effectively and professionally.

Flexibility. Consulting is all about flexibility, no matter the industry. To create change, you must be able to adapt to change, and that is what highly emotionally intelligent individuals are able to do. Let’s say you’re facilitating a workshop with a large group of professionals in a field that you are not particularly knowledgeable on. Even though you are experienced with the topic of the workshop, the emotional atmosphere of the room begins to take a turn for the worst as participants stop responding to your prompts. First, recognize the change in the feelings of the participants. Mention this perceived change to the participants and ask them how this session could be more useful. Then flex the direction of the conversation based on the participants’ needs while staying on topic with the purpose of the workshop. Being ready, willing, and able to pivot when things aren’t going according to plan is a clear sign of emotional intelligence.

Being flexible also means taking accountability for your mistakes. Having the humility to acknowledge when you did something wrong, while at the same time maintaining confidence in your overall ability, can be a difficult balancing act. Take this example: you are leading a project for the first time and realize that you took on more responsibility than you can handle—so much that a deadline is not met. Rather than ignoring the misstep, accept that you miscalculated how much you could manage, discuss it with your team or mentor, and decide how to ensure it does not happen again.By recognizing and owning your mistakes, you are not only less likely to repeat them in the future, but also better prepared to continue to grow your professional skill set by recognizing opportunities for your own growth.

Teamwork. Being a part of a team means working together to meet a common goal. While the end goal is shared, work styles within the group usually vary. EI can be exhibited in teams by thoughtfully planning your interactions with team members. If a coworker is less comfortable communicating their opinions in a group setting, it wouldn’t be helpful to continuously put them on the spot for giving their input, just as it would be unfair to carry on without helping them feel that their voice is heard. In this instance, you could utilize email or one-on-one meetings to gather feedback, working up to more in-person, group communication. It’s important to remember that individual contributions are valuable, and always worth the time to elicit the input of team members, even if different methods need to be employed.

Sometimes opposing ideas within a team can lead to conflict—some would say it is almost inevitable. Take the example of one of your team members having a strong opinion about how to create a series of reports for a client, when the majority of the team agrees that a different approach would be more efficient. Listen to the idea, validate their thought process, acknowledge their creativity and capacity to take a different perspective, and explain how it may not be the best course of action given any number of considerations. Ensure the individual is recognized for their contribution and has a chance to understand the rationale for the agreed course of action. Practicing empathy during this exchange ensures that everyone feels heard and understood, thus creating an environment of respect and mutual understanding in addition to effectively managing conflict. 

While EI comes naturally to some, it is a more conscious and deliberate effort for others. A basic method to begin to increase your EI is to pause and think about how you are feeling before acting. Allowing yourself to acknowledge and sit with your emotions – by questioning what you’re feeling and why – can be difficult at first. But, the more often you allow yourself to feel them, the easier it will be to recognize them and manage them in the future, at home and at work.