Of all the things readers tell me they want to work on this year, developing greater emotional intelligence is the one I hear over and over

That's why I've compiled a free e-book, Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021, which you can download here. And it's why I'm constantly looking for small, practical things that people can do to achieve this goal. 

One simple technique is to make a habit of examining the literal meanings of some of the words and phrases we use reflexively. You might find that some of them actually imply the opposite of what you intend to say, which can prompt confusing emotional reactions.

I know this could get esoteric in a hurry, so let's go straight to some examples that will illustrate the difference, and then we'll explain it in greater detail.

Parallel versus convergent

Today's exercise is about the difference between parallel responses that we use without thinking, and convergent responses, which might be more appropriate if you want to prompt positive assessments and reactions from another person.

Let's compile a few quick examples -- simple phrases -- and then we'll analyze them. These are all parallel responses, juxtaposed with convergent responses: 

  • "I understand" versus "Help me understand"
  • "I know how you feel" versus "I'm listening, and I hear you saying [X]"
  • "I'm right there with you" versus "I want to be there to support you"

Finally, let's add a contextual example, just to make this more complete. 

Suppose an employee confides that they've been having a hard time coping with work during the pandemic. Let's imagine two ways you could reply:

  • Parallel response: "I've had a hard time too. I understand exactly."
  • Convergent response: "I've had a hard time too. Tell me more about what's been going on."

OK, with those examples in hand, let's dig into the definitions.

Belief and geometry

Empathy is a key component of emotional intelligence. And as I've written before, unlike sympathy and pity, achieving empathy is a process that requires work.

Additionally, emotionally intelligent people understand that the mere fact that you're clearly trying to achieve empathy can actually engender more empathy. With that in mind:

  • Parallel responses are ones that suggest that you believe your process of achieving empathy is complete, on the basis of something else you've brought to the interaction (often, past experience).
  • Convergent responses suggest that you believe the process of achieving empathy is incomplete, but that you want to work to make it complete (by continuing the discussion and learning more about the other person's point of view).

The potential problem with the parallel response over the convergent response is twofold. First, there's the fact the other person probably won't believe you actually understand as well as you're suggesting. 

Put yourself in the position: Imagine that you've explained a difficult problem to someone who immediately replies, "I totally understand" or else "I know exactly how you feel."

If there's any complexity at all to what you've tried to express, your natural, emotional reaction might well be disbelief. ("Really? I'm that good at explaining my circumstances that you immediately have a full understanding?")

The second half of the problem is a bit less concrete, but it comes from geometry: the fact that two things that are parallel to each other will never actually meet.

Juxtapose that with the idea of two things that are converging, which suggests a journey from being apart toward being together.

Oprah Winfrey

I must acknowledge that what really got me thinking about this deeply this week was watching when Oprah Winfrey interviewed Meghan Markle and Prince Harry last Sunday

I was struck during the interview that Winfrey never mentioned the fact that it was she, 25 years ago, who first interviewed Sarah Ferguson when she divorced Prince Andrew--an interview that had many obvious parallels. 

How clever of her, and what an obvious trap that would have been for many others in her position. In fact, having looked at the transcript of the interview, Winfrey does only three things throughout the whole three hours: 

  • She asks direct questions 
  • She gives one-word answers like "Yeah" and "Mm-hmm" that encourage Meghan and later Harry to fill the void
  • She offers factual assertions to get them talking more, and that fall squarely into this convergent response rubric

I'm just using Winfrey as a big, recent, example, of course, but this kind of exercise is worthwhile no matter what kinds of interactions you're thinking about: recruiting and interviewing potential employees, talking with customers, leading a team, or even just thinking of the interactions you have in your personal life.

It's not about being nice

I think some people confuse emotional intelligence and empathy for the overall feeling of just being a nicer person. That's a mistake.

Being "nice," or charismatic, is a wonderful, positive byproduct of improving emotional intelligence in a business context, but it's not the goal. Consider the example of talking with an employee who has had a hard time during the pandemic, for example.

As a human being, you'd want to be supportive, empathetic -- nice.

But as a boss, you have the added goal of wanting to help this person improve his or her work performance, and help your organization succeed. And these kinds of techniques can help.

Because the boss who uses a parallel response ("I understand, we've all had a hard time"), even when he or she intends to suggest empathy, can do something else by accident -- running the risk of provoking an unintentional negative emotional reaction, and shutting down the valuable information they were otherwise about to hear.

Choose your words

I suspect some might take issue with one or two of my specific examples. That's fine; for that matter, I admit that I use some of these phrases sometimes, and I'm the guy writing the article to suggest you shouldn't. 

But sometimes exceptions prove the rule. Sometimes, you might truly reach greater empathy faster than some of these phrases suggest.

Sometimes there are other factors that I'm not taking into consideration--maybe a lengthy past relationship, and lots of shared experiences--that can turn an otherwise parallel response into a convergent one.

Also, sometimes we just aren't on the top of our game and make mistakes.

That's why the habit isn't specifically about just choosing and memorizing one phrase over another. Instead, it's about making the effort to think about the phrases you use automatically, and assessing whether they're really achieving the emotional effects you intend. 

Work on that over the next little while, and I predict you'll see a difference in 2021.

Don't forget the free e-book Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021, which you can download here.