So, here are some simple verbal habits designed to do exactly that. They're the sort of thing you'll find in my free e-book, Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021. (You can download the preview edition here.)
They're easy, really: just a series of short phrases to memorize that will improve your conversations and make it more likely you'll achieve your goals with others this year.
1. "One, two, three, four, five ... "
Did you ever realize the perfect thing to say to somebody -- only it's too late, because you already said something less effective?
I hate when that happens. One way to have it happen less often is not to rush into saying things before you have to. A short pause can be sufficient -- even just counting to five before replying.
I'd recommend saying this quietly to yourself -- although if you do it out loud intentionally, you'll certainly send a message to the other person in your conversation.
In short, silence speaks volumes, and when you're not talking, you're most likely thinking or even listening. You're also not digging rhetorical holes. So the five-second pause can be a powerful tool.
2. "Thanks. I'll check in tomorrow."
This one comes from Warren Buffett, or at least is inspired by him. He once explained that the best advice he ever got was that you can always tell somebody to go to hell tomorrow.
You don't have to react right away, in other words.
Now, this doesn't have to be so confrontational. Maybe you're thinking about how to respond to a client who emails you at 4 p.m. to express second thoughts about an order. Maybe it's a business partner who lets you know she doesn't like the marketing materials you've spent the better part of a week working on.
So? Wait a day. Wait half a day. In short, wait however long you need in order to take control of your emotions, so that they can be a tool for you to use, not a challenge to overcome.
3. "?, ?, ?"
These three question marks are meant to remind you to ask three questions.
To be honest, three is just a number. You can ask two questions, you can ask 10. The point is to get yourself into the habit of asking questions, as opposed to simply pontificating on whatever's on your mind.
Emotionally intelligent people understand that the more you can keep conversations focused on the other person, the better they'll feel about the discussion, and the more likely it is that you'll achieve your goals.
The easy shortcut is simply to ask more questions. The slightly more difficult one is to listen actively to the answers.
4. "Say a little more."
I don't know about you, but I'm only human. And that means even when I try to be an active listener, I sometimes don't get it.
I might simply not be smart enough to understand what the other person really means. Or I might not be focused enough to keep all of my attention on the conversation, as opposed to the hundreds of other things going on at the moment.
That's why "Say a little more" is such a great, all-purpose phrase. It indicates interest, and it invites the other person to continue talking. Moreover, it fills in the gaps for you. Even if the other person has already made his or her point, it invites them to make it again.
5. "It sounds like you're saying ... "
Often, the most effective things you can say in any conversation is exactly what the other person just said to you.
You don't necessarily need to agree with them 100 percent. Or even 10 percent for that matter. But starting with this phrase and then repeating back to them what you truly think you've heard them say has powerful emotional effects.
It means you're listening. It means they're being heard. It means you're both involved in a true conversation, rather than talking past each other or cursing at the tides.
6. "You might not know this but ... "
I came across this technique almost two decades ago, and while I didn't know that it had anything to do with emotional intelligence at the time, I now understand why it's so powerful.
In short, imagine that you want to give someone a compliment. That's a nice thing for you to do: "You did a great job on that presentation" or "People know they can always trust you and count on you."
Now, imagine that you add a six-word phrase beforehand: "You might not know this but ... "
That preamble fires off neurons that leave people predisposed to wonder what other people think of them. And when you start it out that way, you actually increase the effect of the compliment.
You tell me: Would you rather pay someone a compliment that makes them feel good or one that makes them feel really good? Especially if the price is only six words?
7. "Let me ask you specifically ... "
I wrote an entire article not long ago about how emotionally intelligent people try not to start conversations with phrases like "How are you?" or especially "How's everything? Good?"
We all do this sometimes. But "How are you?" is usually a throwaway question that nobody expects will be answered truthfully. And adding the preferred answer -- "Good?" -- just sends the wrong signal, if you really want to have a conversation.
So let me offer these five words -- almost as if they're scaffolding, until it becomes second nature to begin conversations with other-centered, specific inquiries.
"Let me ask you specifically: How was your weekend away?"
Or else: "How have your kids been doing with virtual school?"
Or: "What was the most interesting thing about that last project for you?"
Like all these phrases, the exact words don't matter. What really does matter is training yourself to make the other people in your conversations feel listened to, valued, and important.
Not a bad way to start 2021 -- or any year at all, for that matter.