The year is half over. So, if you've yet to achieve your emotional intelligence goals, I have two suggestions: First, download my free e-book Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021, which you can find here. Then, read on.

Below, you'll find five pointed questions about emotional intelligence, each of which asks whether you make habits out of certain behaviors. Figure out your honest answer to each one.

  • If you answer yes for each item, and you're confident in your answer, great. 
  • If you answer no, or you're not sure, read a bit deeper for simple, practical habits that can help you develop each behavior, and thus improve your overall level of emotional intelligence.

Think of these exercises as behavioral scaffolding. If you apply the simple tricks they offer, I think you'll find that they develop your mental muscle memory to the point where they become automatic.

Then, you can cast aside the figurative scaffolding, and check off another box on your personal growth to-do list for 2021. Let's get started.

1. Do you know how to employ tactical conversational patience?

Tactical patience in conversations is the art of saying nothing. It's calculated unease with a purpose. 

You've probably been advised to wait before speaking before, but many of us are socially conditioned to reject this advice. We're trained to fill silences to avoid seeming ill at ease, or uncharismatic, or awkward.

The easy way to train yourself to be patient is to make a habit of counting time silently before replying during fraught conversations. So:

  • Imagine that an employee comes to you with a personal problem.
  • Or a customer has a complaint.
  • Or a loved one sends you a text with a difficult request.

You're likely a decisive, action-oriented person. So, the natural reaction is to respond immediately, and fix whatever is wrong. But what if you pause instead and think?

What if you count silently to five, or 10? If we're talking about texts or emails, what if you simply don't reply until you're ready?

You wind up doing two things:

  1. You stop yourself from saying something in haste that you might regret later, and
  2. You push all of those insecurities about silence that we talked about back to the other party in your conversation.

If someone has to feel the need to fill the quiet, let it be someone other than you.

I assume, of course, that you're not a heart surgeon being called to an emergency operation, or a firefighter being called to rescue someone from a burning building. In those cases, you should probably reply more quickly.

Most of our lives don't often involve quite that level of urgency. Yet, we're an anxious society, and we've been conditioned to treat things that way.

So, don't. Instead, think tactical patience. Watch how much better your replies become, simply because you count the length of the pause before giving them.

2. Do you learn and practice casual phrases with precise, calculated meanings?

This is one of my favorite tricks for developing emotional intelligence. It involves doing a bit of homework ahead that can help you in common, repetitive situations that otherwise lead to miscommunication.

Your job here is to think of situations in which you've said something reflexively in the past that later made you cringe in retrospect. Then, calculate why the language you used fell short, and what other go-to phrase you could memorize to achieve a better result in the future.

That sounds so abstract, so let's use a specific example: The too-quick-to-apologize reflex, where people find themselves saying they're sorry for things that don't really require an apology.

Sometimes, they feel a bit weak afterward; sometimes they wind up emboldening people to ask for more from them in the future.

So, for this specific example, you might memorize a verbal switch: Replace "I'm sorry" in your reflexive vocabulary with, "Thanks for understanding."

  • Not: "I'm sorry, I can't do your work for you," but instead: "I can't do that. Thanks for understanding."
  • Not: "I'm sorry, I don't want to go on a date with you," but instead: "Thanks for asking, but I'm going to decline. Thank you for understanding."
  • Not: "I'm sorry, but we can't meet the price you're asking," but instead: "We're going to have to charge a little bit more. Thanks for understanding."

This is only one example, but it moves you away from unnecessary apologies, and replaces them with something that projects both control and gratitude. 

You can find a few other tactical examples here. The bottom line is: Make a habit of making these habits, and you'll go into conversations equipped with better language that triggers the emotional responses you want, instead of ones you don't want.

3. Do you use convergent responses?

I suspect some people will answer this question with another question: What the heck are convergent responses?

They're responses that suggest you're going to do the work required to truly understand what someone else thinks or feels--to travel toward them, in a manner of speaking.

Contrast them with parallel responses, which suggest subtly that because of experiences you've had in the past, you think that you already understand how they think or feel.

(Spoiler alert: Very often, parallel responses reveal a mirage; you only think you understand, because you wind up short-circuiting the effort to achieve understanding.)

Before this gets wildly esoteric, let's demonstrate a few examples. The first of each of these is the parallel response; the second is the convergent response:

  • "I know how you feel" versus "I'm listening, and I think I hear you saying [X]."
  • "Yes, I understand" versus "I would really like to understand."
  • "I'm right there with you" versus "Tell me how I can support you."

Or else, an example in context: Imagine a colleague confesses he or she had a very hard time during the pandemic.

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

You can find a few more examples here. The point is: True empathy is a sign of emotional intelligence, and it requires work.

Choosing the right words not only signals your intent to try to understand, but it sets you up practically to do so.

4. Can you tell the difference between your needs and other people's needs?

This one is right out of Sales 101, but it's also highly effective in non-sales situations. It has to do with figuring out how things look through other people's eyes and adjusting what you have to say so that it fits their needs, not yours (which in turn can lead them to a result that fits your needs).

Classic example -- one of my favorites. It might be a little bit dated, given current market conditions, but it's illustrative:

Suppose you're desperate to sell your house. A young couple comes to look at it, beautiful children in tow.

"You have such a beautiful family," you say to them. "This house would be perfect for your children as they grow. You're exactly the type of people I would feel proud to help have this house. I would love to find a way to make that happen."

Everything you said might be true -- but you smartly leave out the part about being desperate to sell. That would not have been a compelling argument; at best it would have signaled to the other side that you were in a weak negotiating position.

But here, by focusing on their needs -- both the practical need for a beautiful house, and the more subtle emotional need to be told that they're raising a beautiful familyy -- you incrementally increase the likelihood that they'll take an action that could get what you want: an offer on the house.

The point is to offer support, not to shift the conversation back to yourself. It's more effective, and it's much more emotionally intelligent.

5. Do you always have another question?

I once worked as the assistant to a top executive in his field. A reporter spent weeks trying to get an appointment to interview him.

When we finally found a mutually convenient 60 minutes, he showed up, but he ran out of questions and left after just half the time had expired.

I remember being aghast: You work this hard to get an interview, but you don't use all of your time? You can't think of one more thing to ask? 

The best stuff in interviews almost always comes at the end. You almost always find the most insightful, interesting things after you've already asked 20 or 30 questions. And I am confident that that rule applies in negotiations and professional interactions--probably personal conversations, too.

I'm pretty sure this is also why  studies show that negotiators who engage in small talk before getting to the substance of their negotiations are more likely to reach mutually acceptable agreements.

Asking questions exercises your emotional intelligence because it keeps conversations focused on the other people involved and signals interest. Frankly, it also reduces "bad opportunity cost"; if you're asking a question, you're probably not making any poorly thought-out assertions that you might later regret.

So, the shortcut: Count how many questions you ask in every conversation.

I'm not sure what the magic number is: Three questions? Eight questions? 10? But even making a habit of asking one or two extra questions will pay dividends. 

Bonus trick? If you catch yourself not paying close enough attention, or if you just can't think of what your next question should be, your go-to phrase is: "Tell me more." 

It's a magic statement: one that's actually a question, and that can be used in almost any situation.

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