Today I'm going to share with you a really neat trick that will improve your life.

It's worked for me, anyway. And it has to do with listening multidimensionally to what other people say, and thus being very tuned in to decipher their motivations.

Frankly, you'll probably understand their motives better than they do much of the time.

The trick has to do with emotional intelligence.

Actually, it's more like almost a double-secret, jiujitsu version of emotional intelligence -- sharpening your perception in order to detect the level of another person's emotional intelligence, and then use all of that to increase your understanding.

I know, it sounds a bit out there. So let's go quickly to the practical application, which is about listening for certain kinds of toxic phrases and verbal tics that people with very low emotional intelligence are prone to use. 

The following examples will illustrate intuitively what we're looking for. Then we'll unpack what's going on, and explain what it tells you about them.

Toxic phrase No. 1: "I know how you feel."

Imagine a scenario. You're explaining a difficulty or a challenge that you're facing to a co-worker. Perhaps you need him or her to offer advice. Perhaps you need him or her simply to understand.

Maybe you just want to vent.

But having described the situation to someone you think is receptive, he or she responds with a five-word reply: "I know how you feel."

Maybe he or she leaves it right there. Or maybe he or she starts to tell their own story, something that might or might not really have any relevance to what you've been explaining.

You start to ask yourself: Was I boring him or her? Was I going on too long? 

Are we talking about you, now?

Hold that thought.

Toxic phrase No. 2: "Can't you just ... ?"

This is one of my favorites. Imagine once again you're describing a situation, or telling a story.

Like all good stories, there's conflict. There's something that the protagonist has to overcome -- whether the protagonist is you, sharing a challenge you're facing, or another person.

So you might say, "I'm so exhausted at night coming home, making dinner for my kids, getting the baby to bed." And comes the response: "Can't you just get your husband to make dinner, instead?"

"My employees are upset because nobody wants to work on the weekend."
"But can't you just tell them this is the deal, and if they don't like it, find another job?"

"I've tried so hard for so long to lose these last 10 pounds, but nothing works."
"Can't you just cut out more carbs during the day, and stop eating after sundown?"

You say to yourself: If I could "just" do it, I probably would. Don't you think?

One more.

Toxic phrase No. 3: "How are you doing--good?"

Wait, you might ask. How can asking someone how they're doing be a toxic phrase?

And what can it tell us about emotional intelligence?

Frankly, the first four words of this five-word question aren't that bad. It's the "good" to be on the lookout for, at the end.

It seems so empathetic, right up until the person asking you the question provides the acceptable answer. It's about what they want to hear, not the truth you want to give.

"Objection!" you could call out if you were a lawyer in a courtroom. "Leading the witness!"

Only you're not, so you can't.

But here's what you can do instead.

It's not me--it's you

I must admit, I've been fascinated by these questions of emotional intelligence.

I've written about them before, largely from the point of view of suggesting verbal pitfalls to avoid, so that you can develop and exhibit greater emotional intelligence.

But a few weeks ago, I read an article about how to give good advice, and I realized that it also offered insights into how to judge the advice other people give you.

The short version is simply to keep track of how many questions they ask you during the course of the conversation.

If they spend much of the time probing you, pushing you, asking questions, clearly trying to understand your situation, that's a good sign.

If they quickly indicate, either explicitly or implicitly, "I've heard enough--here's what you should do," that's a bad sign.

But we're not always looking for advice. Sometimes, we're looking for something else.

Shift versus support

None of this is original to me. Well, maybe some of the application, but when I talk about emotional intelligence, I like to give credit to two sources: my colleague Justin Bariso's book EQ Applied and the work of sociologists like Charles Derber.

Because when you start looking at the world through the prism I've gleaned from their work, the insights come fast and furious.

In short, there are two ways people can respond to others in a conversation. They can support the other person, by keeping the focus of the conversation on them, or they can shift the conversation, putting the focus on themselves.

By and large, people exhibiting high emotional intelligence will often use support responses. People exhibiting low emotional intelligence will often use shift responses.

So think back to those examples above:

  • "I know how you feel." Quickly, we shift from your explanation of challenges or feelings, to the other person's purported understanding of those feelings. (As an important aside, it's very difficult ever to truly know how someone else feels.)
  • "Can't you just ... ?" I like to think of this as the "silver bullet" shift response; the idea that whatever challenge you're facing is truly simple to solve, if only you'd apply the other person's instant solution. (Credit for flagging this phrase, which has stuck with me for years, goes to Leigh Anderson.)
  • "How are you doing--good?" We haven't even finished the sentence, before the speaker shifts the focus from your current state, to his or her preferred answer. 

Now you understand

None of us are perfect. None of us exhibit high emotional intelligence all the time, any more than any one of us flawlessly exhibits high cognitive intelligence or perfect memory all the time.

But this goes both ways -- weighing and considering your own imperfections, as many of us do, but also just considering whether the other people you're talking with simply don't have the self-awareness or level of emotional intelligence to be able to understand.

I mean, I'm a lawyer. But I can't imagine that I'd ask my preschool aged daughter to help me think through a legal argument.

She's very smart and I love her, and I'm sure someday when she's grown up, she'll be able to debate me under the table. But right now? She just wouldn't be equipped.

This isn't a moral judgment; it would just be silly for me to try.

The same thing applies when you're on the lookout for other people's emotional intelligence, and simply tracking whether their interactions indicate shift or support.

And that's why it can be so liberating to realize, by looking out for these conversational clues, that it's not that you were being boring, necessarily, or missing an answer that other person thinks would be "just" so easy.

Instead, the other person might simply not be emotionally intelligent enough to recognize the difference between shifting and supporting.

And because you're now paying attention to your language, and applying this simple observational trick, you understand completely.