Emotional intelligence at work isn't just about being nice to people or considering their feelings.

Instead, emotional intelligence is about being in control of what you say--so that your words work in your favor. Ultimately, it's also about creating conditions where colleagues and other stakeholders are more likely to want to help you achieve your goals.

One of the most effective ways to improve your emotional intelligence is to keep track of the words and phrases that you use.

Here are some of the classic, worst, low-emotional intelligence phrases people can use -- the ones that ultimately get in the way of their own success, and their colleagues'. 

1.    "Not my job"

I used to work as a lawyer for the IRS. (There, I said it.) 

I had some wonderful colleagues. But, there were also a small minority of workers who embodied the worst stereotypes of unmotivated government drones. 

There were the ones who would refuse to contribute to things that weren't squarely within their job descriptions. In fact, they used an even more grating phrase than "not my job" -- "not my function."

It can be smart to establish legitimate boundaries at work, no question.

But, a phrase like this doesn't communicate "I'd love to help but I'm working on this other equally critical part of our job."

Instead, it says: "Tough luck, buddy. You're on your own."

You can imagine how that will likely to prompt other people to react. 

2.    "It's our policy"

I'm a "recovering attorney," as I like to say, but I still sometimes look at things through the eyes of a lawyer.

One example is when I automatically rank sources of law according to their importance. It goes like this:

  • Natural law. Theoretical, but it underpins a lot of our legal system
  • Constitutional law
  • Common law
  • Statutes
  • Regulations

Way down at the bottom, more or less tied with "because I said so," you have "policies."

Sometimes you can get away with pointing to your policy. Usually, this is when there's an imbalance of power between your organization and the stakeholder against whom you're enforcing the policy. 

In other words, it's when you don't really need to care about how your words affect the person you're dealing with, whether customer or colleague--there's nothing they can do about it.

But, if you're in Department A, and an employee from Department B wants you to do something that makes a lot of sense and will ultimately enable your company to achieve its overall goals, then relying on "it's our policy" is pretty silly.

It ultimately says: I don't care what you want to achieve. I don't care how it will help our company. I only care about how it will affect my short-term workflow.

It also says: "I have almost zero emotional intelligence."

3.    "I do apologize"

Apologies, when warranted and articulated well, are wonderful tools of emotional intelligence. They're a voluntary, verbal equalizing. 

You realize you've done X, and it's caused harm. 

So, you take steps to bridge the gap. You spend some small amount of social or emotional capital in order to make the other person whole.

You put yourself in the other person's shoes, imagine how they felt, and try to fix it. When it's done well, it's beautiful.

But we all know that there are also such thing as "fake apologies." 

And that's why "I do apologize" is the least-effective deescalation phrase possible. It's the emphasis on the word "do" that makes it seem remote, emotionless, and insincere.

Right up there with: "I'm sorry you were offended."

4.    "Nothing I can do"

There is always something you can do, whether it's on behalf of a colleague, or a customer, or another stakeholder.

You can make an exception to policy (see above). And if you can't do that, you can advocate for them.

At the least, you can try to empathize, and see if you can't find a way around their challenges.

Let's put "nothing I can do" through the corporate speak translator.

You're basically saying, "It's not that I can't help you. It's that I don't want to."

5.    "I don't like conflict"

It's fine to sidestep needless conflict. 

It's smart to avoid fights just for the sake of fighting, or to scratch some narcissistic itch.

But it's another thing entirely to say you don't like conflict as a way of avoiding a colleague or a customer's legitimate need.

In the end, this is just about putting yourself in the other person's shoes, and asking whether what they'll hear from you makes it more or less likely you'll get what you want in the long run.

Colleague objects to your decision, and you avoid their complaint? It's less likely they'll want to help you the next time you have an issue.

But if your response to that colleague is more along the lines of trying to find a solution -- even if you're ultimately not successful -- you might well recruit a professional ally for life.

Got others to add to this? Let us know in the comments.