I've written a lot recently about  simple techniques to improve emotional intelligence, some of which you can find in my free e-book, aptly named Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021 (download here).

But a reader recently reminded me of a brilliantly simple way to explain the whole strategy -- something I've written about before in a different context, without even realizing how apt it was.

Maybe we should explain the problem first, so the simple solution will make the most sense. It goes like this. Defining emotional intelligence can be complex, but practically speaking, it's often about shaping communication so as to avoid emotional pitfalls that distract from your goals. 

The challenge? So many words and phrases have ancillary meanings that we don't even think about. Sometimes they're the exact opposite of the things we intend. 

An example I've dissected before: "I know how you feel" or "I understand completely." 

People use these phrases to convey empathy, but they can convey the opposite meaning, unintentionally -- especially if the person you're communicating with thinks the thing they've been trying to express is complex. 

The phrase "I know how you feel" can wind up conveying, "I'm too impatient to try to understand, so I'll just assume I do."

Frustratingly, this unintended message can come through even when you actually do understand!

Another example. We hear this all the time: "How you doing--good?"

With the first three words, you suggest you're interested in the details of someone's life. The comes the final word, with which you suggest there's only one appropriate answer, and you convey the exact opposite level of interest suggested by your original message. 

Maybe you're truly interested? Maybe you're just using this phrase as a greeting? I don't know, and neither, often, does the person you're talking with.

Sometimes, these things don't matter. But, if you want to improve emotional intelligence and avoid creating these little conversational road bumps, maybe it's worth thinking about.

With that, allow me to introduce (drum roll please): the laundry basket rule.

The laundry basket rule is a simple linguistic practice. It involves compiling a list of go-to phrases and putting them through a linguistic washing machine (a metaphor obviously) to make sure they actually mean what you think they mean.

Then, you neatly fold the ones that work for you (again, metaphorically) in a small laundry basket. And you try to use these comfortable phrases over and over and over.

The things that don't fit? The ones that you realize have ancillary meanings that distract from your intended conversational goals? Those go in that bag over there, to be donated to Goodwill. Or posted on your town's Facebook group. Go full Marie Kondo on them.

I'll give you a personal example. If you and I ever have a conversation, and you're explaining something to me, and we reach a natural point at which it seems it's my turn to talk, but I don't have a fully formed reaction yet, I'm likely to reach down to my metaphorical laundry basket and use this phrase: "Say a little more."

Why? Because I know what this phrase does. I've thought it through. It conveys interest, without actually committing me to being interested. It's open-ended, and lets you, as the other person in the conversation, take things where you think they need to go. 

Right now, that's what I want. I want you to lead, so I can learn more. It lets me get in, get out, and turn things back over to you.

Things I'm less likely to say, assuming I'm on top of my game (and assuming I don't want to end the conversation):

  • "That reminds me ..."
  • "That's really interesting."
  • "I'm sorry, I interrupted you."

That last one used to be in my metaphorical laundry basket, by the way. But I realized that it conveyed an unintentional message suggesting that I wanted to interrupt the other person. So now it's off to Goodwill, so to speak, at least for this context.

I suppose some people who have a more organized bedroom than I do might be tempted to call this the "chest of drawers technique" or the "well-arranged closet trick."

However, I like the idea of a metaphorical laundry basket, because I want this list of go-to phrases to be small, easily accessible, and comfortable, tried and true.

Plus, I got the metaphorical idea from looking at my own laundry basket, which is usually filled with blue T-shirts and jeans--the things I wear over and over again, because I know what they look like and I know that they won't unintentionally distract.

(Hat tip to my dad for giving me this "wear the same thing every day" advice long ago when I started working. It took me only about 10 years to adopt it. I wrote about it here.)

So, how do you unpack the words and phrases that you use, to figure out whether they're having unintentional consequences? How do you know which ones should stay in your metaphorical laundry basket? 

First, I'll bet that now that we've been thinking about this idea together, you'll start noticing the additional unintended messages more, if you haven't already.

Second, it's an ongoing process -- again, with some specific examples that I cover in my continually updated (free) e-book. But ultimately, it's your process.

Bottom line, I suppose: Spring is here (at least for my readers in the northern hemisphere). What better time to clean out your linguistic closet?