Emotional intelligence has become more and more widely accepted and valued as critical for sustainable leadership and business success. Even hard driving companies who have traditionally been all about the bottom line and nothing else are starting to embrace it.

Depending on who you talk to, it is often defined with various nuances. For some, it is about valuing the relationship more than your personal ego, as recently demonstrated by Uber CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi. For others, it is about the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and identify with their needs, even if they are a direct competitor.

At it's most basic level, emotional intelligence is about the ability to identify emotions in others, recognize the impacts, and use that to inform and guide your own behavior.

In many examples of emotional intelligence, we talk about how a person said what they said. We also often site examples related to what they said, their choice of words articulating something that resonated because of their ability to "read the room."

In my work coaching leaders, we spend a lot of time working on those things.

What about not saying anything at all?   

In addition to coaching leaders about what they say and how they say it, we also spend a lot of time talking about not talking. That might sound strange when thinking about emotional intelligence, which almost always revolves around finding ways to connect with someone else based on the ques they are giving. It might seem like it would be hard to connect if you don't say anything.

In reality, though, knowing when to talk and when to shut up might just be one of the most important ways to demonstrate emotional intelligence and actually connect with others.

A real example

I got a call to work with a leader who had been with her new company for six months as a member of the Executive Leadership Team. The first three months had not gone incredibly well. When I met her, I found her to be very similar to many other leaders I work with and coach - really smart, knew her stuff, had a lot to offer based on some great previous experience, and genuinely cared about the success of the company.

She was very like-able and credible in her field.

She also suffered from the need to tell people about all of this great stuff and show that she was adding value through what she said.

For her, that simply translated into talking too much, especially in those conversations where she was truly passionate about the subject. It wasn't as though she was saying bad things, making others feel stupid, or talking down to people. Those are the more obvious emotional intelligence violations.

She was simply not recognizing that even if she wanted to say something, she may not have needed to say something. As a result, others were feeling as though she didn't listen to their perspectives enough, which was resulting in strained relationships. The solution was not quite as basic as just needing to listen better.

The power of any of our voices is limited. Use it wisely.

No matter how smart any of us are, each of our voices as leaders carries with it a limited window of time before people get tired of hearing it. After we reach that threshold, people start to tune out. It's not that they don't like us. They just get fatigued from hearing us.

What does that have to do with emotional intelligence?

Once you know that your voice has a limited lifespan to reach people, you can then make a conscious decision about when to use it and when to save it. In other words, it is about choosing to use your voice for the highest impact things and leaving it out of the things that might not matter as much.

It's a harder thing to do than you might think.

One of the things I talked about with this leader was how she was essentially wasting her voice on unimportant things. When she then needed to use her voice for something really important, people had already gotten fatigued from her voice being used on everything else and weren't listening any more.

She could control this by simply evaluating how important it was to use one of her voice chips in any given conversation or whether she should save it.

She tried it for a few weeks with noticeable impact. To do it, we talked about her needing a constant trigger reminder in her head forcing her to think about whether to use or save her voice for every conversation. This actually forced her to listen more and evaluate whether her voice made an important contribution or whether it wasn't necessary.

In just two weeks, she joked with me that she was talking about 50% less, which felt really strange to her, but ironically feeling like she was being listened to a lot more.

That might just be the emotional intelligence she was looking for.