My colleague here at Inc. wrote a book recently about emotional intelligence and empathy. It's a great read and he makes some valid points. The last thing I want to do as we say goodbye to the last decade is to diss a wonderful book, and I'm not about to do that.

At the same time, I do want to take issue with the word "empathy" and by extension the idea of emotional intelligence. This isn't a comment about the book but about the entire concept of empathy and what it means in terms of business and life.

Over the last 10 years, the concept of understanding not just the feelings of others but also your own feelings came into vogue. It's a journey I took myself over the last 10 years raising my kids and seeing how emotional intelligence plays such an important role. Before making any decision or acting on impulse, it's important to understand body language, the emotional resonance of other people, and your own deep-seated feelings.

I didn't always have a high degree of empathy. In my corporate career, I was a bit cutthroat in my attitude and outlook, the typical "ladder-climbing drone" who failed to really understand what true leadership is all about.

Recently, from about 2016 to this last fall of 2019, I mentored students at a local college, teaching some of them how to research, interview, and write articles. 

During that time, I led with empathy in the sense that I was always clued into the motivations and feelings of others. It wasn't about me, it was about them. It was my lightning rod. I learned how to set aside my own aspirations for success. Ironically, by reading and understanding my own emotional intelligence and the EQ of others, the entire mentoring process ran much smoother and led to greater success. I don't plan to ever lead anything again without this level of EQ playing a central role. It's a gamechanger.

And that's all good, right? End of the story?

I don't think it is. There's a nagging problem.

I don't think understanding EQ is enough. 

Emotional intelligence and empathy were buzzwords over the last decade, and I agree the idea of reading the undercurrents of emotions in any business relationship (and in life) is incredibly important. It makes us much smarter emotionally. Of course, some writers took the next step and explained how understanding our emotions is important but also showed us how this analysis phase should lead to action as well. However, my sense is that "understanding feelings" in business became the beginning, middle, and end of the topic, regardless of how the purveyors of this ideology intended people to understand it.

That's a shame. It's my view that understanding emotional intelligence and how it impacts business and life was a good start. However, it's the actions that result from emotional intelligence that will be even more important in 2020 and into the next decade.

EQ makes us smarter and wiser on an emotional level, but it's not enough.  

In case you haven't noticed, there's a political storm brewing in the U.S. this coming year. While EQ and empathy were buzzwords, I don't think they helped dictate our actions. Just one peek at social media and how it's become a raging firestorm of constant criticism and you can see how people nodded in agreement about EQ and then forgot all about it.

That's why I'd pick the word "kindness" as a better buzzword for 2020 and beyond. It's a reminder about the action component of empathy, and that having a viewpoint and a feeling is one thing, but the way that manifests into action is even more critical.

Without the act of kindness, empathy is nothing more than a concept and a nice way to view the world.

EQ makes us smarter, but kindness changes the world.

EQ teaches us about feelings, but kindness is how we act on those feelings.

EQ helps us tap into inner motivations, but kindness is the end result.

EQ is a scientific understanding and pursuit, but kindness is how real change happens.

The more we understand emotions, the more we tune into feelings, the better we can act. And those EQ-inspired actions are what's been missing over the last decade.

Can it actually work? That's a good question, especially in a business context. My view is that when empathy is linked to action it becomes unbeatable--and that customers will respond to that. It will be a major differentiator. It's hard to ignore, especially as everyone is nodding in agreement about empathy and acting like it doesn't exist.

I'd love to see your view on this topic, and how kindness can become a better way to build a business in 2020 (and a better way to live your life in general). Those who practice empathy and channel emotions into well-intentioned actions will win the next decade. Share your viewpoints on my Twitter feed or feel free to email me directly.