Emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) is marked by a person's ability to recognize and understand emotions (both his or her own and those of others), and to use that information to guide decision making. It includes demonstrating extremely complex qualities such as empathy, sympathy, and compassion. 

Of course, these qualities help us to be better people. But they can also help you break your worst communication habits, so that others receive your message in the best way possible.

For example, have you said something recently that you wish you could take back? For years, I struggled with the weakness of speaking too quickly, without thinking things through.

Curbing that tendency is easier said than done, but there's a quick "three question method" that can prevent you from saying something you'll later regret.

The 3 Vital Questions

I discovered this brilliant strategy through an unlikely source. I was watching an interview with comedian and television personality Craig Ferguson, when he gave some very sage advice:

There are three things you must always ask yourself before you say anything.

  • Does this need to be said?
  • Does this need to be said by me?
  • Does this need to be said by me now?

Ferguson says it took him three marriages to learn that lesson.

Before you dismiss this method as simplistic, think about how many antagonistic comments this would eliminate from social media. Or, we can take it a step further and consider how it might apply at work:

Let's say you're a manager, and you've been working hard to improve the relationships with certain individuals on your team. One day, you witness someone doing something great at work, and you take advantage of the opportunity to commend them. Great job! (Sincere, authentic, and timely praise goes a long way in motivating employees.)

But suddenly, you remember how they messed something up a few weeks ago. "I should bring that to their attention, too," you reason. "Let me tell them before I forget..."

No! Stop! Ask yourself:

Does this need to be said?

Does it need to be said by me?

Does it need to be said by me now?

True, constructive criticism is best delivered soon after a mistake. But you've already missed that boat. If you give that negative feedback now, it will completely destroy whatever goodwill you built with your praise and commendation. The person will think:

"So, essentially you just told me something nice to soften the blow of what you really wanted to say. Jerk."

When you ask yourself the three questions, you'll probably conclude one of the following:

  • You know, the criticism I wanted to share wasn't so important after all. My opinion may even be changing on this.
  • It might be better if I speak to their team leader first. Maybe what I saw a few weeks ago wasn't really the whole picture.
  • I definitely still need to talk to them about the problem I saw. But now's not the right time. Let me set a reminder to schedule an appointment with the person after I'm better prepared.

See how well it works?

This is just one scenario, but practicing these three questions will help you in various situations. Imagine if everyone did it: We would see far fewer (and shorter) emails, shorter meetings, and fewer employee complaints about others' inappropriate remarks...and yes, maybe even a few saved romances.

Keeping It Balanced

Of course, I'm not discouraging speaking up when appropriate. I strongly believe in honest and direct communication, and there are times when the answer to all three questions will be a resounding yes--even when what we need to say isn't comfortable for us or the recipient. 

When those times come, the three question method will help you speak with confidence--and learn to be assertive when it counts.

Great Leaders Have Emotional Intelligence
Published on: Dec 10, 2015