When it comes to building strong, lasting relationships with clients and team members, it's time to start thinking like CEOs but under a different definition: Chief Emotional Officers. 

We business leaders are often trained to focus on data, numbers, and "hard skills." As leaders, we must equally engage our other skill sets, to focus on the skills of emotional sensitivity and empathy. It's these "soft skills" that are crucial to cultivating psychological safety -- the sense of trust and well-being that helps teams thrive. 

These skills can't run on autopilot. They require self-awareness and intentionality.

I've developed a model that can help leaders build these skills: the AAA Model for Cultural Agility. It consists of three steps: aware, acquire, and adapt.

  • Aware. Reflect on your own state of mind, biases, and assumptions.
  • Acquire. Ask questions. Explore and engage with others. The information you gather should help you to understand where others are coming from. 
  • Adapt. Bridge the difference by adapting new behaviors and mindset. 

Here are two situations that called for emotional sensitivity, and how the AAA model helped these leaders achieve it.

A surprising comment 

I recently worked with an executive team of people from six countries, including a new member, Amy. When the team met for dinner, Amy, who is Asian, commented on the appearance of Bob, who is American. "You are gaining weight," she noted, later adding, "You are old." 

Bob responded with humor, asking, "Are you calling me old and fat?" But the rest of the team was uncomfortable. 

When I began coaching the team on a variety of cross-cultural issues, this event came up. Together, we applied the AAA model.

First, what are the assumptions in play? In Western culture, it's considered disrespectful, rude, and insulting to comment on someone's age or appearance. 

Second, what information can be acquired to help us understand the situation more deeply? At the time, no one asked Amy why she made those comments. They assumed she was rude and insensitive, but didn't seek to understand her frame of reference.

She explained, "In Asian culture, we respect seniority. We believe that when you get older, you are wiser. When you compliment someone more senior, it is a sign of respect and admiration. That's the reason I said he's old -- because he's a wise leader."

In regards to the comment about weight, she said, "When we say someone is gaining weight, we mean they look healthy. It's a way to say, 'I noticed you are eating well and sleeping well. I care about you and I am paying attention.'" The team now understood she was coming from a place of positivity and good intentions. 

Finally, the team adapted. The Western members became more aware of the cultural differences in their team and no longer rushed to make assumptions. Amy, aware of the possibility for different cultural interpretations, realized she must adapt her behavior in global environments. 

By going through this exercise, the team raised awareness, acquired new knowledge, and very quickly adapted their behaviors, resulting in fewer misunderstandings -- and many good laughs. 

An accidental interruption 

In this example, I adapted the AAA model to understand and repair a misunderstanding.

While leading a seminar for a multinational company, I asked the group a question and called on a manager, who was Korean, to answer. He spoke for a minute or two. When he paused for a few seconds, I assumed he had finished and moved on to the next person. 

I was wrong. During the break, another participant approached me and told me that the manager was furious that I had cut him off. He was so angry he was leaving the seminar.

I used the AAA model to work through the situation.

First, I questioned my awareness. After years of living and working in the U.S., I was accustomed to people speaking quickly, with few pauses. My assumption was that the manager was done speaking, but that assumption was wrong. I simply had very little awareness. 

The other participant helped me acquire information about the manager's perspective, but I went directly to him for more. His face reddening, he told me that my insensitive interruption was a gesture of disrespect that caused him to lose face. 

I told him I understood why he felt that way, and that I deeply regretted offending him. I vowed to never repeat my mistake, and asked him to please stay and continue to contribute to the seminar. He agreed. 

I adapted my behavior, waiting patiently through his -- and others' -- pauses in conversation. He turned out to be an enthusiastic contributor for the rest of the conference, and, in the end, gave the event an excellent evaluation.

We can all be Chief Emotional Officers. It just takes daily intention and practice. Remember "AAA" -- aware, acquire, adapt -- and the title can be yours.