Why You Can’t Get Emotional Intelligence From A Book

In the professional development world, sometimes Emotional Intelligence seems like that old cliche about the weather—everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

Or, as Muriel Magian Wilkins puts it in Signs That You Lack Emotional Intelligence in the Harvard Business Review: “In my ten years as an executive coach, I have never had someone raise his hand and declare that he needs to work on his emotional intelligence.” You can see it, everyone in the office can see it, but sadly, the person who most needs to develop Emotional Intelligence is often the one least able to see it—let alone do something about it.

If you’re thinking, “OMG, I totally relate! So-and-so in my office is exactly like that. He/She needs to work on Emotional Intelligence! They make my life hell!” I’d like to raise a red flag. Because blaming others for most of the issues you face at the office is one of the telltale signs that you need to work on your emotional intelligence. Wilkins offers a few more:

  • You often feel like others don’t get the point and it makes you impatient and frustrated.
  • You’re surprised when others are sensitive to your comments or jokes and you think they’re overreacting.
  • You think being liked at work is overrated.
  • You weigh in early with your assertions and defend them with rigor.
  • You hold others to the same high expectations you hold for yourself.
  • You find it annoying when others expect you to know how they feel.

Wait, doesn’t everyone think those things? Um, actually, no.

People with high Emotional Intelligence recognize how their emotions affect their performance and that of others. They are honest in their recognition of their own biases, strengths and weaknesses. They are able to keep disruptive emotions and impulses in check and persistent in pursuing goals despite obstacles and setbacks. They read other’s emotional currents. They are open to feedback and, crucially, able to maintain a sense of humor about themselves.

So, if that list of telltale signs left you with an uncomfortable feeling that maybe—just maybe—there’s work for you to do here, the way forward is to consider raising your hand and getting help.

By definition, Emotional Intelligence includes cluing in to and working with other people, especially their perceptions and experience of dealing with us. While self-reflection is part of the work, Emotional Intelligence isn’t something you can “do” just in your head or “get” just from a book.

At some point, as Marcia Reynolds points out in her book, The Discomfort Zone, “your brain will block and desensitize you to self-imposed exploration… For the same reason you can’t tickle yourself.” If you’ve ever wondered about this, there’s a rich rabbit hole of research that boils down to “you can’t surprise your own brain.” And, because we can’t surprise our own brains, we often miss things like the gap between what we mean to say and what others actually hear.

Muriel Magian Wilkins offers a few examples:

What you say: “I don’t see what the big deal is.”
What others hear: “I don’t really care how you feel.”

What you say: “If I can understand it, anyone can.”
What others hear: “You’re not smart enough to get this.

What you say: “At the end of the day, it’s all about getting the work done.”
What others hear: “All I care about is the results and if some are offended along the way, so be it.”

Can you see why actually doing something about Emotional Intelligence is going to require honest, caring and constructive feedback? And that you’re going to have to be in a place where you are willing and able to hear it, a place of openness, trust and vulnerability? As Marcia Reynolds puts it, “There needs to be a hole in the force field” that protects your sense of reality before you can explore, examine and change your beliefs and behaviour.

If and when you are ready, we can suggest a number of ways to begin working on your Emotional Intelligence, starting with effective techniques for self-assessment, and for seeking feedback from co-workers, friends and family (including 360-degree assessments).

Any hands up out there?



About Us

The WYSIWYG Co. is the coaching partnership of Caroline Sugarman and Aaron Sugarman. We are members of the International Coach Federation (ICF), with more than 30 years of combined coaching and consulting experience.

We work with individuals and organizations, through a mix of one-on-one coaching, workshops and group work that builds leadership and communication skills and improves team performance.

We support our work with assessments that generate insight, highlight strengths and areas for development, and help organizations make better hiring decisions.

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