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A conversation between two specialists about the practical relevance of
using emotional intelligence in difficult conversations at work,
and the risks of not using it 

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Summary

Phil & Alex Gould have a telephone conversation about emotional intelligence in the workplace.  They discuss what emotional intelligence is, the practical relevance of having emotional intelligence at work, how to talk about feels without sounding soft, what stops people feeling comfortable to talk about their feelings, and when it might be useful for you to be able to show some emotional intelligence at work. 

Discussion transcription

Alex:  Hello, my name’s Alex Gould.  Thanks for taking the time to listen to this episode of the “Skills with People” podcast from Gould Training. 

If you like the sound of what you hear and you think what we’re offering might be useful, interesting and relevant for you, or for someone you know you can find out more about the “skills with people” training course by visting our website.  Our website provides answers to many of the most frequently asked questions about the content and method of our course, and we’ll even offer you a free initial coaching session as a foretaste of what you can get on our training course.  How can you get that?  Simply contact us through the website for a preliminary chat and to arrange your free exploratory coaching session.  In this session we'll aim to give you something practical you can use right away that'll help you handle a difficult situation at work more successfully.  All you need do to prepare for this session is think about the kinds of situations you want to be able to handle more successfully.

In this episode we’ll be discussing the theory of emotional intelligence and how it relates to the kinds of difficult conversations we train people to handle more successfully. 

I’m here with Phil Gould on the other end of the phone, and rather than us talking about theoretical concepts or dry academic research what we’d like to do in this podcast is share with you some practical tips that you can use right away when handling difficult conversations.  Lets begin with the reason I think it might be helpful for us to discuss Emotional intelligence.   It’s really at the core of what we teach on our training course.  In fact it’s something you’ve been talking about, and teaching people to do long before the term emotional intelligence entered everyday language and became fashionable.

Phil:  Okay.

What is emotional intelligence? (2:09)

Alex:  I think lots of people are interested in emotional intelligence because I get asked questions about it, but I have the impression that not many people know a great deal about it, at least not in practical everyday terms.  They might have heard bits and pieces in general conversation but most of the time they have no clear idea how it can help them practically as they struggle to think about how to handle difficult conversations more smoothly and easily.  So lets begin with a definition, what is emotional intelligence?

Phil:  It’s a book title and a set of skills.  Daniel Goleman in his book called "Emotional Intelligence" defines emotional intelligence as a set of learnable skills, conversational skills.  The way you talk and listen to people.  It’s to do with being conscious your own and other people’s feelings, and being able to talk about your own and other people’s feelings.

The practical relevance of emotional intelligence in difficult conversations at work (3:15)

Alex:  What about the practical relevance of emotional intelligence, and specifically how it relates to training people to be more successful when handling difficult conversations, or crucial conversations at work?

Phil:  Yes, it’s a bit of jargon isn’t it – emotional intelligence.  I think emotional intelligence is to do with the kind of thing the mind is.  We’ve got our intellect, our mentality, our thoughts at one level.  We’ve also got our feelings, our emotions.  Emotional intelligence is really to do with the way in which our emotional responses to the detail of our lives, the things that happen to us … our emotions affect our ability to react and make decisions.  In fact it’s the relationship between emotion and reason.  I think it’s to do with that.  Emotional intelligence refers to the fact that if we are unconscious of our emotional responses, so that for example if something worries us, if an alarm bell is ringing within us, but we’re not aware that it is, then that energy that is taken up in that emotional response is going to actually effect the way we think, and what we do and what we decide.  So that the more conscious we are of what the stream of feelings is, the more choice we’ve got over what to say and what to do.

Alex:  So I guess what you’re saying is that because the emotions are going to be there all the time anyway, and they’re going to be effecting how we feel, they’re also going to be effecting what we think and how we behave particularly when handling difficult conversation, or thinking ahead and  worrying about how to have a crucial conversation.

Phil: I don’t know that the emotions are there all the time, but they’re there a lot of the time, and certainly at work when there’s risk involved in their decisions, or when there are conflicts of view about what the best way to do things is, it’s inevitable that there are strong feelings going on as well as all the facts.  If these emotions are suppressed, or buried, or out of sight then actually the outcome of that is not good as far as the business is concerned.  As far as being able to make successful decisions and connect effectively with people.

Why is it helpful to talk about feelings at work? (6:13)

Alex:  Yes, I think there is a tendency for some people (particularly the technically orientated) to favor being rational, and more logical as a way of making better decisions, and they believe there isn’t particularly room for emotion in business.  They want to be able to make good solid decisions based on evidence, where they can back it up, and it can stand up to scrutiny if they have to justify it to other people.  However, what you’re saying is that although they might be trying to be completely impartial and rational, it’s not possible for them to totally avoid being emotional once they are in the throws of handling difficult conversations, or even as they think about the possibility of engaging in a crucial conversation in they might need to have in the future.   

Phil:  Well, it’s even strong than that I think.  We have the expression “lets keep feelings out of this, let’s be rational”.  But actually the opposite takes place.  If we try to keep feelings out of this, the last thing that happens is rationality.  For example, if you’re frustrated, or worried about something but don’t want to show it, or even admit to yourself that you’re it, because you’re saying to yourself I’m going to stay cool and I’m going to be rational, actually the energy in the emotional response overwhelms the persons ability to think coolly and rationally, and actually what happens is if you try to hide or burry the feelings, you as they say are likely to be acting it out.  You’re not necessarily aware that that’s what’s happening, but the emotion that you’re trying to burry is actually running the show.  Therefore, how this is practical is that if you can find a way of admitting feelings, talking about feelings in the course of lets say a normal rather tense business discussion it actually acts as a sort of safety vent.  It releases the energy that’s normally tied up within the emotion, and it frees you up in order to be much more creative and much more rational.  Where as if your energy is tied up in suppressing the feeling, and therefore not talking about it, then that energy is diverted away from creatively addressing the business problem that you’re trying to address.

How can you talk about feelings without jeopardising your reputation? (8:44)

Alex:  I think it would be helpful to discuss how it can be acceptable for people to talk about feelings at work and get away with it.  One of the concerns some people ask me about is to do with them not knowing how to talk about emotions without running the risk that they might be seen as a bit soft, or a bit touchy-feely, or sticking out in some way because they are constantly going around asking people how they feel all the time.

Phil:  Yes that is the perception.  If you say “lets talk about feelings”, then something rather odd or artificial happens, but that isn’t really quite what we’re getting at is it?  Perhaps it would be helpful to have some little examples here.

Alex:  Yes, good idea.

A practical example:  why emotional intelligence training is useful (9:33)

Phil:  I remember some years back we were doing some training with the senior management team in a company, and this idea that they would be free to say how they feel came up, and we were encouraging them to that, and there was an accountant there.  We were suggesting to the accountant that instead of saying “It’s not going to work, in my opinion we oughtn’t to make this decision”, that was the normal way in which he talked in which he would give his opinion.  “We shouldn’t do this, we should do that”.  On the whole people weren’t taking much notice of him.  So then we said, well put it this way.  Can you say, if it’s true,

  • “I’m alarmed about the decision we’re talking about making here.  I’m alarmed about it because it will have this effect”. 

As soon as he started talking like that he noticed that people started taking him seriously.

Alex:  Yes it is interesting, I find that with people too.  This is a very potent and powerful way for them to communicate, especially when they’re handling difficult conversations.

Phil:  He was very surprised, and I think very encouraged, because it’s only speaking the truth after all.  But somehow it gave the facts he was trying to put across a dynamic.  It sort of grabbed people’s attention.  If you say to somebody,

  • “I’m not at all happy with this, if fact I’m very alarmed by the risk that we’ll be running if we go this way”

... then somehow it’s like … well it’s like sounding an alarm.  In effect that’s what the emotions are.  It’s an internal alarm system.

Alex:  People often say, “Lets stick to the facts” during a difficult conversation, but what we’re proposing here would be for them to use feelings as facts, wouldn’t it.

Phil:  Exactly.  And of course they’re one of the crucial facts that need to be communicated.  So in practical terms what we’re doing, we’re not giving people something soft to say.  These are wrongly called soft skills, because if you actually talk like this you don’t become soft, you actually become harder to resist, because if you say to somebody,

  • “What you’re saying worries me a great deal”

... and then you pause after saying it so that the words sink in, it’s very difficult for somebody not take you seriously when you talk like that.  They’re almost bound to say, “Why does it worry you so much”.

What stops people from talking about their feelings? (12:30)

It seems very common sense what we’re saying about this, but the trouble with common sense is that it’s not so common, and I think a lot of people have learnt to do something different.  Most of us at some point in our lives have learnt not to admit to, not to show, have learnt to suppress or hide our feelings.  We’ve leant that if we admit our own feelings or if we show too much interest in other people’s feelings then that tends to get us into trouble.  Or people will see it as a weakness and take advantage of it, so we’ve leant some rather odd lessons about spontaneously communicating about emotions.  We’ve learnt that emotions are difficult things to talk about.  So what we’re offering in our training is a safe and comfortable way of making somebody realize why something matters to me so much, and also paying attention to why somebody else is bothered about something. 

It’s learning to bring that kind of language into a conversation without making a big meal of it, just in a natural way bringing it into a conversation it makes everything so much easier to handle if the feelings are allowed to come to the surface but in a safe way, rather than trying to burry them. 

Who should attend emotional intelligence training? (14:04)

Alex:  Okay, so lets talk about who might use these skills.  I mean from time to time all of us have to handle difficult conversations and it’s no going to work for people to put off a crucial conversation just because it’s difficult and people don’t know what to say, surely they might be useful skills for everybody to develop.

Phil:  Well, and I suppose another similar question is when do you need it and when don’t you need it?  When does it help to use or display emotional intelligence?  When is it necessary to?  I suppose the answer to that is, a lot of the time it’s not.  It’s helpful when there’s tension, when you’re under pressure, when without emotional intelligence misunderstandings are likely to occur.  Misunderstandings tend to occur when people are in conflict about the way they see a situation, about what they think the right way to act is.  When feelings are aroused, unless emotional intelligence is used the conversation tends to deteriorate into conflict and misunderstanding.  The way we coach people to be emotionally intelligent is in a way that helps them to minimize the chances of misunderstanding and maximize the chances of a win and win solution to whatever problem is being discussed.

Why emotional intelligence isn't easy (15:50)

Alex:  So there we are. The reason why most people find handling difficult conversations challenging is precisely because emotions are aroused, both in you and the person you’re talking with.  Well with training, practice and feedback in the skills of emotional intelligence so you can handle difficult conversations with more confidence.  What kinds of conversations do we have in mind?  The applications at work are pretty broad and varied and the skills of Emotional intelligence skills help you achieve more successfully?  With the help, practice and support of an expert coaching you’ll be better able to more confidently manage a whole range of endevours.  

Common examples of training needs we teach people to handle with confidence (16:22)

Here’s a list of the most common examples we’ve helped managers and professional people develop over the years.  I wonder how many of these might resonate with you?

  • Encouraging people to co-operate,
  • Handling difficult people,
  • calming people down when they’re being upperty,
  • negotiating more strongly without being arrogant, 
  • resolving disagreements and conflict by showing respect,
  • confidently broaching difficult subjects and conversations,
  • standing up for yourself without causing a fight,
  • disagreeing with someone without offending them,
  • saying "no" without getting into trouble,
  • being firm but also kind – "tough on the issue but soft on the person",
  • giving really bad news without appearing like you don’t care,
  • giving proper heart-felt praise without making it look like you’re just going through the motions,
  • criticising people without making them feel insulted,
  • responding to criticism with more grace,
  • mentoring, appraising and coaching others more helpfully,
  • managing the kinds of resistance and negativity common to many meeting at work with both confidence and grace when under pressure.

Do any of these remind you of anyone you know?  If so, we’d be delighted to help.

I hope you enjoyed the podcast.  To find out more about the “Skills with People” training course, and how you can arrange to have a free initial coaching session to the contact us page.

We love helping you communicate successfully

By giving you communication skills that'll transform even your most challenging relationships and interactions.

That's the purpose of Skills with People, our training course for managers and professional people at all levels. Thousands have benefited from this course.

Video Introduction

What People Have Said About The Course

Feedback from participant's boss - a Johnson & Johnson marketing director

She has become increasingly aware and focussed on ensuring she is gaining cooperation from colleagues by the way she approaches situations. E.g., Meet ...

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Fundraising Officer, United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)

A very intimate training which will make anyone reflect on how best to engage with colleagues when confronted with difficult situations.

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Now he actively listens, probes, asks for clarifications and does not assume anymore he knows the answer.

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Workshop Manager, Professional Plant Services

I now find it easier to have awkward conversations. (As a result of how he has changed several more people from his company are asking to attend the c ...

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Feedback from participant's boss - A Philips Semiconductors director

To what extend do I think his training need has been satisfied? Completely. I have been approached by 4 peers to tell me that they could see a very po ...

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Golf Club Manager

Ten out of ten for the course for me personally. I think I would have resigned if it hadn't been for the course.

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Leisure Centre Manager

The most useful part of the course was learning how to convey my disappointment with a member of staff without demotivating them, without making them ...

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The wife of a participant

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National Training Index* report on the course

"From delegates reports we have identified Skills with People is a 'highspot' among UK business courses. Delegates mentioned as most helpful the enha ...

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Theatre Manager

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EHS advisor (environmental health and safety), Johnson Matthey

This is the best non-techincal course the company has ever put me on because it's the most useful. 

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Feedback from participant's boss - a Kimberley-Clark marketing director

He is now aware of his need to control his direct approach. He was sometimes too assertive. I think he is now well balanced in this respect.

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Feedback from participant's boss - a Prudential director

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I can't recommend this course enough. It has genuinely been the most impactful course I have ever completed. Understanding that I can be assertive w ...

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Feedback from participant's boss - head of projects in Heinz

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Project Quality Engineer (self funding)

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Senior Resource Consultant, Shell International

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Feedback from participant's boss - a Johnson & Johnson finance director

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Feedback from participant's boss - a Billiton director

He's obviously making a positive effort and it does show. People used to be scared of him. No longer.

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Feedback from participant's boss - a Johnson Matthey Catalysts (Germany) senior manager

There has been a noticeable improvement in the performance of this customer service engineer. He is much more succinct now than he was before. He was ...

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