How to build emotional intelligence while you listen (Jan. 8, 2020 issue)

Hi friends,

Happy New Year. This week I offer you two tasty and healthy conversational dishes. 

Build emotional intelligence while you listen

Master difficult conversations

Learn my best tips for staying cool under pressure and elevating your leadership in complex times.


“I want to be more emotionally intelligent so I can listen better.”

—Every person who has ever taken a class on the topic

This is backwards. Don’t confuse emotional intelligence for a car you build in the factory and then ship to customers. It isn’t something you carry, fully designed and with a sparkling paint job, into conversation.  Emotional intelligence grows through conversation. You become emotionally intelligent by practicing listening in a real interaction with another human being. There are a lot of ways to do this. 

But before you can practice, you have to get over the fallacy of fakery. The same people who tell you to listen better also have a radar for inauthenticity. This helps prevent bona fide Fakers from manipulating others. But you’re not a Faker. You’re a beginner. What beginners do is practice. It’s awkward. It’s difficult. But you do it to get better.

Start improving your listening by using what I call the on-the-job practice cycle. First you prepare yourself for the conversation (what kind of conversation will this be? What will I be listening for? What could distract me?). Then, while having the conversation, you “go to the balcony” and watch yourself down on stage (How’s my listening now? Is my mind replaying old tapes?) Afterward, you reflect on the conversation (When did I listen well? When did I get distracted?) and perhaps get feedback from others.

Why aren’t we better at listening? The answer is that we forget to practice it. Luckily, every conversation offers you this opportunity. 

Reading history and talking about the future

In a democracy, as in organizations, the future matters yet gets squeezed out by trivial matters. Firefighting substitutes for imagining tomorrow. 

This is why I read history. It reminds me that our lives exist in time, nothing is inevitable, and civilizations and organizations are fragile. In short: choices matter. 

For example, the supremacy of the iPhone wasn’t divinely ordained. Its rise partly stemmed from the fall of the Blackberry, a story not only of technology but also of leadership and interpersonal dynamics. 

Consider, too, the political (and cultural, and climate, and leadership, and foreign policy, and…) crises we face in my country, the United States. We can’t get out of them by merely resisting, nor by burying our heads in the sand or throwing up our hands in confusion. We need conversations about the future, particularly focused on what’s possible. Otherwise, we end up caught in what Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls the “politics of eternity,” where demagogues rule, private life shrinks, and you lose your freedom strut. (The freedom strut is a term I just invented for how you walk when you aren’t worried someone is going to report you to the authorities. It’s a privilege much of the world doesn’t have.)

At recent holiday parties, I asked people two questions: What will you do if Mr. Trump wins? What will you do if he loses? Nobody had much to say about either scenario. But this is the type of imagining that in our politics and organizations we need more, not less, of.

Such is the irony of history. It’s about the past, but it reminds us to have conversations about the future. This is why I just finished my third reading of Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder and am now immersed in Marci Shore’s The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

Did I mention that possibility conversations are useful in every area of your life, that you can develop this skill through deliberate practice? I’ll read the history if you do the practice. Deal?

Cheerfully real,
Amiel Handelsman
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