Markers of emotional intelligence (and health)

Photo by  Alex Blăjan

Photo by Alex Blăjan


Coaches with a background in psychology are grounded in theoretical perspectives of family systems and the impact a family template can have on adult development; how our lopsided natures can hold us back from the progress we wish to make; and, how denial can lead to blocking learning and remaining stuck—among many other aspects of human development.

It is a great myth, and one that we have bought into, that we are one person at home and another at work. The fundamentals we just reviewed—how families work, how our lopsided natures are formed, and how we become stuck—give us a very high level, basic understanding for why “conscious leaders” and “emotionally intelligent leaders” are so highly prized in the work environment.

One way to start understanding just how lopsided we have become from our earliest experiences is to identify a range of markers of emotional intelligence and general emotional health, visualizing how we rank in comparison. In therapy we would direct most of our repair work and attention toward healing those early experiences that generated the most hurt, and therefore contributed to the greatest gaps in our emotional health. In coaching, we recognize that these experiences occurred, gain awareness and insights about how they contribute to our present, and determine actions that will increase our effectiveness and performance.

At least five qualities come to mind.

1.       Self-love: the ability to like oneself, wholly.

Before we can empathize with other’s experiences, we must learn to empathize with our own internal experience—the emotional reactivity and interior monologue that is generated when we are under stress.

Self-love is the quality that determines how much we can be friends with ourselves, learn to become our own (caring) advocate, and commit to constructive choices that suggest we are on our own side.

When we observe a stranger having things or experiences we don’t, how quickly do we feel less than or resentful? How long is it before we are making assumptions of how they came by those things and experiences or questioning the fairness of things? When another person irritates or demeans us in some way, can we let the slight go? Can we see the action for what it was (senseless spite) or are we left brooding and lose ourselves in overwhelming sadness, indirectly agreeing with the verdict of those judging us? How much can the disapproval or neglect or public opinion be counterbalanced by the memory of the steady attention of a few significant people in the past?

In relationships, do we have enough self-love to leave an abusive partnership? Or are we so down on ourselves that we carry an unspoken belief that mistreatment, disapproval, or outright abandonment is all we deserve? In a different vein, how good are we at apologizing to a lover, a family member, or dear friend for things that actually might be our fault? How rigidly pious do we need to be? Can we dare to admit mistakes, or does an admission of guilt or error bring us too close to a sense of complete insignificance?

How do we regard our desires? Therapy will venture into family histories and the bedroom for those answers. Coaches will seek to understand how we define and self-edit our desires for success. Are our desires clean and natural or alternatively disgusting and sinful? are we a little off, but not bad or dark, since they originate from inside us and we are not wretches?

2.       Candor: the ability to be truthful and authentic about oneself.

Candor is about being “real” when you might feel vulnerable to judgment and open in the face of difficult ideas and troubling facts. It determines the extent to which you can consciously open your mind, to thoughtfully explore and accept facts without denial—without lying to yourself (and then others).

One question both therapists and coaches get equally: “Am I normal? You’ve seen this before, right?”

The fact is, there is no normal. And, yes, we’ve seen it before.

The essence of candor is intimacy, with ourselves. How much can we admit to ourselves about who we are—even if, or especially when, the material is unflattering? How much do we need to insist on our own normality and sanity in order to accept ourselves and admit our inner natures? Can we explore our own minds? Can we, as one psychology professor challenged, confront “the dogs in the basement”? Can we shine light in those darker and more troubled corners without flinching too much? Can we admit to foolishness, envy, sadness, confusion, and galactic mistakes?

Around others, how ready are we to learn? This matters for parents and partners as much as it does for newly minted managers and CEOs. Do we need always to take a criticism of one part of us as an attack on everything about us? How ready are we to listen when valuable lessons come, painfully, over and over again through multiple contexts?

3.       Social Skills: the ability to communicate, persuade, influence, and listen.

Can we patiently and reasonably put our disappointments into words that, more or less, enable others to see our point? Or do we internalize pain, act it out symbolically or discharge it with counterproductive rage?

When other people upset us, do we feel we have the right to communicate or must we slam doors and retreat into sulks? When the desired response isn’t forthcoming, do we ask others to guess what we have been too angrily panicked to spell out? Or can we have a plausible second go and take seriously the thought that others are not merely being nasty in misunderstanding us? Do we have the inner resources to teach rather than insist?

 4.       Motivation: having an interest in learning and improving oneself.

Do we have the strength to keep going when there are obstacles in life? Motivation is about setting goals and following through with them.

When something deeply interests us, we take initiative and demonstrate the commitment to complete a task. If we are truly passionate about our goal we will persist through adversity, boredom, frustration and find creative ways through setbacks.  

Embracing better health, taking steps to advance our career by attending graduate school, saving for retirement, and paying off loans are examples of goals that motivate us internally and result in self-improvement.

Marrying at the “right time”, getting the best grades, having the latest gadget or car are examples of chasing goals that flaunt wealth or status and can represent a slippery slope. Failure in the face of these kinds of goals is unlikely to result in a constructive learning opportunity. More than likely failure to maintain the perfect house, keep the kids in private schools, avoid divorce and poor performance at work will result in increasing self-doubt, and reducing one’s ability to be their own best advocate (and friend).  

5.       Self-Management

How do we react in the face of risk? And, how do we manage our impulses in relation to those risks? Do we think before we speak/react? Do we express ourselves appropriately?

How well would we perform a challenge in the form of a public speech, a romantic rejection, period of financial strain, immigrating to another country or lengthy physical illness? Sometimes a small cold can set us back in ways we didn’t expect. How close are we, at any time, to financial, professional, or personal disaster? What mettle are we made of?

Is the stranger dangerous or benevolent? If we lean towards be a little more direct than most, will they accept us or ghost us? Will unfamiliar situations end in a disaster? Around love, how tightly do we need to cling? If a lover, parent, sibling, friend is distant for a while, will they return? If a boss neglects regular touch points, stakeholders go silent, or direct reports fail to check in are they sabotaging us or will they still support our efforts? How controlling do we need to be? Can we approach an interesting stranger or colleague to connect on some interest or other? Or move on from an unsatisfying relationship?

Overall, do we think the world is expansive, safe and rational enough for us to have a genuine shot at fulfillment, or must we settle, resentfully, for inauthenticity and misunderstanding?

Our first answers to these questions are not our fault, or anyone else’s. They are merely the first responses that were wired into us during a galvanizing experience. Many of these questions are so hard to answer sincerely in a positive light. But, by considering them, we are at least starting to know what sort of impact our primal wounds have and, therefore, what we need to do to address it.


This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.

  The emotionally healthy childhood

Photo by  Annie Spratt

Photo by Annie Spratt


An emotionally healthy childhood can’t be particular. It can’t be dependent on one kind of environment. It can’t, we hope, just come down to good luck. There are distinct themes to identify. With the best possible outcome in mind we can start to form a map of what an emotionally healthy childhood looks like. Using that map, it becomes more obvious where we are taking a left turn. We see where we can express more gratitude. We see what causes us to feel our greatest shame. At a societal level, this is how our definitions of success start to form. We can see what there is to achieve in order to create a more emotionally stable and therefore slightly saner world.

An emotionally healthy childhood could give us the following:

A lifelong advocate. Someone will put themselves profoundly at our service. If as adults we have even a measure of mental health, it is undoubtedly because, when we were small and dependent, there was a person (to whom we essentially owe our lives) who pushed their needs aside for a time to focus wholly on our own. They understood our babble and heard us into speech; they gave us their best guesses on treatment when we were sick; they calmed our fears, consoled us in our insecurities, and protected us from harm. They provided a protective barrier from the chaos of the world, showing us just enough of it—carving up our experiences for us in manageable pieces. Without thanks or sympathy, they didn’t expect us to ask how their day went or how well they slept. They catered to our needs, so that we would later on be able to submit to the rigors and slights of daily life. This lop-sided relationship was temporary, but by modeling with consistency, made certain our ability to form a healthy one.

We generally think of egocentricity a quality resulting from too much love or attention. But it’s actually the opposite. An adult who is ego-centric never got their fill as a child. Self-centeredness has to have a clean run in the early years if it isn’t to haunt and ruin the later ones. Those we regard as narcissists are simply unfortunate people who never got the chance to be exceedingly admired at the start.

In an emotionally healthy childhood, our advocate is there to give us the benefit of the doubt. They offer us a positive spin on our behavior. We are assessed by what we might be one day, not by what we are right now. From this we learn kindness and charity.

If our advocate is a harsh critic, for example, they might say that we were ‘attention-seeking’. They imagine that what we most need is a hug and some encouraging words. We might have acted meanly. Our advocate adds that we must have been feeling threatened. If we dropped something accidentally or were negligent; our advocate remembers that tiredness could have explained it, or they were distracted by a new visitor.

Our advocate constantly searches for the story behind the story. They look under the surface for more compassionate explanations. They help us to be on our own side, to like ourselves. If we actually like ourselves, we learn not to be too defensive about our flaws. We learn there is always something to work on, constructively, and we learn to accept ourselves as we are.

In a healthy childhood, the relationship with our advocate is stable, dependable and long-term. We have faith they will be there tomorrow and the day after. They aren’t explosive or fragile. They are almost boringly predictable—so much so, we might start to take them for granted. As a result, we project this trust on to other relationships we develop throughout our life. We are able to believe that what has gone well once can go well again. This belief influences our choice of friends, adult partners, bosses—everyone. We aren’t fascinated by people who are abrupt with us or unreliable; we don’t relish being punished, judged, or mistreated. We can pick out influences who are kind and nurturing, and don’t view them as weak or deficient for being so.

If trouble strikes with our kindly partners, we don’t go into an instant panic. We don’t immediately try to defend ourselves by turning away, avoiding or cutting them off. We can confidently set about trying to repair a love we know we deserve.

In a healthy childhood, we aren’t always required to be wholly good. We are allowed our emotions. We can get angry and sometimes be disgusting. We can say ‘no more, absolutely not, no way’ when we disagree, or settle a dispute with ‘because I feel like it’. Our advocates are adults and know we all, no matter what our age, have our own flaws. As a result, they do not expect a child to be fundamentally better than they are. We do not have to comply at every turn to be merely tolerated. We can let others see our see our shadow sides.

This kind of freedom within our family systems prepares us one day to submit to the demands of society without having to rebel in unproductive, self-defeating ways (rebels being, at their core, people who have had to obey too much too early). We can tow the line when it’s in our long-term interest to do so. At the same time, we’re not overly cowed or indiscriminately obedient either. We learn to find a sound middle point between being completely submissive and self-destructive defiance.

In a healthy childhood, our advocate isn’t jealous or competitive with us. They can allow themselves to be overtaken and superseded. They have had their moment in the spotlight, or else are having it elsewhere beyond the family. They can be proud rather than resentful of the achievements of the (usually same-sex) child. It doesn’t need to be all about them.

The good advocate doesn’t live through the child’s accomplishments. They want them to do well, but for their own sake, and in their own way. There is no particular script that the child has to follow to be loved. For instance, the child doesn’t need to become a doctor or a famous soccer player because that is the path their parent chose. The child isn’t required to support their advocate’s self-doubt or pump them up to others.

In healthy childhood, the child learns that things that break can be fixed. Things that spill can easily be picked up. Plans can go awry, but new ones can be made. The advocate models for the child how to self-soothe, calm down, keep going, and remain hopeful. A voice of resilience, originally external, becomes the way the child learns to speak to themselves. There are alternatives to panic.

Notably, even emotionally healthy childhoods suffer from thins going awry. No one has hung their reputation on the notion that anyone’s childhood could ever be perfect. The advocate does not see it as their role to remove every frustration, pad every sharp corner, or remove every obstacle. They sense that a lot of good can come from having the right, manageable kind of friction through which the child develops their own resources and individuality. Having contact with bearable disappointment, the child is prompted to create their own internal world, in which they can dream, generate new plans, learn to self-soothe and build up their own resources.

Even emotionally healthy childhoods suffer from things going awry.

The child can see that the advocate is neither entirely good nor wholly bad, and therefore is worthy of neither idealizing on a pedestal nor casting out in disparagement. Just as the adult accepts the child with its faults, the child learns to accept the adult with theirs with a blend of melancholy, maturity and gratitude. They learn that, like their advocate, they need to accept that everyone they come into contact with will be a mixture of positive and negative, and that the presence of negativity or flaw is not cause for banishment. As adults, they won’t fall deeply in love and them (becoming fast friends or quick lovers), nor will they become furious at the first moment of let-down (by ghosting or giving off a vibe of being cast out). They have a realistic sense of what can be expected of life alongside another human who is, like them, good enough.

Unfortunately, despite all our advances in technology, education, and material resources, we are not much more advanced in the art of delivering emotionally healthy childhoods than previous generations. The number of breakdowns, inauthentic lives keeping up with some external image of success shows no marked signs of decline. We are failing to offer one another tolerable childhoods not because we are malicious, apathic or uncaring but because we still have so far to go before we know how to do that most apparently simple yet infinitely complicated of things for ourselves: emotional intelligence.

One tool that might just get us there is coaching.


This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.

Driving Results With Others: 5 Principles

In 1995, author and science journalist Daniel Goleman wrote Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. The book was groundbreaking but remained on the fringe of business literature for several decades. Now, the concept of emotional intelligence is widely accepted as the practical application of an individual's ability to apply their knowledge of emotions to manage their own behavior and to influence others.

Read More

Peopling 101: Understanding Interpersonal Skills

The skills we use to interact with others are skills that lay the foundation for successful interactions, rich relationships, and meaningful results. They are also integral tools for effective leadership.

Unfortunately, many people graduate school and go through several initial jobs before they learn they lack basic communication, team-building, and conflict resolution skills.

For too long these skills have been referred to as “emotional intelligence” or “soft skills.” Though some K-10 programs now integrate Emotional Intelligence skills into their schools, most business school and graduate programs assume competency of these skills as part of the application process.

People who want to advance their careers eventually come to the conclusion that they need to take time to assess their social skills to foster the climate conducive for learning and leading.




Interpersonal skills are the tools that enable people to communicate, learn, ask for help, get needs met in appropriate ways, get along with others, make friends, develop healthy relationships, protect themselves, and in general, be able to interact with the society harmoniously. As such they form a foundation for every interaction we have.

Basic interactions include behaviors like making eye contact, using names, and sharing information. Can you think back to a group you worked in that had all these basic qualities, and some that perhaps did not? These behaviors seem small and inconsequential but can have a big impact on the bottom line. When we don’t maintain eye contact, we get left out of impromptu gatherings and conversations where information is shared. When we don’t use direct address and speak only for ourselves, not for others, we learn to take a stand, become trustworthy, and authentic. Following directions and working in groups speaks to our effectiveness. Sharing information is what keeps the wheels turning in groups. When we hoard information and it only benefits our own advancement, it holds the rest of the group back. This can directly impact safety, quality, revenue, and time.

Figure 1: People Skills

Figure 1: People Skills

Once people feel comfortable operating in and out of groups, it’s time to look at communication skills by practicing or looking for specific behaviors, such as the table below. Sit in any meeting, and you’ll more clearly identify the attributes of the negative behavior. It’s always easier to spot in others, isn’t it?




Sounds like….

  • tapping a foot or pencil

  • Saying “uh huh” a lot

  • Saying “really”

  • Sighing

  • Asking non sequitur questions, “What’s for lunch?” “Are you going to the game?”

Looks like…

  • Darting eyes

  • Fidgeting with a gadget

  • Playing with hair or clothing

  • Rummaging through paperwork

  • Looking down

  • Turning away

  • Not facing the speaker

  • Looking at the clock

Once people gain awareness of the things they say and do that may exhibit non listening skills, they are ready to create Chart of Active Listening Characteristics. By writing what the skill looks like and sounds like, the abstract skill of "listening" becomes more concrete and measurable.


Sounds like…

  • “Say that one more time.”

  • “I know what you mean.”

  • “Tell me more.”

  • “So what you’re saying is…”

  • “That’s a good idea…”

Looks like…

  • Nodding

  • Making eye contact

  • Positive body language

  • Smiling

  • Generally calm, relaxed body language



We can laugh and say we should have learned these behaviors in kindergarten—and the thing is, we did! But when faced with a potential result like test scores or managing the bottom line, we forget that how we get there matters.

If we are going to advance in our careers, we are going to need to better assess our own and others’ social skills. Too often we are stumped for language when asked to give feedback on themselves or our peers. We need to translate the skills to checklists that we can use to self-evaluate our own progress. Sometimes just the awareness of the these skills helps focus our attention. We understand these ideas intellectually, just too often lose them in practice.

It is important to integrate the practice of observing, embodying, and practicing these skills in our day to day. We can justify reflection time to monitor these skills because we need to know the parameters and the expectations of high-performing behavior—whatever level we serve.

For ideas on how to develop a practice for reflection, check out posts on Developing a Practice, Morning Practice, Evening Practice, and what it means to Maintain Tension.