Emotions are integral to conversations. A speaker conveys vital information through their feelings and attitudes as well as their spoken words. And while listening, those ideas trigger emotions inside us, either supporting or opposing what we’re hearing. Emotional intelligence is knowing how to leverage these emotions in a manner that enhances our understanding of the speaker’s message. This is something that we can all develop.
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What is Emotional Intelligence?
Psychology Today defines emotional intelligence (E.I.) as “the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.” [1, 2]
With respect to listening, if we're a slave to our emotions then they negatively impact on our ability to listen. We react without thinking. They cloud what we think and hear. They control how we react to the speaker. This is described as low E.I.
Increasing our emotional intelligence means becoming smart about using emotions to enhance our conversations. Through practice we can learn to master them rather than be enslaved by them, so that they become a constructive tool for understanding the speaker. We're not suppressing emotions, but harnessing them as conversational cues and interpreting the information that they convey.
Emotional intelligence is said to include the following skills according to Psychology Today :
Let’s look at each of these three skills and also some ways of developing emotional intelligence.
Skill #1 - Emotional Awareness
experienced by ourselves as the listener.
A couple of years ago I shared with another person some news that I considered exciting. My news was received with only a few obligatory words and a distinct lack of enthusiasm. At the time I internally experienced a sense of awkwardness, but embarrassment forced me to ignore that feeling. Low emotional intelligence on my part!
Later in the day while reflecting on the conversation, I realised that I should have probed that lukewarm response to truly understand how this person felt about the news.
So I re-engaged them:
“When I shared that news with you this morning you were noticeably quiet. Why was that?”
This single question triggered a productive three-hour dialogue on issues that needed addressing.
The Speaker’s Emotions
Our goal in listening is to fully understand the speaker, seeing the topic through their eyes. Their total message is conveyed via feelings and attitudes as well as their spoken words. A statement spoken enthusiastically conveys an entirely different message to that same statement spoken with a lukewarm attitude.
Emotionally intelligent listening involves staying observant of other people’s emotions and correctly identifying them.In particular, we take note of non-verbal cues such as their tone of voice, facial expressions and body language. What emotions are being expressed? How do those cues modify what is they’re saying? Do they also hint at information that isn’t being shared?
Our Emotions as Listener
Emotional intelligence also involves being aware of our own emotions.
The content of the speaker’s message and their non-verbal cues will trigger emotions inside us as well as reveal the speaker’s feelings and attitudes.
Often we experience easily identifiable emotions - annoyance, frustration, disappointment, joy, enthusiasm, and the like.
Other times the emotional feelings are more nebulous, instinctive or visceral. For example, have you been in meetings when you knew “something just didn’t feel right”, such as a tense atmosphere? Or maybe a work colleague’s proposal caused your stomach to ‘knot’.
That awkwardness of mine was subtle, but still a signal (in addition to their lukewarmness) that the other person wasn’t spontaneously sharing crucial information.
It’s easy to overlook these emotional cues or tempting to suppress them. But they all contain important information. So listen to them.
Skill #2 - Harnessing Emotions
Reflect Their Emotions
A very effective way of drawing information from the speaker’s emotions is through reflective listening.
After identifying specific emotions that seem relevant to their message, wait for them to pause. Then verbally describe what you're seeing and hearing, followed immediately with a question or statement to invite the person to explain their emotion.
In the above example, I triggered the subsequent three-hour conversation with a reflective listening statement:
“When I shared that news with you this morning you were noticeably quiet. [reflective statement]
Why was that? [follow-up question]”
Here are some more reflective listening statements.
Harness Our Own Emotions
The moment a strong emotion is triggered inside you by something said, don’t mindlessly react. Use the emotion as a cue for crafting a genuine question that directly responds to what you’re hearing.
For example, when offense burns inside, we might use that as a cue to respond with, “Interesting! That’s quite provocative. What lead you to that view?”
Or, we could harness the feeling of confusion to ask “I’m unsure how that applies to our situation. Can you please explain more?”
And that knot in your stomach could be utilised to uncover vital information: “Based on what you’ve shared, your proposal concerns me. What are you planning in order to mitigate [xyz]?”
For those 'nebulous' emotions, use them as cues to explore the situation. Reflect what you’re observing and then ask an open-ended question.
To illustrate, if uncertainty niggles you while addressing a silent room of people you might trigger a productive discussion by reflecting that silence as, “Everyone seems very quiet. What are your thoughts regarding [the use of our products]?”
Be careful not to use a closed question, such as “Everyone seems very quiet. Are there any problems with [the use of our products]?”  I’ve regularly been in meetings where this kind of question is met with silence. The enquirer interprets the silence as assent that all is okay, whereas afterwards attendees mutter their concerns.
Skill #3 - Managing Emotions
Also, help the speaker regulate their emotions so that they can clearly express their message.
I think you’ll agree that staying calm, keeping our feelings in check, and avoiding reacting impulsively to what we’re hearing (and observing non-verbally) can be difficult!
When emotions begin to rise, questions are my go to strategy.
Using reflective listening and asking other questions is a great way of productively redirecting this emotional energy. Asking questions to better understand the speaker’s point of view forces me to calm my emotions so that I can think rationally and listen carefully.
I’ve also found questions extremely effective for calming a speaker who has become emotionally worked up. Genuine, non-accusatory, pertinent, open-ended questions force them to set aside their emotions in order to reply using their logical, rational mind.
Just by asking a question, I’ve witnessed heated emotions suddenly dissipate, the speaker relax, and the conversation become immediately productive. 
Tailoring our response is another aspect of managing emotions. For example, we might sense the need to keep our response upbeat and playful when the speaker is negative, to tactfully resist asking that ‘burning question’ when the speaker appears distressed, or to delay sharing some exciting news when they are preoccupied by other events.
And sometimes, emotional intelligence is simply recognising when to adjourn the conversation. Eventually, highly charged emotions, tiredness, restlessness and distraction, boredom, hunger, etc., make focus impossible to maintain.
How to Increase Emotional Intelligence
Happily, we can train ourselves to listen in an emotionally intelligent way.
I develop emotional intelligence by mulling over conversations - not in an unhealthy protracted way though. My practise is to take a couple of minutes after important conversations to muse over a few unusual moments when I experienced strong emotions. I ask of myself, “Why did I react in such an [irritable, happy, annoyed] manner?” Then I imagine myself responding more productively by asking specific questions to draw out more information, or actively managing those emotions.
I take a similar approach after witnessing relevant emotions in another person. After the conversation, I imagine myself making reflective listening statements in order to probe the meaning of what I’d witnessed.
This simple ‘imagination’ process is a habit-formation strategy. Over time, it has helped heighten my awareness of emotions to the point that I automatically and habitually manage and harness them to help me listen more effectively.
- Be master of - not slave to - emotions
- Work on intentionally responding to emotions rather than impulsively reacting.
- Be continually aware of conversationally relevant emotions and identify them.
- Use reflective listening to harness and extract information from emotions.
- Manage emotions to prevent them from hindering the conversation.
- Re-imagine past conversations to develop emotional intelligence.
Develop Emotional Intelligence & Develop Your Listening Ability
Our listening ability is directly influenced by our emotional intelligence. Improving one directly improves the other and vice versa. And both are improved with practise.
So make a point of developing emotional intelligence. It is one of the most productive ways to improve your listening ability.
What’s one thing that you can do this week to increase your emotional intelligence? Tell us below.
Please share this post on social media so that others can listen with emotional intelligence too! 😉
- 1Psychology Today, “Emotional Intelligence”, www.psychologytoday.com/intl/basics/emotional-intelligence, Referenced 4 Jan 2019.
- 2A related, popular term is Emotional Intelligence Quotient (E.Q.). This is referred to as a measure of our ability to identify and use the emotional information coming from ourselves and others. Psychology Today notes that, unlike Intelligence Quotient (I.Q.), there is no agreed scientifically valid scale for measuring E.Q., “mak[ing] it difficult to truly measure or predict someone’s emotional intelligence” such as during a job employment process. See 
- 3A closed question only requires a simple answer such as “yes”, “no” or silence. An open-ended question draws out a more detailed answer.
- 4Asking questions to calm down an emotionally charged conversation is based on aspects of a Transactional Analysis model called the Parent-Adult-Child (PAC) model. Asking an emotional person questions attempts to pull them out of their current emotional ‘Child ego-state’ or ‘Parent ego-state’ into an ‘adult ego-state’, which is characterised by rational, logical thinking. If they cooperate then the conversation enters a state where information can be shared as equals, adult to adult.
- 5Feature image credit: Photo by Gem & Lauris RK on Unsplash