Can You Teach Emotional Intelligence?

January 11th, 2011 | 6 Comments

Emotional Intelligence Case

His colleagues described him this way:

“He could be more sensitive when others want to say something.” “He doesn’t have very good empathy in his ability to read an audience, to adapt to an audience. He tries, but just can’t.”

This client’s opportunity for development lies in strengthening his emotional intelligence.

Definition and Background

Let’s define emotional intelligence as the ability to feel and manage one’s own emotions, to empathize, and to use these abilities to maintain good relationships. Some people are gifted with high emotional intelligence, just like others are gifted with high mathematical, spatial or musical intelligence. And, of course, others are less gifted. The question of the day is:    Can people with less emotional intelligence learn to strengthen it?    In my experience, the answer is  “yes”.

Carl Jung, the theoretical father of the Myers-Briggs typology, described peoples’ weaker functions as less preferred, or even “shadow” functions, implying that they exist in the darker corners of the psyche and are avoided, even feared by their owners. (Someone with low emotional intelligence would be likely, according to the Myers-Briggs, to have a weaker “Feeling’ function”.) This imagery is helpful to a coach or trainer because it means that these abilities exist, though in an under-developed state. In order to develop these new skills the coach and learner need to shed light on them, to move them into consciousness, and to practice them, in the same way they would strengthen a weak muscle.

My interest in enhancing emotional intelligence began with my own initiative to improve these abilities in myself. After about 10 years of personal work broadening my scientist-like brain into a therapist-like brain, I began coaching science and technology leaders. With many of these clients, I saw the opportunity to coach them in this skill. Many of them  had been cultivating their logical brain for most of their lives, and under-attending to their emotional side.

Empathy Training

In our empathy training, the first skill we address is emotional self-awareness. Since most emotions can be felt physically, conducting a body scan helps the person locate and feel the physical aspect of their emotion. By focusing attention on their heart, throat, gut, eyes, mouth and other emotionally-responsive areas, people can feel the energy of their own emotions, often more clearly than before. Doing regular body scans enhances their ability to recognize their feelings in the same way that regular bird watching increases one’s ability to recognize birds.

Naming feelings is the second technique for increasing emotional self-awareness. Giving names to their emotions deepens peoples’ understanding of them. Labeling them with words such as, “delighted”, “emboldened”, “calm”, “angry”, “perplexed” or “vulnerable”, helps people to link their cognitive left brain with their emotional right brain, thereby increasing their fluency with their own emotions.

Once people have a good ability to identify and feel their own emotions, they are ready to empathize with the emotional experience of others. One aspect of empathy is picking up emotional signals from people. Often, these perceptions of others’ emotional signals are unconscious. (Even skilled empaths may unconsciously register and respond to these signals, often with amazing accuracy and helpfulness.) For emotional intelligence  learners, we try to make this perceiving process more conscious. Clients begin by scanning their colleague for emotional expressions, just like they scan their own body for emotions, looking at the person’s eyes, mouth, tone of voice, posture, skin tone, breathing and other physical windows into their colleague’s emotions.

A second aspect of empathy is understanding or even experiencing others’ emotional states. Using their knowledge of their colleague and their own emotional experiences, they seek to interpret the emotional messages that their colleague is sending. Along with interpreting these physical signals, the learner will listen carefully to their colleagues’ stories, and ask themselves, “What might I be feeling if I were in her shoes?” They put these messages together to form an informed hypothesis as to what their colleague might be experiencing. (Hypothesis is a familiar and useful term for people with scientific backgrounds, and makes them more comfortable in making these informed guesses.) They then find ways to express their hypotheses by making empathic statements like, “That must have made you angry.”  or, “You seem really excited by that idea.” These statements make the colleague feel understood, as well as check the accuracy of their empathic hypothesis.


Clients practice these techniques, first in the coaching or training room, then in the workplace. Most clients are amazed at how accurate and empathic they turn out to be. Their colleagues see the difference too, and often comment about what a good collaborator and friend the client has become.

6 Responses to “Can You Teach Emotional Intelligence?”

  1. Tita Beal wrote:

    Interesting evidence-based development of empathy rather than the usual more amorphous approaches. You’re showing the Myers-Briggs S person concrete and observable tools how to get the “data” needed to understand others. That’s a well-grounded way to give guidelines to someone needs help in empathizing. I develop case situations where people must come up with strategies from someone else’s point of view, but that doesn’t give them a lasting “tool” that applies to any situation.

  2. Vicki Breitbart wrote:

    Dan, I wholeheartedly agree with you – emotional intelligence can be nurtured. I have worked with health care providers in much the same way, giving people opportunities to stretch themselves and identify their own feelings as part of their interactions with others. You give a very helpful and succinct way to do this. Thanks

  3. Amy Zipkin wrote:

    Intriguing post.

  4. Sandy Fischman wrote:

    I think the concept of “what I might feel if I were in their shoes” is very powerful. I will try to use it more in the coaching of my clients.

  5. Thaddeus Obloy (Ted) wrote:


    Excellent article. You very nicely summarized the practical and operational use of EI. If you do not mind, I will require my Leadership Institute students read your article prior to our discussion of Emotional Intelligence.


  6. Lilian Abrams wrote:


    I like the practical nature of these techniques: Feel it, name it, note the non-verbals around feelings, and check hypotheses on what the other person might feel.

    Thank you!


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