They’re easy changes really, just a matter of memorizing phrases. Let’s get started.
1. “Tell me more.”
This is one of the most powerful phrases in the universe, and it’s my favorite one for improving emotional intelligence. It’s also nearly all-purpose. You can say “tell me more” in almost any situation, and you’ll do things like:
- Reassure the other person in a conversation that you’re interested and listening.
- Avoid the temptation of turning the focus of a conversation from the other person to yourself.
- Set yourself up for silence, which as we’ll see below is a powerful tool that emotionally intelligent people use.
Just imagine any conversation you’ve had — especially if it turned awkward or unsatisfying. Imagine replacing however you responded with this three-word phrase.
For example, imagine a friend tells you: “It’s hard to focus on work, since I’m stuck at home with the kids doing ‘virtual’ school.’ on a computer all day”
Most of us have been trained to try in a situation like to say something like, “It’s hard at our house, too,” or else, “Can’t you just have your kids work downstairs while you work upstairs?”
But neither is really satisfying. Try replying instead with our three-word magic phrase, “Tell me more,” and you reach a deeper level of conversation.
You’re giving the emotionally intelligent response, inviting your friend or colleague to share, explore, and maybe even find a solution.
2. “Thanks for your understanding.”
We’re going to use this phrase as a replacement for something else: “Sorry.”
Not that you should never apologize. Of course you can, when you have wronged someone and you want to make amends. But many of us use that word too often, when we don’t truly mean to offer an apology.
- “Sorry I missed the meeting.”
- “Sorry we can’t meet your deadline.”
- “Sorry I didn’t go to your party.”
So much about emotional intelligence involves shifting the focus of interactions from yourself to others. But the pseudo-apologies in these situations put the focus squarely on you.
Also, you were probably taught as a child that if you say you’re sorry for something, you should try never to do it again. But I’ll bet you’re probably going to miss more meetings in the future, right? There will be deadlines you won’t meet. You’ll skip parties once in a while.
Consider instead how the message changes if you phrase each of these examples like this:
- “My boss needed my help on something at the last minute, so I I missed the meeting. Thanks for understanding.”
- “We have so many commitments right now, and shipments are delayed, so I don’t think we can meet your deadline. Thanks for understanding.”
- “I wanted to go to your party, but by the time I got home, it was so late — I realized I’d only be able to come by for 10 minutes. Thanks for understanding.”
It’s subtle, but this phrase combines gratitude, sympathy, and other-focus, all in one package. It’s very powerful.
Wait, you might say. “Hello?” Doesn’t everybody say hello?
Actually, no. Pay attention to how people open conversations, and you’ll see that they more often start with open-ended questions — questions that everyone knows they have no desire to know the answer to.
I’m talking about things like:
- How’re you doing?
- What’s going on?
- How are you?
It’s the rare person who wants a truthful answer: “Well, I have a headache, and the check engine light is on in my car, but my daughter got some good news the other day about her college applications, and I…”
Uh-huh. I mean, if you’re truly a friend or truly interested, great, maybe you want to know.
But the vast majority of the time, we ask these conversation openers expecting rote replies–phrase uttered so quickly and automatically that the phrases become contracted words:
- “Aw, nothing.”
At the very least, even if you do care about the person’s answer, everyone knows that your goal is to move past the answer and get to the point of your conversation: “Sorry to hear about your headache, but I need your help to…”
I know this sounds incredibly semantic, maybe even hair-splitting. But, opening instead with a declaration — basically anything that doesn’t involve a disingenuous question that you don’t really want the answer to — is an improvement.
- “Great to see you.”
- “Thanks for coming by.”
See what I mean? These are neutral/positive messages — neither particularly other-centered nor self-centered. Try them out, and I think you’ll notice an improvement.
4. “Am I making sense?”
This is another super-powerful phrase, and you’re going to use it in place of two others: either, “do you understand?” or else, “do you have any questions?”
I realized its power after studying the speaking phenomenon of “high rising terminal,” or “uptalk.” This is the phenomenon that results in people speaking declarative sentences with a rising pitch that is more commonly applied to asking a question.
Some people say it’s a bad habit, or suggests a lack of confidence.
But, I’ve come to realize it’s a very powerful, emotionally intelligent mechanism that enables people to make suggestions, tune in with their audiences, and pull the other people in a conversation along with them–even when they have less power than everyone else.
Let me put it a different way. Imagine I have to explain something complicated to you. At the end, I can ask three different things. What subtle message is contained in each phrasing?
First, “Do you have any questions?”
The default answer to this question is, “no, I don’t have any questions.” Thus, it requires a bit of bravery even to be the first to ask. Why do you want to create that hurdle for the other people in a conversation?
Second, “Do you understand?”
This is other-centered, of course, but it can put people on the defensive. The subtle message contained herein is that you’ve explained perfectly; perhaps we need to work on the other person’s remedial understanding. You can do better.
Finally, “Am I making sense?” or another similar question.
This is powerful in its humility. Here, we’re shifting the presumption so that if there’s been a breakdown in communication, it might be your fault (you haven’t made sense) as opposed to the other person’s (they just didn’t understand).
That makes it much easier for the other person to respond truthfully and completely.
You might have to overcome a bit of vanity — “I know I’m making sense; I’ve explained this to hundreds of people.” But the point isn’t to pump up your ego.
Instead, it’s to use an emotionally intelligent strategy to facilitate communication — and make it more likely as a result that you’ll get what you want and need.
5. Absolutely nothing.
You know that old saying: “Don’t just stand there. Do something!“
People with high emotional intelligence prefer the opposite: “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”
Or else its corollary, “Don’t just say anything. Keep quiet!”
Saying nothing means you’re not saying something stupid. It means you’re giving yourself time to think before replying.
It also means, since people are naturally inclined to fill silences, that you’re inviting others to say something — maybe something something they haven’t thought out as well as you might.
This is a good time to point out a misunderstanding about improving emotional intelligence. Since it can lead to more conciliatory conversations and better relationships, there can be a tendency to think it’s about being nice.
But to be cold-eyed about it, being nice is a tactic, not a goal.
Imagine a negotiation, for example: You make an offer, and the other person makes a counteroffer. Instead of continuing, you simply stay quiet.
It’s “your turn to talk,” and yet you’re not saying anything.
As a result, you seize control of your emotions, as theirs. Maybe the other person wonders if he or she has killed the deal. Maybe they sweeten the counteroffer before you’ve said a thing.
I remember reading an article about how car dealerships used to use a two-word phrase to take advantage of people’s natural inclination to want to say something. It went like this:
- Dealer: “I’m sure we can find a great car for you. What’s your budget?”
- Customer: “My limit is $25,000.”
- Dealer: “Up to…”
Supposedly, a non-zero number of customers would take the bait, and reply with a higher number. “Maybe we could go to $29,000.”
Don’t be like those people in 2021. Use these kinds of phrases to work on your emotional intelligence. And if you don’t have something emotionally intelligent to say, say nothing at all.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.